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LTE Group CEO John Thornhill is leaning against a glass door with his arms folded and smiling into the camera.

Time to align education to deliver on maths ambition

As the UK continues to grapple with weak economic growth, skills, training and education have risen up the agenda government’s agenda as being key to developing the high-skilled workforce needed to boost productivity.

This has led to, for the second time this year, the nation’s arithmetic – or, to be more precise, its perceived ‘anti-maths mindset’ - hitting the headlines as the Prime Minister restated his commitment to make maths a compulsory part of the curriculum until the age of 18.

This week the Prime Minister rightly observed that the country can’t afford for “poor numeracy to cost our economy tens of billions a year” or to leave people “twice as likely to be unemployed as those with competent numeracy”. To start the process of addressing this, the Prime Minister announced he would create a new advisory group to take evidence from nations with high rates of post-16 numeracy in order to create a strategy for how this can be done most effectively. 

However, with the group’s recommendations expected to be published in July, the tight timescale and narrow focus for the report present the very real risk that it could end up being too shallow in scope to truly assess the challenges and offer the most appropriate solutions. 

For instance, with much of the review group’s focus being on 16-18 it risks overlooking some of the challenges the FE sector already faces in addressing numeracy levels. As an example, at The Manchester College, which is part of our Group, has 60% of students joining who have not reached the Grade 4 GCSE math benchmark following 12 years of formal education. Yet the current expectation appears to be that FE Colleges can fix this in two years.

Changing perceptions: evolution not revolution

This brings into sharp focus that while identifying the numeracy skill gap is relatively simple, addressing it will be far more complex. The scale of the challenge of shifting the perception of maths and awareness of its importance as a skill should not be underestimated.  We know this from experience: LTE Group supports learners distant from the labour market who are from some of the most deprived communities in the country, and work to raise achievement levels and career aspirations through delivering high-quality technical education.  

In relation to maths, where nearly a third of the adult population has low confidence in their numeracy skills, and a similar number believe that maths is not needed for a future career, the challenge of changing perceptions of the subject will be equally – if not more – acute. 

Right across the organisations that make up our Group – from Novus, which delivers prison education, to apprenticeship provider Total People – we have learned that getting people to understand and truly believe that gaining skills can open up economic opportunity and higher earning potential – often going against deeply ingrained perceptions - requires constant investment and high levels of support.  

Investing in support will be key

To deliver on the ambition to improve numeracy levels will require equally high levels of support – and significant investment. Figures from the Department for Education show that only 50% of young people achieve a GCSE maths grade 5 or above, falling to 30% of young people from deprived backgrounds. 

Improving these statistics will require substantial support across every level of education. This will need to include support for all learners in the form of both skilled teachers and suitable learning resources, with additional support targeted at those disadvantaged communities which are already less likely to reach the grade 5 benchmark. 

High quality maths teachers will need to sit at the heart of this but already within the education system there is a chronic shortage of maths teachers, with the government having only recruited 90% of its target. By extending the provision of maths through to the age of 18, even greater emphasis will need to be replaced on recruiting the skilled teachers required to make a significant difference to the country’s numeracy levels. Ultimately, without investment in teachers, including offering attractive salaries, the plan will be doomed to fail. 

Alignment across education is crucial

While changing perceptions and putting in place high levels of support will provide strong foundations, on their own they are unlikely to substantially close the numeracy skills gap.

To truly rewire our maths education, a bold and broad strategy that aligns primary, secondary and post-16 education, including apprenticeships, will be required. 

Offering clear progression through every stage of the education system, from basic numeracy up to more advanced maths skills needed in the workplace, would create a common ‘aim’ for all schools, colleges, apprenticeship providers and higher education providers, giving the subject a greater, career-related purpose for learners than it currently enjoys. 

This will require all areas of the education system to work together and collaborate to ensure that there is a consistent approach, where maths seamlessly flows into every touch point with students from their first day at school until they move into the workforce, in much the same way as literacy is now commonly embedded across the entire curriculum. 

This consistency of approach also applies to qualifications, where currently equivalent level 3 programmes have different minimum grade requirements for maths. For instance, the maths requirements to study a T Level differ from those needed to undertake an apprenticeship, which in turn can be different from other academic and vocational routes. As part of its strategy to improve numeracy the government also needs to address these variances to create alignment. There is a once in a generation opportunity to do this now as part of the wider qualifications reform proposed by the DfE. 

Only through collaboration, integration and alignment on maths, which ultimately focusses on the needs of the economy and the practical requirements of employers, will the post-16 education sector be able to make a real impact on ensuring that the future workforce has the maths skills that will be so critical for future economic growth.