Friday, March 31, 2023
HomeEducationMore maths? Rishi Sunak’s calculation doesn’t add up | David Mitchell

More maths? Rishi Sunak’s calculation doesn’t add up | David Mitchell

Rishi Sunak wanted to say something positive. Being the prime minister, he must have thought, has to amount to more than acknowledging a terrifying array of looming crises. When asked what you hope to do with your time in office, you’ve got to give a more inspiring answer than “cope”, even if you’re fortunate in following a leader who didn’t even manage that.

What would be a clear, constructive, positive, yet achievable, initiative? Nothing fun at this bleak time – any whiff of levity could be accused of trivialising people’s suffering. And nothing that sounds expensive. Also nothing that sounds too leftwing, what with the Tory right calling Sunak a socialist for failing to cut taxes. But nothing that sounds too rightwing either, what with the Labour party being so far ahead in the polls.

Plus there are many subject areas to avoid: health, transport, defence, the economy… Probably best if it doesn’t touch on any other countries, what with Brexit being such a sore point and China getting horribler and Russia obviously. And there’s the whole illegal immigration shitstorm, so maybe steer clear of abroad altogether. Also food and fuel and housing would be good areas not to mention. Plus it shouldn’t be something that sounds difficult or people won’t believe it’s going to happen. And it shouldn’t be anything that anyone cares too much about because, its achievability notwithstanding, it still probably won’t happen.

What should it be? I’d have been stumped. My best idea was: “Every hard-working family will be given a free cactus.” They could sit on kitchen tables, as symbols of bristly resilience, while people try to work out how to pay the mortgages on their freezing homes. Little green shoots of spiny recovery sprouting all over an economic wasteland.

Sunak went another way. He fell back on something he could rely on, the solace of many a swot in the face of moral complexity, myself included: maths. You know where you are with maths. Maths doesn’t let you down. Maths doesn’t go on strike, or arrive uninvited on the south coast, or die because it couldn’t get an ambulance, or send bullying texts, or appear on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!. Let’s do more maths! That was his new initiative. Everyone should be studying maths until the age of 18, he declared.

Who can argue with that? Eight million adults in the UK are only numerate to primary school level. That’s bad. But brilliantly, all those potential voters, who presumably hate maths, won’t have to do any at all, but only agree with the principle that they should have done more previously. No one who can vote will have to do anything they don’t want to. This is an entirely inoffensive policy.

The education secretary, who my investigations tell me is called Gillian Keegan, might feel aggrieved that it doesn’t leave her with much to say in her next speech. Michael Gove used to have great fun with that brief – handing out bibles and making everyone read Thomas Hardy and memorise dates – and even Gavin Williamson got to cancel everyone’s exams. The importance of maths should be something Keegan gets to bang on about to easy applause, but the PM has nicked it because every single other policy area has gone toxic.

But he was determined to make it sound massive: “This is personal for me,” it was reported that he was “expected to say” in his speech. And he did! “It’s the single most important reason why I came into politics: to give every child the highest possible standard of education.” Wow – it turns out he’s a stealth educationist.

He was also expected to say: “Just half of all 16-19-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.”

Admirable sentiments, though the phrase “our children’s jobs” raises the spectre of child labour. An unfortunate slip when families are struggling to afford food and fuel and the sick are left untreated. It’s all getting a bit Dickensian. But perhaps it’s deliberate. Is this heritage austerity? Back to when Britain was great? Perhaps by “studying maths” he means “doing data entry”? Good work for children with their nimble fingers, and much safer than picking fluff out of an industrial loom, so we must count our blessings.

It was a slip because, of all the things he was “expected to say”, the phrase about “children’s jobs” was the only one he didn’t. Very wise. Bless him, he just wanted to say “children” as many times as possible. A focus group must have generated that finding: saying “children” is a good look for him. Better than for Truss the malfunctioning robot or Johnson the philanderer, who just kept having children. Sunak’s children look nice – he’s shared some lovely photos – it’s a relatable family unit. Keep saying “children”, Rishi, and people will believe you care.

I approve of the maths plan, but it’s such a tiny thought. In most countries that we increasingly laughably consider our equivalents, maths up to the age of 18 has long been compulsory. Rather than having an idea, he’s just picked one of myriad ways in which Britain is worse than elsewhere and resolved to correct it. It’s like saying: “We really ought to start brushing our teeth.” A small, long-overdue correction to our educational practices coming from the leader of a party that’s been in power for 12 years. It’s lame.

And it won’t happen. Sunak says he “will work with the sector to move towards all children studying some form of maths to 18”. “Work with” to “move towards”. Christ. Don’t hold your breath. As Keegan’s shadow, Bridget Phillipson, put it: “He cannot deliver this reheated, empty pledge without more maths teachers, yet the government has missed their target for new maths teachers year after year.”

More teachers requires more money. The money must either be raised or moved from elsewhere. That means fewer missiles or nurses or tax cuts or more taxes. Perhaps maths will let him down after all.

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