WHEN Rishi Sunak pledged to bolster our education system with T-levels and more maths while encouraging students to ditch degrees which wouldn’t actually help them pursue their passions in the real world, I was impressed and relieved that the PM had finally addressed such an important issue.
I say this as one who has detested maths since primary school days, when I had a strict teacher. Exercise books thrown in the bin, Sunday night terrors trying to finish my homework, tears rolling down my face. My GCSE grade for maths was the lowest I have ever received for an exam. Despite all that, entering the world after university has made me wish I was forced to do a bit more.
While we don’t know the details of Mr Sunak’s proposal, it will not involve forcing 16-year-olds to take on maths A-level when they are clearly not inclined to do so. I’m hoping that the scheme involves ‘real world’ maths, rather than regressions and differentiation.
By ‘real world’ maths I mean arithmetic: percentages, basic accounting and ratios. How to manage cash flow, do simple percentages in your head, calculate quickly how much interest you would pay on a loan or mortgage. Having not been in a maths class since I was 16, it was a shock, to say the least, to realise how limited my knowledge was when setting up a credit card, calculating my tax on a freelance income and taking the dreaded tests for graduate schemes.
These tests are brutal and must be done. Yet surely I shouldn’t constantly need to visit the ‘percentage calculator’ website at the age of 22, or ask my parents how to calculate simple equations? Readers may roll their eyes and think I needed to get a grip, but I felt ten years old again, as if I had to learn a new language overnight. This was the maths that employers were demanding and I felt pathetic.
Being taught these skills at school would not only help graduates in an increasingly competitive job market, but also those who want to pursue apprenticeships or entrepreneurships and forgo the extortionate debt of university. This type of ‘real world’ maths would help arts and humanities students in numerous ways too, not least by showing them how they can sell their own work and ensure financial stability independent from a large corporation. No matter what subjects you take post GCSE, you are required to put pen to paper (or hands to keyboard) and you will be marked on your clarity, be it by an examiner or a future client. As a non-maths student, I had avoided ever having to do anything of the sort again, to my peril.
More broadly, it is a nod towards the fact that schools should not focus on standardised testing and equip students for a world of business and data. Exams are important, yes, but being forced to learn content for five years simply to churn it out on an exam paper again is not all that useful when you get older.
The scheme is an encouraging step towards educational reform which has been a political headache for decades. Not only this, but it could begin to repair the relationship between educational institutions and students after the pandemic.
During that time, the government made education a conditional transaction, not a universal right: ‘No, you’re not allowed to come in and learn, and we’re not going to reward you for the work you do either by giving you real grades.’ This was not just for secondary schools. At university level, I was expected to adhere to the same format of examination and testing whilst being thrust into an entirely different learning environment. Even after the pandemic ‘ended’, I was still not given a full return to face-to-face teaching. One of my lecturers candidly revealed that this was due to a lack of space in lecture halls, rather than a continued anxiety about spreading Covid on campus.
Notwithstanding these pledges, education should remain a political headache for the Prime Minister if we remind ourselves of the swathes of children who haven’t returned to school after lockdowns drove them away. In turn, literacy rates are continuing to plummet.
I sincerely hope Rishi Sunak delivers on this promise, not only for the students’ sake but to give disgruntled voters hope for the future rather than grievances about the past.