Maths to 18 – An open letter to Rishi Sunak
Improving maths is a noble goal, but we need to start interventions much, much earlier than age 16, says Ben Levinson, OBE
- by Ben Levinson
Dear Prime Minister,
Thank you for the recent attention and priority you have given to education. I chose this career because, more than any other, it has the power to simultaneously address the challenges and realise the opportunities we face individually and collectively. I know you believe the same and I have watched with interest your recent announcements regarding maths to 18.
Maths is a personal passion of mine. In fact, leading maths was my first step into school leadership.
As such, I agree with some of your hypotheses. I think there is a culture of greater acceptance around struggling with maths.
And, partly as a result of this, we have too many adults who do not have the numeracy skills and knowledge required to thrive in their day-to-day lives.
As I say, I chose this career to change lives. This is also the reason I chose primary over secondary: the earlier we intervene, the greater the chance of success.
Unsurprisingly, I believe the bulk of any work to address the challenges you’ve rightly identified needs to be focused on children as early as possible.
Not just because this is where you will impact the mindset and culture. But because, except in a minority of specific cases, if children do not have the core fundamentals in maths they need for life by age 11, something has gone seriously wrong.
Importance of maths
First and foremost is what we teach.
If we look at our aim – to ensure people are sufficiently numerate for life and that there is a positive culture around maths – I would argue that a key barrier is the amount of content in the primary curriculum. Particularly in Key Stage 1 and Lower Key Stage 2.
We need children to be leaving primary school positive and enthused about maths.
They need to have the foundations in place to go on and experience further success at secondary school; deepening their knowledge and applying it to a wider-range of practical contexts as these become conceptually relevant.
No child (who doesn’t face a specific learning challenge) should leave primary without a strong grasp of number, place value and calculation.
These are the core building blocks and the vast majority of what we need in life.
Maths national curriculum
We have embraced the concept of a mastery approach in this country. And yet, the curriculum itself does not match the theory.
Even by seven years old, the breadth of what we expect children to know is overwhelming.
It means teachers have to move through the curriculum too fast to cover too much content. Inevitably, then, too many children do not have sufficient time to fully master the concepts they so desperately need.
Once this has happened, it starts to be compounded year-on-year. Children develop increasingly negative attitudes – fear, embarrassment, anxiety – around maths. By secondary school, this is incredibly hard to undo, let alone by 16.
At Kensington Primary, we have reorganised the curriculum to address this challenge and we are beginning to see the impact.
However, it will take time and it is despite the system not because of it.
We need a fundamental rethink of what it is all children (and adults) need in maths for daily life.
Doing this would both ensure everyone has the skills and knowledge they need to succeed, and impact the culture so that more people would be enthused about the subject and choose to pursue maths to 18, developing the specialist skills and knowledge needed for specific career paths.
Maths in real life
Maths also needs to be relevant.
Too often, maths is seen to be about the right answer. However, we know it is so much more than that: problem solving; strategic thinking; paying attention to the detail; and resilience are all skills the subject teaches us, that we can use in numerous other areas of life.
This will build greater enthusiasm and shift attitudes. It will also improve people’s experience of success, further improving the culture around maths.
Unfortunately, SATs do not prioritise this. Instead, too often, children are taught to the test and maths is boiled down to a very simplistic equation – EXS or not.
With the right focus and commitment, I am confident that we can significantly change the narrative around maths.
Thank you for your support with this. I hope we see some further solutions to boost maths knowledge and skills and change attitudes from an early age very soon.
Ben Levinson, OBE is headteacher at Kensington Primary School. Learn more about the school on Twitter @KensingtonSch and at kensington.newham.sch.uk