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.
So, there you have it. Rishi Sunak is the third Prime Minister in 2022. The third since September 2022, in fact. He becomes the first non-white PM in the history of the United Kingdom, as well as the richest ever, with Sunak and his wife’s combined net worth listed as £730 million. Personally, I’m suspicious of anyone that rich—why not just retire to a life of luxury?
Earlier this year—what feels like a lifetime ago—Sunak lost to Liz Truss during the previous Tory leadership contest, gaining the support of more MPs but only 42.6 per cent of the members’ votes. Now, he’s secured the top job after Truss’ economic plan proved irredeemably disastrous. If Sunak had simply won the first time round, perhaps we’d have avoided six weeks of uncertainty and chaos, and still be in roughly the same position as we are now. It feels a bit like a fever dream already.
Second time around, he secured the gig by default: Penny Mordaunt, incumbent Leader of the House of Commons who also ran in July, dropped out on Monday 24 October. Whether or not Sunak has a democratic mandate to run the country is debatable, given that we have a parliamentary democracy and the Conservatives were elected with a large majority in 2019. But Truss reneged on various manifesto promises and, based on previous campaign promises, Sunak might do the same. Although it’s too soon to tell, if history repeats itself—which it often does—we’re surely in for a tumultuous ride.
Boris Johnson—the disgraced former PM who flew back from the Caribbean to court his fellow MPs—announced on Sunday 23 October that he would not formally be joining the race, despite allegedly having secured the necessary support. It should be noted that he never once proved this fact. Two nonconsecutive terms as Prime Minister would be unusual but isn’t unprecedented. In fact, Johnson’s hero, Winston Churchill, did just that—first during World War II and again in the early 1950s.
However, Johnson is still facing an investigation from the Privileges Committee as to whether or not he intentionally misled the parliament over Partygate. If found to have done so, he may be required to stand down as an MP. Had he joined the race and won—he’s significantly more popular among Tory party members than either Truss or Sunak—he may have been out again before Christmas. I was quietly hoping this would be how things panned out: it would be an utter disaster for the Tories and they would have no choice but to call a general election. Sadly, no such luck.
Sunak gave a wooden speech soon after winning the job. “There is no doubt we face a profound economic challenge,” he said. “We now need stability and unity. And I will make it my utmost priority to bring our party and our country together. Because that is the only way we will overcome the challenges we face and build a better, more prosperous future for our children and our grandchildren.” What does this mean exactly? Who knows. At this stage, it feels like party leader Mad Libs.
It would be nice to know how he plans to bring both his party and the country together, during a period of turmoil that threatens the long-term stability of both.
The Prime Minister concluded: “I pledge that I will serve you with integrity and humility, and I will work day in, day out, to deliver for the British people.” Given that Sunak was also implicated in Partygate, which helped to bring Johnson down, his integrity is questionable. His eventual resignation signaled the beginning of the end for Johnson’s premiership and many Johnson loyalists still don’t trust him—so how this plays out could be interesting, to say the least.
Sunak’s first appointments were thoroughly disappointing. Suella Braverman returns as Home Secretary less than a week after resigning the post for breaking ministerial code—so much for “integrity.” James Cleverly remains as Foreign Secretary and Michael Gove is back in the cabinet, after being fired by Johnson a few months ago. The only silver lining is that, after a couple of years in genuinely important positions, Jacob Rees Mogg is no longer in cabinet and returns to the back benches where, hopefully, his influence will be limited.
So, will Sunak last? It’s impossible to know. His fiscal policy is likely to be harsh, but less experimental than his predecessor’s. The parliamentary Tory party needs to present a united front. If they cannot get behind the new PM, a general election is a necessity. The majority party should be able to pass the government’s legislation.
Lately, many Tory MPs have been divisively ideological rather than pragmatic, but the threat of an electoral wipeout might mean that they begin to compromise. Current polling puts the party at an all-time low in terms of electoral popularity—some models give them less than twenty seats were a general election to be held today, with Labour taking an unprecedented super majority and the Scottish National Party (SNP) sitting as opposition.
The next important event is Monday 31 October’s fiscal statement from Jeremy Hunt, assuming he isn’t suddenly removed as Chancellor. This will lay out what’s to come over the winter, in terms of spending cuts and support for the vulnerable—as well as what to expect from Sunak’s premiership in general.