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Why Compulsory Maths Won’t Work for Post-16

At the start of January 2023, the British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, revealed his plans to make maths compulsory for all students until they turn 18.

When I heard this my heart immediately sank. I knew that this would cause more trouble for teachers and students all over the country. It shows a complete lack of understanding about what students today need.

To be honest, I’m not surprised that Rishi Sunak is so out of touch. It is easy to boast about your education when you’ve had the luxury of going to a private school with massive fees that was set up to be a feeder for Oxford University. Very much like his takes on the NHS, he has no clue how we in the real world live.

But even then, his education wasn’t all about beating students over the head with the maths stick. He went to an institution where his education was well-rounded and thorough. He did a subject called “Div“, which teaches students how to research, debate and communicate. So where does he get off acting like maths is more important than anything else?

There are so many horrible problems with Sunak’s STEM snobbery. It hurts students and teachers all over the country! Let me explain to you why his plans will hurt us.

Compulsory Maths Would Demotivate Potentially Keen Students

In my day job, I work as an A-level English teacher in a sixth-form college. So, believe me when I say I have a lot of experience with the motivation levels of people between the ages of 16 and 18. You aren’t going to make anyone love maths by forcing them to do it for an extra two years. It just won’t work.

The thing that I love about teaching A-level English is that most of the students are there because they want to be. I’ve seen students who hated English at GCSE turn their whole attitude around simply because they picked it at A-level.

Students choose their A-level subjects for a few different reasons. Here are some of the most common ones:

  • A genuine passion for the subject and a desire to do well.
  • Talent in the subject, which makes them realise they can get good grades
  • An understanding that they need to take the subject to do the job or uni degree they want.
  • Parents or family members who advise and support them to choose it.

Three of those four reasons are down to personal choice. For the first time in their lives, there are no subjects students have to take. So, when the going gets rough, you can remind them that they wanted to be there. Autonomy and stubbornness are no joke. They see us through the last two difficult years of school.

If you force students to take maths, you are robbing them of that choice. Sure, they might have taken maths if they had the choice. Now, though, it’s not because they chose it. It’s because some hot-shot in government thinks he knows best. Where’s the motivation in that? To be honest, it’s enough to demotivate the keenest maths lovers.


It Would Demotivate Students Who Hate Maths Even More

So, we get that forcing even the keenest of students to spend their time on maths will make them resent it. That makes sense, right? I mean, I’d hate to be told what to study at any age, let alone one where I’m more rebellious than ever.

However, what does it do for those who already hate the subject? As you can imagine, it’s even worse.

Let’s face it: not all students are good at maths. Many of them try really hard to get their 4 at GCSE and they’re very proud of it. The fact that they’d have to take the exam again and again until they pass definitely helps them to try hard. They tell themselves that they just need to work hard for one set of exams and then they never have to look at the subject again.

If maths became compulsory, they’d lose that motivation. Why should they try hard in that one GCSE that they hate? They’re going to have to keep taking it until they pass or turn 18, anyway. So, they might as well slack until then. Or, they can just coast through and keep giving their bare minimum so they don’t have to take… shudder… core maths.

If I’m honest, I don’t blame them. It’s quite a clever strategy. I’d probably have done it too – if I hated maths at school. I mean, who rewards a student who tried super hard to pass maths with… more maths?!

Of course, it’s not just the students who find maths hard who hate it. There are plenty of people out there who were in the top set in maths class, but breathed a sigh of relief when they could drop it. Making maths compulsory would just make school hellish for them, too.

Sixth-Form Attendance is Already Bad Enough

What is the most likely consequence for students hating school more? Well, they bunk more classes and take more time off.

Lots of teachers and leaders at sixth forms around the country have noticed that attendance is bad. The government doesn’t keep statistics on national attendance for students between the ages of 16 and 18. However, I don’t think I’d be making stuff up if I said that it’s worse than it is lower down in secondary school.

Why? Well, I think there are plenty of reasons for this. One of the big ones is that students feel older and more mature. They have more freedom, and they use it to skip school when they don’t feel up to it (or can’t be bothered). There are other reasons, though! Some have childcare responsibilities or jobs that make it hard for them to come in on time.

This is something that’s much easier to control if a student does their last two years in a secondary school. The environment is very similar to what they’ve become used to, so they just keep to their old habits. For colleges that only work with students 16 and older, the change of atmosphere and added freedom make them feel like they can get away with setting their own hours.

Can you imagine how much worse that would be if the students hated the subject they were studying? At least at the moment, many of them are doing what they’re passionate about. They’ve just got to learn that motivation can’t be the only thing they use to get their work done. But if they hate what they do? We’ve lost them for good.


It Would Reduce the Time for Chosen Subjects

Sixth form is a chance for students to choose what they would like to study. It’s a time when they get to think about what they’re good at and what they want to do later in life. They get to make a big adult choice: what path do they want to go down with their education?

Post-16 subjects aren’t easy! There’s a huge step up from GCSE for all different exam types: A-level, BTech, IB, Level 3 and everything else. The content is harder and the workload is much more extreme. Students will need to put their all into lessons and during independent study.

It takes hours and hours to get the content you need to do well in a post-16 subject. It’s no laughing matter. As well as their 5-6 hours a week in class, my A-level students have to do at least an hour of reading and recap work at home. There just isn’t enough time in the day for them to slack off. They have to learn how to manage their time and still be a teenager.

If students have to take compulsory maths, they will lose a great deal of the time that they’d spend on other subjects. I can only see three outcomes from this:

  • Teachers of other subjects will see their students for fewer hours.
  • Students would have to reduce the number of other subjects they study.
  • Students lose more of their independent study time.

I don’t like the sound of any of those outcomes. All of them mean we’re putting maths above what students actually want to do with their lives.

Not Everyone Needs to Study High-Level Maths

Not everyone is going to need maths in their future careers. I didn’t. GCSE maths has been more than enough for me in everything I’ve done.

And I don’t just mean teaching, either! Sure, I’ve been working as a tutor since I was in my first year of uni. However, I dabbled in many other things before I turned my eyes to teaching full-time! I worked with journalists to help them find images and videos. I tried HR, marketing, copywriting, proofreading, PR, acting and archive research – just to name a few. None of them needed more than GCSE maths from me.

There are plenty of jobs out there that just don’t require you to have studied maths at a high level. Why? Well, there are usually some dedicated maths people doing all the tricky number crunching for you – like accountants and the finance team. They split these jobs up so that everyone can focus on what they do best.

That’s not to say that maths isn’t useful. Of course it is! In fact, it’s a great subject that can help you become very employable – if you’re good at it. It’s one of those subjects people associate with smart people. Plus, it helps to keep all the GCSE maths you might need fresh in your mind.

That doesn’t mean compulsory maths in sixth form is necessary for every career you might take, though. Sure, it can help. However, there are plenty of ways to show you’re smart and employable without it. Make sure you find the path that suits your job and your own skillset. That will help you a lot more in the long run.


A-Level Maths is Too Theoretical

If this compulsory maths policy goes through, I sincerely hope they don’t expect all students to take an A-level. That would be a ridiculously bad idea.

I’ve met students who did really well in their maths GCSE. They know they’re good at it and it’s a well-respected subject. So, they take it as one of their A-level subjects. The problem arises when they realise how different it is from GCSE. It’s way more theoretical! For some, it’s really hard to get their head around.

There is no such thing as an A-level subject that’s “for everyone”. As I’ve said a million times on this blog post, our subject choices should be based on what we’re good at and what will help us to achieve our goals. Why? Because we’re all unique individuals with our own skills and passions. You can’t expect maths to be a good fit for everyone at such a high level.

You just have to look at an A-level maths curriculum to understand what I mean. Most exam boards have a section called “pure maths”. That part really isn’t for everyone.

Even the applied maths section is about very technical scenarios. I mean, you’ve done all the basic, day-to-day applied maths at GCSE. They’ve got to step it up to talk about things most people won’t ever need to calculate. There’s a huge crossover with physics, too.

For students going into a creative or corporate career, they need to know how the maths they learn could help them. Some might do it out of love and figure out the link themselves. For others, though? It certainly does seem like a lot of wasted time on a very theoretical subject.

If they want to force students to take maths, let it at least be core maths.


Maths Issues Should be Solved Earlier in School

The big reason why Sunak wants to make maths compulsory is because of the UK’s numeracy rates. He is right about that, at least! You just need to look at the statistics from National Numeracy to see that. I’ve long since believed that the exams we take in school don’t prepare us for the real world. Now, I have data to back that up.

Not enough students actually use their GCSE maths in everyday situations. That’s terrifying. Why are we learning about trigonometry and angles in parallel lines when we don’t know about taxes or how much wallpaper to buy?

I would be ignorant if I thought that this wasn’t a problem. The state of maths at the moment just isn’t cutting it.

But forcing post-16 maths doesn’t solve everything. We’re basically forcing students to be miserable just because policies for maths earlier in their education weren’t good enough. This temporary fix does nothing to deal with the underlying issues.

Now, let me say that primary school teachers work damn hard. They’re rolling out maths mastery programmes designed to deal with just this. Things are looking like they might pick up! However, the way things are with the GCSE just isn’t helping.

We have 3 powerful years when students start secondary school. These years could help them to see how their maths is important in the real world and how to use it properly. However, at the moment, GCSE grades overshadow everything. Teachers need to keep their heads above water, so they teach to the exam from the start. It hurts everyone in the process.

We need to fix the way GCSEs impact students lower down the school. Right now, it’s stifling teachers, who feel they don’t have the time to cover everything.


We’re Already Having a Shortage of Maths Teachers

The fact that our Prime Minister has chosen now of all times to announce compulsory maths is utterly hilarious. More maths means we need to recruit more skilled mathematicians to qualify as teachers and take on unruly classes full of miserable teens.

At the same time, Sunak’s own government is fighting against teachers, who just want enough pay to afford a mortgage before we turn 40. A third of teachers left the profession in the past 10 years. We’re underpaid, overworked and our salaries give us less value than they did 10 years ago. How does he think he’s going to get the numbers to teach all these kids post-16 maths? By magic?

As I said in my blog post about the strikes, you can’t recruit enough skilled workers with low pay. Sure, there might be a few who just love the job. Most, though? Well, they can make more money in the private sector.

To be honest, it’s not only the timing that gives me the “if I don’t laugh, I’ll cry” feeling. It’s the fact that Sunak’s own education secretary (who is fighting so hard against these strikes) left school at 16. Well done, Mr PM. That’s the perfect person to push through compulsory post-16 maths. A round of applause for you.

You know what? I’d happily teach students maths as well as English. It’s not my passion, but I’m good enough at it. I did get an A at GCSE and tutored it before. I just found it mind-numbing. You know what, though? I’ll do my bit. Give me the time and support to upskill myself and I’d do it. I only have one condition: pay me enough to afford a flat in London.

We Need to Stop Treating English Like it’s Below Maths

STEM snobbery is a real problem in schools right now. People like Rishi Sunak act like nothing could come close to being as important as maths and science. This kind of snobbery stifles students who just want to do other things with their lives. It makes them feel less intelligent if their skills simply lie in other areas. That’s not the world I want to live in.

Yes, there’s a problem with low numeracy rates here in the UK. However, the state of literacy isn’t much better. There’s so much that needs to be done across the whole curriculum. So, why such a heavy focus on one particular subject? Surely we should focus efforts on both maths and English, at the very least?

We want young people to be well-rounded and well-adapted, right? If that’s the case, focussing on just maths isn’t going to cut it. We need to improve education across the board – and we can’t just force students to take all important subjects in sixth form, can we?

We need English just as much as maths in our everyday lives. It’s vital for so many things! We all read articles online and write emails. We’re all confronted by more fake news than we should have to deal with. Plus, I can’t tell you how many people cancelled on social media would have been fine if they just had the skills to communicate better.

So many successful STEM supremacists have had a comprehensive education in all subjects that they just forgot or ignored. I’m looking at you, Mr PM, with your research and debate class.

We need to fix all education early on so that students are free to choose what they want in their last years.


It Hurts Students Who Are Better at Practical Subjects

Compulsory maths isn’t great for students who are better at more practical subjects.

I can’t tell you how many students I’ve met who feel like they aren’t good enough because they’re not a STEM person. That can cause them a lot of stress and leave them feeling really inadequate. I think that it’s ridiculous that our system makes them feel that way, to be honest. We all have different skills that we can contribute to the world. If we were all good at the same stuff, human progress would stagnate pretty quickly.

That’s not to say that maths isn’t important. Everyone needs it! It helps you to take measurements, work out of much of a material you need and manage your money. Those are things that will help anyone in a practical line of work. The problem is the one-size-fits-all approach to maths that we have at the moment.

I know so many students who work really well when they can create something. They build amazing things that could be a true benefit to society. Are we really going to force them to spend time in a maths class when they can’t see how it relates to their work? There are some really talented young people out there. Why would we want them to feel less than enough?

Forcing students to take compulsory maths doesn’t help to ask some of the big, important questions:

  • How much maths does a student need?
  • What topics would benefit them?
  • How can we do it in a way that helps them to use their practical skills?

Students taking practical subjects don’t need another class in maths that makes them feel like they aren’t smart. There are ways you can improve a student’s maths abilities without forcing another class on them.

What We Should Do Instead

I think you understand now that I hate the idea of compulsory maths. However, I still think that we need to focus more on developing numeracy skills. So, what can we do about it?

Well, first of all, we need to solve issues with maths earlier down in school. You can’t just tack another exam on to the workload of tired students and hope for the best. We need to make maths more practical earlier on. Students should learn how to work out tax and interest, not how to take an exam. There should be much more of a focus on the maths they could use every day.

However, we all forget what we’ve learnt in schools if we don’t get regular reminders. I can personally say that my physics facts leaked out of my head once I finished the GCSE exam. We need to make sure students keep going over what they need to know.

I think that the message of the importance of maths comes best from people in the career you want to have. I can’t tell you how powerful it was for me to hear teachers and tutors talk about how and when they use maths in their professions. It sticks a lot better than theoretical stuff.

There are way too many subjects and job prospects to throw all of them into a maths course, though. That’s why I think that maths teachers and experts need to work with teachers in other subjects.

Instead of making maths a compulsory subject for 16-18 year olds, let’s flip things around. Make maths a compulsory unit in every subject and course. Then, figure out what maths students need to know there.

Make maths part of their chosen subjects. Don’t make it a subject all on its own.

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