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Counting the benefits of mandatory Maths – and how to avoid making skills inequalities worse

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 11 January 2023

Secondary school student writing sums on a classroom whiteboard

Credit: Phil Meech for UCL.

Andy Green and Neil Kaye.

If nothing else, Sunak’s recently announced plan for all students in England to study Maths to age 18 generated a rich crop of maths related puns in the media. Our analysis shows the plan should be welcomed, at least in principle, as a long-overdue reform – but also how implementing such a policy without the requisite strategic and financial backing would likely lead to wider skills gaps and a worsening of the inequalities already seen amongst young people leaving upper secondary education.

England is amongst a small minority of OECD countries which do not require the study of either Maths or the national language throughout upper secondary education (ages 16-18) (the others being Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and the other UK nations). Furthermore, less than half of students in post-16 education study Maths as a discreet subject, many of them instead on courses to re-take GCSE Maths, in which only 20 per cent passed at grade 4 or above in 2022.

It is no coincidence that literacy and numeracy levels amongst young adults (age 16-24) in England rank poorly in international surveys. For instance, in the first round of the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (SAS), mean scores for numeracy were lower amongst 16–24-year-olds in England than in all 22 other countries included in the survey, bar Italy, Spain and the US.

Given the importance of mathematical competence for undertaking everyday tasks at work and in life generally in our data-rich world, many school-leavers become particularly disadvantaged by their lack of numeracy.

More Maths teachers

There will certainly be challenges in implementing Sunak’s plans for mandatory Maths, as many critics have been quick to point out. The greatest of these is the shortage of specialist Maths teachers. This would indeed be a major obstacle, particularly in further education colleges, which cater for the majority of students who lack a good GCSE in Maths, and where maths and numeracy are often taught by non-specialists. The problem is long-standing and requires a general re-consideration of the pay and working conditions necessary to make teaching a more attractive profession to graduates.

On what evidence?

Critics of the proposal also question whether there is any evidence that compulsory Maths classes would raise numeracy standards. Kit Yates, director of the Centre for Mathematical Biology at the University of Bath, for example, writes in the Guardian that compulsion may not be the best way to encourage more students to study Maths and doubts that we have hard evidence that the policy would work. Such comments beg the question of why students in England should be considered so uniquely incapable of learning – and benefitting – from maths tuition at upper secondary level, when their peers in almost all other OECD countries do so, at the same time scoring better on international surveys of numeracy skills.

In fact, there is substantial research evidence to suggest that compulsory Maths to age 18 not only correlates with higher numeracy levels amongst young adults across countries, but also contributes to mitigating skills inequalities inherited from lower secondary education (ages 11-16). Our recent research, for instance, shows that during the upper secondary stage there is a significant improvement in numeracy skills, as well as reductions in numeracy and literacy skills inequality associated with systems where maths (and national language) are compulsory for students up to the end of upper secondary education (e.g. South Korea, the Czech Republic and Slovenia).

Reducing skills gaps

We drew upon OECD survey data from across more than 30 countries and used a quasi-cohort approach to compare relative outcomes and distributions of core skills amongst 15-year-olds (using PISA data) and matched cohorts of young people aged 18 to 20 (using SAS data). We then assessed the effect of a wide range of education system characteristics on the levels and inequalities in reading/literacy and maths/numeracy between countries.

Figure 1 shows a strong correlation between average maths scores at age 15 and numeracy outcomes amongst 18-to-20-year-olds. England (UK-en) is placed in the lower left-hand quadrant, whereby maths scores are below-average in comparison to other countries already by age 15 and remain so following completion of upper secondary education.

Figure 1: Graph showing a positive correlation between standardised maths scores at age 15 and standardised numeracy scores at age 18-20, by country.

Figure 1: Graph showing a positive correlation between standardised maths scores at age 15 and standardised numeracy scores at age 18-20, by country.

Figure 2 looks more specifically at what happens to skills distributions in maths/numeracy (as measured using the Gini index) over the upper secondary educational stage. Whilst the majority of countries included in our analysis are able to close the gap in numeracy during this stage (in some case, quite considerably, e.g., the Czech Republic (CZ) and South Korea (KR)), there is almost no change in the distribution of skills in this area in England, similar to other anglophone countries – Australia (AU), New Zealand (NZ) and the US.

Figure 2: bar chart showing distribution of skills by country at ages 15 and ages 18-20.

Figure 2: bar chart showing distribution of skills by country at ages 15 and ages 18-20.

Beyond looking at cross-national trends in skills levels and inequalities, our research examined how a range of education system characteristics – e.g. curriculum standardisation, ‘parity of esteem’ between academic and vocational tracks, and teachers’ workload and resources – are combined at upper secondary level, to go some way towards explaining why certain types of system are more effective in reducing skills gaps than others during this phase.

A case for curriculum standardisation

We found that relatively integrated systems with a substantial degree of standardisation around the length of programmes and curricula across different programmes (academic and vocational), including with the mandatory learning of maths and the national language, had significant effects in raising numeracy levels and reducing numeracy inequality.

These findings reinforce those of an earlier study by Green and Pensiero (2018), which found that having compulsory Maths and the national language study throughout upper secondary systems was associated with significant improvements in country rankings in skills between age 15 and 27, with rank positions rising by 1.5 places in numeracy (p<.05) and 1.8 (p<0.1) places in literacy. The proportion of students in upper secondary education studying maths (with data taken from Hodgen et al, 2010) also had a significantly effects (P<0.1), increasing country rank positions by 0.64 in literacy and 0.69 in numeracy.

On this basis, we argue that upper secondary education systems might be able to counteract skills gaps by implementing greater curriculum standardisation across programmes in key areas relating to core skills learning – especially if that spans academic and vocational programmes. Nonetheless, we also found that high teacher workloads were also associated with increasing inequalities in core skills, lending further emphasis to the necessity to recruit and retain greater numbers of teaching staff if post-16 compulsory Maths is to be achievable to any meaningful degree, and to the benefit of all learners.

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