The Prime Minister identifies the problem but offers the wrong solution

The Prime Minister identifies the problem but offers the wrong solution

The Prime Minister wants youngsters to study maths until they are 18.

Rishi Sunak has identified an ‘anti maths mindset’ that is holding the country back.

He is right. There is any anti maths mindset and the economy would be better off if youngsters left school fully numerate.

They would be better able to understand the tax system, mortgages, profit and loss.

They would be better able to save money in shops, and understand tyre pressure and other practical things that we all need to understand.

They would be better prepared to use machinery in the world of work.

However, where the Prime Minister has got it wrong is leaving the teaching until children are 17 and 18.

By this time it is too late.

At this age, playing darts or snooker is where youngsters pick up their knowledge of arithmetic.

It is at Primary School where the work needs to be put in.

The real reason why a significant number of students are failing at maths in secondary school is because of the primary maths curriculum – not because of the secondary curriculum.

For years I have advocated a strengthening of the teaching of maths for the youngest children.

Some important improvements were made in the new primary curriculum in 2014 and this has driven up standards to some extent. But it still lacks ambition.

With the changes, children are supposed to learn their times tables by the end of Year 4 (age 9 and 10), and long multiplication and long division are taught using the traditional method by the end of Year 6 (age 11 and 12).

These were much-needed reforms and a more traditional and structured approach to the curriculum helped overall.

The previous curriculum was a complete mess and the National Numeracy Strategy that attempted to build on it was much the same.

Now, further reforms are needed in the primary curriculum so that it mirrors the more ambitious levels that children reach in independent schools.

There is no reason why similar levels of achievement cannot be reached by pupils in the state sector.

Children should be competent in the four rules of number, the four rules of decimals and the four rules of fractions.

They should be able to find a percentage and find an amount from a percentage.

They should be able to do basic ratio and probability questions.

They should be able to do time questions.

They should be competent in basic geometry (angles, shapes etc).

And they should be able to do basic algebra questions of a linear type.

All of this is achievable by the end of Year 6 (age 11 and 12). Most children are capable of doing this with structured and competent teaching.

For a long time, I have also advocated that maths is taught in primary schools by a specialist. I think English should be too.

It is very difficult for primary school teachers to be competent in lots of areas of the curriculum and this is why we need specialists.

This again accounts for much of the success in the independent sector.

There needs to be a national drive by the Government to train and recruit maths teachers.

I understand that is a bit of a vicious circle – with fewer people leaving school competent in maths there are likely to be fewer who train to teach the subject. However, this circle has to be broken.

Trying to solve a child’s numeracy problems in secondary school is very difficult as the children move from subject teacher to subject teacher.

If a child leaves primary school with poor numeracy it means pulling them out of lessons to correct the problem.

This will mean the child will fall behind in other areas.

Maths is also required for chemistry, physics and design technology. Poor numeracy means failure in four subject areas, not just one.

It also contributes to low self-esteem and this is very difficult for a child in their teenage years.

There are a small number of children who really struggle with maths, but in my experience, the vast majority can function at a good level if they are well taught.

It is important to maintain our SATs tests, but reform is needed in the grading system.

I have long advocated a return to the previous method of grading children.

Levels used to range from 1 to 6 and there were staging posts of a, b, and c for each of the grades.

This meant a child could be functioning at 4c or 5b etc.

This method of grading was far more precise than the bland and virtually meaningless ‘Working Towards National Level’ (roughly 0 per cent to 35/40 per cent); ‘Working At National Level’ (roughly 41 per cent to 79 per cent) and ‘Working Above National Level’ (roughly 80 per cent and above).

Unfortunately, the current grading system gives little information to the primary schools, the secondary schools that the children move up to, the parents, the Government or the children themselves.

After all, you can drive 15 buses through the middle grading of roughly 41 per cent to 79 per cent.

While I think the Prime Minister’s initiative is well-meaning, a more fundamental look at the primary curriculum is what is really needed.

We need to think long-term rather than constantly focusing on trying to ‘shut the stable door after the horse has bolted’.

The Singapore curriculum has always been excellent and in essence, is based on what we used to do before the progressive mathematicians started to hold sway after the 1960s.

Their curriculum is structured, more traditional and it is ambitious. We should follow this approach.

A good start was made with the new primary curriculum in 2014 but more needs to be done.

I remember a previous Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, showing real concern at the lack of progress many children were making in their GCSE preparation in the core subjects.

He began an initiative where many children were given individual tuition at a huge cost.

There were some modest improvements in children’s grades, but again it was attempting to deal with a problem that really needed solving at the primary level.

Politicians want quick solutions and will often turn to the secondary sector in an attempt to boost children’s performance as this will look good politically.

I fear this Government is again focusing on short-term solutions rather than the real solution – fix PRIMARY MATHS.