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Should UK school children really have to study Maths to 18?

By Emily Church
07 February 2023
Financial & Professional Services

Just over 100 days into Rishi Sunak’s premiership, one of his more eye-catching ideas  is arguablyhis ambition to ensure all school pupils in England study some form of maths to the age of 18.

This led to heated debates across the country including here at SEC Newgate. As a result, two of our financial services experts, Shelly Durrant and Emily Church put forward their own perspectives on the idea.

Maths is not for everyone

By Shelly Durrant

I was never a lover of maths at school and would often rib my teacher about the unlikelihood of my algebra knowledge helping me in everyday life. Would it improve my supermarket shopping experience? Probably not. When would I need to use fractions or long division - surely that’s what the calculator was for? As you can imagine, she didn’t take kindly to my opinions.

So, when I heard Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was keen to make maths compulsory until the age of 18, my immediate reaction was simply, why? The PM’s take was that he wants to better equip the younger generations for the modern workplace, and for the jobs of the future. But not all jobs require maths. Sectors such as health and fitness, marketing and communications, fast moving consumer goods don’t necessarily require a high numeracy capability. Growing up, I wanted to be a journalist and write showbiz stories - you certainly don’t need to know differentiation and integration and logarithmic numbers for that.

The whole point of A-Levels, in my opinion, is to pick subjects that you’re good at, you have an interest in and that might be beneficial to your future career goals and plans. Students in the UK school system usually work to a set curriculum up until age 16. A-Levels offer an opportunity for students to think for themselves and begin that journey to becoming an adult. Timetabling more hours for data and statistics may help prepare those who want to go on to become accountants, bankers, investment managers and other similar pursuits. But they, for example, can choose to select maths as an A-level.

As well-intentioned as Sunak is, I think he misses what is truly lacking in our education system, which is financial education. We need lessons about how inflation impacts the money in your pocket, or how compound interest can make you a millionaire if you start saving early enough (big exaggeration I know). Discussions around what a pension is and why we need one, the difference between a cash ISA and a stocks and shares one and classes on how mortgages work would be far more beneficial and will help make an impact in how we manage and run our finances in life.

The education system is meant to develop, prepare and shape children for their entire lives. Let’s not forget that. Making maths essential at the A-Level stage might not be quite as effective.

Lots of children are not comfortable with advanced maths and are never going to be but could well excel in other areas such as art, music, or sport. You can’t flick through the television channels at the weekend without there being rugby, football, cricket, tennis, Formula 1 or snooker being played. Sport is a huge industry and I’m sure the argument could be made equally forcefully there’s not enough physical education lessons being taught at school. Maybe they should be compulsory until the age of 18 too? Or perhaps English should be taught until the age of 18, ensuring everyone can read and write to what is deemed a suitable level.

This is why at A-levels, students should pick subjects to suit them - for some it will be maths or English and for others it could be history or arts. It’s wrong to shoehorn everyone down the same path, because we are all different.

My final point on this -and I do slightly jest - the UK’s finances are in a terrible state, so, perhaps it should be compulsory to have maths A-level to become an MP.

Maths until 18? It’s a YES from this number-dodger…

By Emily Church

I have a confession: I hate maths. This may be surprising to read from someone who works in financial services, but it was my worst subject at school, and I always found it difficult to wrap my head around it. My second confession, which you may find more shocking, is that I actually think Sunak’s plan to keep children studying maths until the age of 18 is a good one.

The barrage of articles either dismissing the idea as out of touch or condemning it as missing the real problem have come thick and fast –perhaps unsurprising for a media industry packed with commentators who prefer words over numbers.. Among many faults they cite is a lack of focus on arts and humanities – subjects which, arguably, help to create well-rounded individuals – and ensure citizens avoid turning into ‘mindless drones’ who no longer question the Government.

Why all the hyperbole? More education can only be a good thing and, whilst I would ultimately prefer reinstatement of free higher education for all, this is perhaps a small step in the right direction? Mathematics – and its closely related cousin personal finance education – underpins every aspect of our lives. Newspaper supplements are littered with stories of unsuspecting customers being misled into unsuitable financial products whilst the front pages are plastered with outlandish statistical claims being made by politicians every other day in a bid to sway public opinion in their favour. Are the statistics actually legitimate? Who on earth can interrogate the numbers and really get to the truth of the matter when numerical competence is swept under the carpet before we’ve even finished school? On our most recent GCSE results day, reports came out revealing that almost a third of students didn’t reach a standard pass in Maths – for a country that is supposed to be a STEM superpower, this is simply not good enough.

As communicators this should concern us all, because an audience that is educated is an audience that is engaged. Maths education deserves a makeover. True, it has never been the most popular of topics come exam time, but we know first-hand that the manner in which a subject is communicated makes all the difference to how the audience (in this case: schoolchildren) will receive it. Winning the argument should never be about pulling the wool over someone’s eyes with distracting statistics, but about thinking through your position fully and backing it up with the facts. Let’s just hope Sunak has done his sums to get it delivered.