Business groups ‘welcome’ maths focus to plug ‘skills gap’

Rishi Sunak

Business groups say Rishi Sunak’s focus on maths is a “welcome” measure to plug key “skills gaps” as Britain goes for growth, despite concerns over a lack of teachers.

The Prime Minister has unveiled plans to transform the UK’s approach to maths education, including an expert advisory group, maths hubs and a new primary teaching qualification.

Tech and industry bodies praised the former investment banker PM’s move, which he hopes will boost the economy, in spite of warnings on teacher numbers and top-down curriculums.

“Founders regularly tell us sourcing people with the right tech skills is a critical challenge to growth,” Camilla de Coverly Veale, from the Coalition for a Digital Economy (Coadec), said.

“We have to tackle this challenge from different angles and at different stages in the talent pipeline – so this new focus is very welcome”.

While James Watkins, from the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) said that he was “pleased” the PM’s commitment on maths to 18 was still on the agenda.

More than 40 per cent of larger businesses were most likely to have skills gaps in data handling, analysis and problem solving, according to the LCCI’s latest survey.

“London desperately needs a skills system that works for businesses and learners alike and for this we need to develop flexible and agile training programmes,” he added.

“We are therefore encouraged by the Prime Minister’s commitment to extending maths provision, and the impact this will have on plugging skills gaps in the capital in particular.”

Institute of Directors policy advisor Alexandra Hall-Chen also welcomed the ambition to boost the UK’s numeracy rate, currently in the bottom half of the OECD skills ranking.

“Numeracy skills are essential to success in the workplace,” she said. But Hall-Chen also stressed that teaching needed to focus on core workplace skills.

“It’s only by focusing on practical numeracy skills that employers are looking for, such as financial literacy and statistics, that reforms will have an impact on the UK’s productivity.”

But Matthew Lesh, from the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), warned against “forcing disinterested students” into balancing quadratic equations.

“Extending compulsory maths education is no silver bullet for economic growth,” he said. “The UK has some of the top universities in the world yet has experienced stagnant growth for the last decade.

“Prosperity requires creating the right institutional environment for entrepreneurship, not dictating curriculums from the top.”

Not enough teachers

Bridget Phillipson, Labour’s shadow education secretary, branded the policy a “reheated, empty pledge”.

“The Tory government repeatedly misses their target for new maths teachers, with maths attainment gaps widening and existing teachers leaving in their droves,” she said.

And National Education Union’s (NEU) joint general secretary Mary Bousted said there were not enough teachers to deliver Sunak’s “laudable aim” for maths to 18 for all English pupils.

“[His] ambition will be thwarted, though, unless he faces up to the reality of the state of education in England,” she said.

“After 13 years in government there are not enough teachers to deliver the PM’s vision.”

Speaking at the London Screen Academy today, Sunak accepted the charge, telling pupils and teachers: “We need already, and we will need more, maths teachers. And we know that.”

In his speech, the PM said: “One of my five priorities is economic growth.

“If we are going to grow our economy not just over the next two years, but the next 20, we simply cannot allow 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.

“We have to fundamentally change our education system so it gives our young people the knowledge and skills they need and that our businesses need to compete with the best in the world.”