All children will have to study mathematics until they are 18 under Rishi Sunak’s plans to reimagine the education system.
The prime minister will make the policy his personal mission today as he attempts to seize control of the political agenda with the first big speech since his inaugural address outside No 10 in October.
Sunak will outline his priorities for 2023 and chart a course towards “a better future for Britain”, Downing Street said. But the prime minister’s attempt to strike an optimistic tone comes as he is buffeted by severe difficulties. The government said yesterday it was “confident” that the NHS had the money it needed, even as it admitted the service was grappling with an “unprecedented challenge”. Health leaders accused Sunak of being in denial because he declined to say the NHS was in crisis.
Suggestions from the rail industry that a deal to end strikes was “within touching distance” were followed by Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT union, claiming that the walkouts might last beyond May.
In a new year reminder of the divisions in the Conservative Party, Liz Truss warned her successor that it would be “economically and politically counterproductive” for him to scrap her proposed childcare reforms.
Speaking in central London this afternoon, Sunak will say that giving young people more advanced training in maths will leave them better placed for the data-intensive jobs of the future and will help them manage their finances as adults.
“This is personal for me,” he is expected to say. “Every opportunity I’ve had in life began with the education I was so fortunate to receive. And it’s the single most important reason why I came into politics: to give every child the highest possible standard of education.
“Thanks to the reforms we’ve introduced since 2010, and the hard work of so many excellent teachers, we’ve made incredible progress. With the right plan — the right commitment to excellence — I see no reason why we cannot rival the best education systems in the world.”
The prime minister’s announcement echoes the findings of the Times Education Commission, which reported last summer and called for the creation of a British baccalaureate, offering broader academic and vocational qualifications at 18, and a slimmed-down set of exams at 16.
Sunak will cite statistics showing that about eight million adults in England have the numeracy skills of primary school children. In most OECD countries, including France, Germany, America and Japan, maths is compulsory up to 18. The policy, which will affect schools in England, will not necessarily mean every pupil having to take maths A-level: alternatives such as the existing core maths qualification and T-levels are under consideration. The change would not take effect before the next election, likely to be in 2024.
Sunak will say: “Just half of all 16 to 19-year-olds study any maths at all. Yet in a world where data is everywhere and statistics underpin every job, our children’s jobs will require more analytical skills than ever before. And letting our children out into the world without those skills is letting our children down.”
The new year speech will come the day before Sir Keir Starmer offers his own vision for 2023. The Labour leader wants to pitch himself as the candidate of optimism, with a message of “hope and change”.
A Labour source said: “In their desperation to ensure Sunak’s speech doesn’t happen after Keir’s, No 10 have revealed they have nothing to offer the country except … double maths. As the health service falls to pieces after 12 years of Tory rule, criminals terrorise the streets and working people worry how their wages will last the month, the country is entitled to ask: is this it?”
YouGov polling conducted before Christmas put Labour on 48 per cent and the Tories on 24 per cent. When respondents were asked who would make the best prime minister, Starmer led by 32 per cent to Sunak’s 25 per cent.