Rishi Sunak’s new mission to enforce pupils to study maths until 18 reflects a wider education issue

By Charlie Sawyer

Published Jan 4, 2023 at 12:38 PM

Reading time: 2 minutes

2023 is officially here, and while the dawn of a new year may be synonymous with rest and relaxation in other countries, in the UK, it signals something worse. The chiming of Big Ben at midnight often reminds Brits that they have a whole new 12 months of political disarray, confusion and upheaval to look forward to. While it’s unlikely—although never say never—that we’ll experience as much leadership turnover as we saw in 2022 (otherwise known as the Johnson, Truss and Sunak debacle), it appears that this year, the Conservative party leadership have their eyes set on shaking up the British education system.

In his first speech of 2023—due to take place on the afternoon of 4 January—UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will unveil new plans which require all pupils in England to study maths until the age of 18. According to the politician, this wide-sweeping move will tackle the growing numeracy problem in the country and better equip future generations for the workplace.

As reported by Sky News, the Prime Minister will lay out his ‘new mission’ regarding these plans during his speech, adding that “Letting our children out into the world without those skills is letting our children down.”

Sunak is also expected to state: “Right now, just half of all 16-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.”

Amid the predictable backlash, primary criticism of this move centres on the lack of thought the Conservative party have given to the sheer deficiency of maths teachers currently in England. Labour, according to The Guardian, have regarded the Prime Minister’s plans as an “empty pledge,” insisting that Sunak “cannot deliver this reheated, empty pledge without more maths teachers, yet the government has missed their target for new maths teachers year after year, with existing teachers leaving in their droves.”

It’s true that teaching levels in the country have dropped to catastrophic levels, with only 29,000 graduates signing up for teaching trainee courses in 2022—a 20 per cent fall from 2021.

On top of these issues, a number of critics have also accused the Prime Minister of pushing forward and prioritising education reform, while the National Health Service (NHS) bleeds. It’s undeniable that the UK health service is in a devastating condition, one so critical that for the first time ever British nurses are striking in efforts to scare the government out of stubborn complacency.

It’s important to recognise how this change in policy symbolises a growing shift within the British education system. In particular, this shift reflects what some have deemed a “creativity crisis.” According to Labour analysis of government data obtained by The Guardian in 2021, a decade of conservative investment has massively impacted the state of creative arts classes and courses within UK schools.

The figures have shown that the number of GCSE music and drama students has fallen by a fifth over the last decade. Additionally, one in seven music teachers and one in eight art and design teachers have left the profession. School reforms have caused pupils to move away from creative subjects such as dance, music and art, and towards more traditional academic options instead.

This data is emblematic of recent social and political discourse that sees the creative arts, both at the school level and in higher education, as lesser then compared to the supposed ‘hard’ subjects such as maths and physics.

In 2019, the Royal Academy of Arts stated that a lack of government funding and support had encouraged media publications to perceive creative courses as low value and economically unviable, referring to them as “Mickey Mouse degrees” and peddling stereotypes about how no one could possibly have worked hard if they took media studies.

If anyone is still curious to hear the Prime Minister’s full manifesto, his speech will be broadcast at 2 pm today. And with an entire year ahead of us, it’ll be interesting—and probably quite entertaining—to discover whether or not the UK ultimately considers Sunak to be economically unviable.

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