Leona O'Neill: Sunak's plan for improved numeracy just doesn't add up

Rishi Sunak's announcement that school pupils in England will study maths until they are 18 is bad news for children who lack natural numeracy and is unlikely to be a magic cure for the current cost of living crisis and our struggling NHS, writes Leona O'Neill...

Rishi Sunak arriving to deliver his first major domestic speech of 2023. Picture by Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire.
Rishi Sunak arriving to deliver his first major domestic speech of 2023. Picture by Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire. Rishi Sunak arriving to deliver his first major domestic speech of 2023. Picture by Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire.

IN PRIME Minister Rishi Sunak's big important speech last week, he announced that all school pupils in England will study maths until the age of 18. It's a devolved issue, so the notion hasn't reached our shores as yet.

This was fabulous news for those who enjoy the subject and would benefit from this extra knowledge, but not so much for those who find Maths a debilitating and demoralising battle.

Mr Sunak's radical plans were to help tackle innumeracy and better equip our children for the workplace. Speaking last week he said: "Right now, just half of all 16 to 19-year-olds study any maths at all. Yet in a world where data is everywhere and statistics underpin every job, our children's jobs will require more analytical skills than ever before. And letting our children out into the world without those skills is letting our children down."

I get it, I do. A lot of jobs do require an understanding of statistics, but I would like to see the 'working out' on this plan. Rishi Sunak is big into maths, economics and finance and seems to think creating an army of like-minded maths geniuses will save all the country's ills. It's not going to cure the cost of living crisis, nor the disaster that our NHS is wading through at the moment.

This seems to be another case of Tories not being able to see beyond the end of their own noses to other people's realities.

Maths is not for everyone. Maths is right or wrong. You can't do maths and have your own perception of it, like art. Your very soul can't be stirred by maths, although many are charmed and indeed intrigued by it. You can't stand back and admire maths on the wall, every individual viewing it taking something different away. It's measurable. You're either good at it, or you're not.

I always found maths extremely difficult. I was more creatively minded. I remember absolutely despising it at school. Some folks are excellent at maths, others excel in English. I fell into the latter. I found maths extremely frustrating, but I got on with it, holding on to the dream that after GCSE year I would never have to look at complex algebra or trigonometry ever again. And neither I did.

I can't think of one scenario where I had to lean into my knowledge of quadratic equations in my life. I do, however, use my sound knowledge of percentages to count up how much more I'll be paying for my electric and mortgage while reflecting on ever increasing inflation.

I remember feeling so relieved in my A-level year that I could concentrate on the subjects that I excelled at and enjoyed, the ones I knew would lead to my career. This was after spending five years feeling hugely frustrated and demoralised studying a subject I absolutely despised. I know a lot of students feel the same. And, if I had been told that I would have to spend the next two years continuing with maths, I'm not sure I would have voluntarily stayed in education post-16.

No-one is arguing that maths is not important. My son studies A-level maths and absolutely loves it. He wants to go to university to prepare for a career revolving around it. He finds it fascinating and exhilarating, challenging and rewarding. A lot of people do. I'm sure Rishi Sunak is of the same mind. But not everyone thinks that way. And that does not make them any less intelligent, any less employable, any less destined to become successes.

I'm not sure what the thinking is behind this plan. Perhaps the Tory thinking is that it will make future citizens more able to budget their money and stop being so annoyingly poor all the time. Perhaps Mr Sunak wants us to mirror China with regards maths prowess.

One thing you can 100 per cent be sure of, you're not going to make people good at maths by forcing them to study it until they are 18.

I doubt this maths-centric utopia Rishi is dreaming of is going to work out. He'd be much better placed to focus on encouraging our young people into vibrant entrepreneurship, business, good money handling, budgeting, statistics, proportion and risk in everyday life, and encouraging and nurturing whatever skills they have to become the best and most confident version of themselves.