Sign In

Sunak’s maths plans overlook the real skills workers need today

The prime minister’s enthusiasm for maths should not overshadow the importance of other skills in building a productive workforce and strong UK economy
Rishi Sunak

Rishi Sunak is challenging what he perceives to be an “anti-maths mindset”. The prime minister views widespread adult numeracy skills as integral to a productive UK economy and wants all school pupils to study some form of maths until the age of 18.

Certainly, numeracy is an issue in the UK. According to the education charity National Numeracy, around half of working-age adults only have the numerical abilities expected of a primary school-age child. National Numeracy estimates that the cost of poor adult maths education to the economy is somewhere in the region of £20bn annually in lower company revenues, lost wages, unemployment benefits and more.

Dealing with this, then, would appear to offer clear benefits for people and the country. But Sunak’s policy starts from a difficult position. The anti-maths mindset is attributed by many to, in part, a chronic shortage of maths teachers. 

According to a study by the National Foundation for Educational Research, almost half of the secondary schools in England have used non-specialist maths teachers to deliver at least some lessons amid ongoing recruitment problems in the sector. Currently, around one in eight maths lessons are taught by someone without a maths degree. 

But, for businesses, the benefits of this focus on making people study maths in particular are less clear cut.

The risk of tunnel vision

Putting maths on a pedestal risks devaluing other skills that are also important in the current world of work and could be even more so in the future. The rise of AI could make programming, maths and other technical skills that are important now less necessary for humans in future. Instead an understanding of history or the ability to speak or write well might be more beneficial.

For businesses, the benefits of this focus on making people study maths are less clear cut

Alongside the cuts in funding for the arts, it also risks a workforce and economy in which science and technology are prioritised at the expense of other areas. It is also possible that having to study maths in some form to the age of 18 might put some young people off pursuing educating beyond the age of 16, which would appear to be counterproductive for growing the economy. 

There are also other skills that are necessary to succeed in the workforce. So-called soft skills, such as respectfulness, empathy, general knowledge, an awareness of other cultures, or a sense of humour, are all must-haves for a successful career. Why, then, should maths be compulsory to 18, but not training in these other facets of life? 

A pervading criticism of UK schools and universities in recent years has been that they do not prepare their students for a job ⁠– regardless of the sector it is in ⁠– or for many adult responsibilities and relationships. There is a role for maths in this, but why only maths?

Preparing young people for the world of work

Sunak’s idea needs focus and a clear list of practical applications. His enthusiasm for maths should be mirrored across a full spectrum of skills, matched by investment in the staff and resources needed to teach them. 

Maths is important, no one can dispute that. But there is more to the world of work than numbers. If Sunak is serious about modernising education and making it more relevant to workplaces, a potential solution exists in revamping a qualification of the past.

The general studies A Level was perhaps too hastily discontinued in 2017. So, what about a new qualification that targets specific life skills and workplace competencies instead? The Department for Education could even liaise directly with employers, asking businesses what they want from the next generation of workers. 

Ultimately, high-performing companies need to be able to draw on a range of experiences and expertise. Even numbers-focused industries such as banking can see value in a member of staff who can write and speak eloquently. Sunak, the former Goldman Sachs analyst who studied philosophy, politics and economics, would do well to remember that.