A secondary school pupil in a maths lesson
Once you market maths as a valuable life skill, it’s easier to sell the benefits, but this is not reflected in the curriculum teenagers study © Andrew Fox/Alamy

This article is the latest part of the FT’s Financial Literacy and Inclusion Campaign

Do you hate maths? Brits might be more prepared to admit this than most, but not so prime minister Rishi Sunak.

This week, he revealed ambitions to make studying some form of maths compulsory until the age of 18 in a bold pledge to “reimagine our approach to numeracy”. It’s not the first time the Conservative party has flirted with this idea, but including it in such a high-profile speech makes it Sunak’s personal crusade. Visions of “see me” written in red ink come to mind.

Being rubbish at maths is — bizarrely — worn as a badge of honour in the UK, even though it’s a problem that costs the economy dear. Half of working-age UK adults have primary school level maths skills. But is compulsory maths the solution? I’ll be honest — 16-year-old me would have screamed at the prospect of two more years measuring triangles.

I strongly suspect Sunak was the biggest swot in his maths class at Winchester but he has yet to show his workings for this policy. He’s clear it won’t mean compulsory A-levels for all, so what will it involve? To force every 16 to 18-year-old in England to continue with a subject more than half of them drop after GCSEs will require totally reimagining the current system of teaching and exams.

Sunak did spell out the desired result: giving school leavers practical skills to better navigate the jobs market and understand the world, not to mention confidence managing their personal finances.

Once you market maths as a valuable life skill, it’s easier to sell the benefits: emphasising the practical side of maths gets a big tick from me. But this ethos is not reflected in the curriculum for 14 to 16-year-olds.

“Around one-third of children fail maths GCSE every year, and that is the bigger problem we need to fix,” says Bobby Seagull, the maths expert and broadcaster who teaches part-time at a secondary school in east London.

Under-18s who don’t secure a grade 4 — roughly equivalent to a low “C” in old money — are forced to retake GCSE maths repeatedly. This nearly broke my youngest stepson, who was utterly demoralised by the time he finally passed (we had a ceremonial burning of all the past papers in the back garden).

Even though he sat the foundation paper where the highest achievable grade is a 5, it was with algebra and geometry that he really struggled. “If you’re forcing kids to learn this at the expense of teaching them more practical maths, that’s how we get a nation that ends up hating the subject,” Seagull says. “Unless you go on to study maths at A-level, it’s unlikely you’ll use this information again.”

He favours a more practical approach to self-improvement, such as the National Numeracy Challenge, which encourages people of all ages to boost their number skills using real-life examples.

Maths purists may balk at this, but Lucy Kellaway, my former FT colleague and co-founder of Now Teach, has noted the “incredibly damaging” effect compulsory GCSE retakes are having on students. “They feel like more and more of a failure,” she says. “It not only makes them hate maths, but hate school too. Unless we get a really broad rethink of what maths looks like and what we’re trying to achieve, I can’t see this policy being successful.”

Like me, Lucy is a trustee of Flic, the FT’s financial literacy charity, which campaigns for basic finance skills to be taught in maths lessons.

I passed maths GCSE first time age 16, but laughed when my maths teacher suggested I pick maths A-level. Please Miss, no more Pythagoras!

If core maths, the relatively new practically focused maths A-level, had been in existence back then, I might have been tempted. This could be a big part of the post-16 maths landscape, but very few schools have the resources to teach it — the national shortage of maths teachers is one statistic the prime minister needs to study very carefully.

As the chief providers of help with maths homework, parents are also a key part of any solution — but the UK is held back by poor adult numeracy. This makes hatred of maths a hereditary condition.

Resolving this requires thinking about how we boost the numeracy skills of over-18s too. The prime minister would be wise to look at the correlation between poor numeracy and low-income households, who do not have the luxury of paying for extra, private maths tuition.

As chancellor, he supported the excellent Multiply initiative, which tackles adult innumeracy, but £560mn over three years is not going to solve such an entrenched problem. Teaching the nation to learn to love maths is a noble ambition, but doing it right will require plenty more zeroes than that.

Claer Barrett is the FT’s consumer editor and the author of ‘What They Don’t Teach You About Money’. claer.barrett@ft.com

Letters in response to this column:

How failing GCSE maths left its scars on one pupil / From Sheila Hayman, London NW1, UK

What makes GCSE maths so unlike a driving test / From Anne Instone, London SW19, UK

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