Maths to 18?

So the PM wants every young person to study maths to the age of 18. A reasonable aim, until we remember that about one third of pupils already fail their GCSEs. Reports suggest that as many as eight  million adults have a maths age of around nine so it is understandable that the PM wants maths to feature more highly in education. Mr Sunak wants to ‘bring maths to life’ with enhanced study ‘in some form’. 

The key question is how? Do we need first to look at what prevents  that estimated third of young people succeeding at GCSE? Not all of these students have Special Educational Needs. Some may, but is the main issue how it is taught? Is maths for many simply a dry and boring subject? Yes, I think so. 

Few of us would disagree with the view that maths is as essential as reading and literacy, and highly necessary to building up the economy. But it is no use force-feeding pupils who have already lost faith in their mathematical abilities to simply continue with their struggle. In addition, bearing in mind the idea of multiple intelligences, do we all have a ‘head’ for maths? People diagnosed with Dyscalculia would say not. About 6% of people are diagnosed with Dyscalculia, yet about 60% of people with Dyslexia also have difficulties with maths that may not be specifically diagnosed. The problem is mainly with numbers  – understanding relationships (6 can be 1 + 5, 2 + 4 or 2 x 3). Other mathematical areas may not be as affected as those needed for arithmetic. 

So where do we start? I suggest that we first look at the National Curriculum. Is it useful to have goals that every child strives to reach – yet many experience failure? Further, which comes first – interest and engagement or striving to keep up with others? Engagement is the key factor when it comes to keeping children learning – whatever the subject. I believe we need to pay more attention to keeping children interested, animated and curious about mathematical possibilities.

It’s easy for me to say, because I love maths. What might Mr Sunak mean then by ‘bringing maths to life?’ For me, it means two things – engagement and relevance. Engagement stems from fun and games – getting together in groups to solve puzzles and think deeply – from setting each other challenges. It’s about interaction – not just listening and watching from a whiteboard.

Bringing maths to life also includes linking the subject to real life problems. Every mathematical topic can be related to life, even calculating the angle of goals in football. Now, wouldn’t that make some boys sit up and engage! Too often maths becomes an isolated subject that disappears from pupils’ minds once they run out of the school gate. 

Maths is also a hierarchical subject – unlike Geography or History. It is no use trying to teach equivalent fractions if a child has not fully mastered what a simple fraction means – eg. 3/5. What does the five signify, and the three? What does the fraction line actually mean? Each individual learner’s ‘brick wall’ of mathematical development will soon topple if it is not carefully constructed. And children must never be allowed to fail. 

So, yes, there is merit in pupils continuing to study maths ‘in some form’. But mastery at each subsequent stage of learning is crucial. So many pupils switch off in classrooms because maths levels are way above their heads. The challenges are simply too high. 

There is a known shortage of maths teachers. But in training and drafting in extra staff – what skills do these teachers need? Do all maths teachers need A level and degrees – able to teach Pythagoras and complex trigonometry? Or, do we also need those who can reach out sensitively into the minds of children who demonstrate difficulties and keep them engaged and learning according to their potential? I think we need both. Staff with SEND training are sorely needed in many mainstream disadvantaged schools.

So, Rishi Sunak has established his think tank of experts to help him achieve these well-meaning aspirations. Let’s hope they come up with sensible solutions that will work equally well for all learners. 

Sylvia Edwards is author of ‘Time of the Virus’ written through the lockdowns of Covid, as a reflective and highly thought-provoking book about what is wrong with society and what needs to be changed, as well as ‘The SENCO Survival Guide,’ third edition, published 2022, focusing on improving outcomes for children and students with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities.

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