Aaahhhhhh we’re doing Learn To Code but for maths now:
The PM will commit to taking the necessary action to deliver for the long term on issues such as low numeracy rates.
As part of this, he will set a new ambition of ensuring that all school pupils in England study some form of maths to the age of 18.
The general consensus in the media is that this is a laudable goal, but I’m not really sure that’s true? I already have quite a few questions about the Conservative’s policy of making everyone stay in education until 18, even if that can be vocational education. I’m not sure that my questions about that policy are at all alleviated by forcing people, some of whom are already being forced to continue in education past the point where it's of benefit to them, to persist in a subject that they very likely hate.
I remember once commenting to my A-Level maths teacher that teaching an interesting subject exclusively to students who'd chosen it must be a pretty sweet gig. They said it was, but they also had to teach remedial GCSE maths to students who were doing completely unrelated subjects but needed a C in maths because lots of (even non-numerate) uni courses require it. Apparently those folk were extremely unhappy to still be doing maths after they thought they were done with it forever, which did not make for a fun teaching experience. I can only imagine they would hate it even more if you had to do it even if you got the C at GCSE¹. If you make a limited course of it a mandatory bonus subject for students not studying the full-fat version—they did this with ICT, at least ten years ago—it will be roundly ignored and less than useless.
Later in the article, we get:
The government’s focus on literacy since 2010, including phonics, has led to significant improvements in standards. In 2012, only 58% of 6-year-olds were able to read words fluently. By 2019, the figure had risen to 82%. Our renewed focus on numeracy will aim to match this achievement.
See, that seems more sensible: focus on fixing things early on. Targeting the 16-18 bracket feels like squeezing the toothpaste from the top. Maybe I've been reading a bit too much Freddie, but I do think there are some folk who just do not and will never really be up for doing maths. They might be incredibly capable in other areas, but they hit that weird Year 9 bump which seems to throw a lot of folk off, they are just lost; feeling like they've missed something somewhere and it doesn't make sense any more from then on. They can, if they're lucky, get through their GCSE with a passing grade, but they're just not maths people! There are also people who are capable, but have been turned off because of poor teaching or curricula earlier, or the fact that maths is perceived as (and can sometimes be!) a bit boring. (There's also a broader argument to be had about there being a cultural acceptance of innumeracy that we wouldn't have in the same way about e.g. illiteracy—one of my university lecturers used to bemoan that quite a lot.) But by the time you get to 16, everyone who doesn't like maths, capable at it or not, is just going to resent you for forcing them to continue doing it. You probably want to address the stuff earlier up the funnel first.
The trouble is that whether or not any of my points are valid, they're all a bit wooly and illegible and fixing those problems would be hard, long-term, difficult to take credit for come the next election. And ultimately, boringly, that's the whole deal with the government plan: whether or not it's a good thing—hell, whether or not it's even possible, given that maths teachers are already in heinously short supply—it's designed to be something that sounds good which you can announce and then say with a straight face that you did it when campaigning in a year or so. It's a press release that's just going to put an unnecessary burden on people who don't need any more of that.
¹ or 4 or whatever it is now