Responding to compulsory maths

16 January 2023

The government’s new proposal to make all young people study maths up to the age of 18 is beset by logistical issues, misunderstandings of the skills employers say they want and has the potential to have a particularly negative impact on creative arts students. 

The new year began with the Prime Minister announcing that all young people in England would be required to study some form of maths up to the age of 18. The policy was framed around preparing young people for employment, based on the view that the jobs of today and tomorrow require high levels of numeracy. 

The timing of the announcement was strange. The policy has nothing to do with the myriad crises gripping the education sector from low teacher pay to high pupil absences. Equally, the policy overlooks:

  • Key logistical challenges to its delivery 
  • The skills employers say young people lack when they enter the workplace 
  • The potential impact of compulsory post-16 maths on creative arts students 

Logistical challenges to the policy’s delivery

The policy runs into at least two major logistical challenges: 

  • Lack of supply of maths teachers – Making maths compulsory to the age of 18 increases the total number of young people studying maths, requiring more maths teachers in the workforce. However, the government has systematically failed to meet its targets for recruiting new maths teacher trainees for the last decade. In the last academic year, it missed this target by 10%. Equally, there is an ongoing crisis of teacher retention in England. One in five new teachers leave the profession within their first two years, and 40% leave within five years. The consequence is that there simply aren’t enough maths teachers in the labour supply to support this ambitious policy
  • Lack of teaching space – While the majority of young people in England progress post-16 to school sixth forms or sixth form colleges, a significant proportion do not. In particular, 5% of young people proceed into apprenticeships or employment. Without a school or school-like setting, it remains unclear how this group of young people could receive compulsory maths teaching 

The skills employers say they really want

While the PM is right to recognise the role of schools in plugging skills gaps in the workforce, he is wrong to focus on maths. 

  • The Confederation of Business and Industry (CBI) surveys employers and employer representative bodies annually to find out their views on the skills young people are lacking when they join the workforce. According to the last decade of surveys, while employers do flag up numeracy as a concern, a higher percentage report young people lacking skills in communication, problem solving, foreign languages and work experience. If the prime minister really wants to give employers what they say they want, he might consider a policy of radically investing in access to cultural learning that will improve young people’s communication skills 
  • The PM has framed the compulsory maths policy around supplying the skills necessary for the country to grow economically. However, it’s important to note that leading international economic authorities such as The World Economic Forum and World Bank have argued for the importance of skills that come from cultural learning in supporting economic growth. Similarly, Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills for the OECD (an economic bloc of wealthy countries that includes the UK) gave a talk for the CLA on the importance of the arts in an economic context
  • Similarly, the policy has been positioned as putting England in line with international economic competitors (e.g. Germany, Singapore etc.) where maths is taught up to the age of 18. However, international comparisons also show that England falls below the OECD (an economic bloc of wealthy countries) average for the number of hours of arts instruction young people receive. If the aim is to catch England up with international competitors, the focus could just as readily be on creative subjects rather than maths

The potential impact of compulsory post-16 maths on creative arts students

The policy threatens to further exclude prospective creative arts students from post-16 education. 

  • Maths already acts as a barrier to creative arts students’ progression – Pupils without a pass at Maths GCSE are required to sit a maths course during their 16-19 education and resit their maths GSCE. Pupils who are subject to this requirement have a much more limited choice of post-16 institutions than their peers, having to proceed to larger Further Education colleges that offer these maths re-sit courses. Creative arts pupils who do not achieve a pass in Maths GCSE, but who do not need a high level of abstract numeracy for their chosen vocation, already have their education needlessly disrupted by this policy. Similarly, new policies for student finance in England mean that young people who do not have a pass in maths GCSE cannot access a student loan for Higher Education. With these policies already inhibiting the progress of creative arts students through their education, a further compulsory maths policy might risk excluding them from the post-16 education process entirely 
  • Underfunding of FE colleges may have greater impact on creative arts students – Further Education colleges have suffered from especially acute underfunding in the last decade. They also struggle even more than schools with recruitment and retention. The consequence is that they are in an even worse position than schools to deliver a policy of compulsory maths. FE colleges host many post-16 vocational courses in the creative arts. These young people may be in a uniquely difficult position to access and achieve well in a compulsory maths course. The consequence may be further barriers to them progressing their education and careers in the creative arts. 


While the policy is not slated to come in until the next parliament at the earliest (2024 at least), we hope that the government will listen to the pushback the proposal has received from the wider education sector. Taking on board these critical thoughts, they might consider how they can better invest in what the sector, and young people, actually need to thrive in education and employment.