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‘Sunak’s Maths Drive Doesn’t Add Up’

Subjects such as history are surely more useful for further study by teenagers in UK schools than mathematics, writes AC Grayling

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Photo: Reuters/Alamy

Sunak’s Maths Drive Doesn’t Add Up

Subjects such as history are surely more useful for further study by teenagers in UK schools than mathematics, writes AC Grayling

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There are those who think Rishi Sunak’s ‘mathematics to 18’ idea was a dead cat. That is unlikely; anyone with a numerate’s view of the world – accountant, engineer – would, if asked to come up with a bright idea, naturally promote the importance of numeracy, and they would be right. Numeracy is more than a desideratum, it is a necessity in a world that more than ever turns on numbers. 

Numeracy is not the whole of mathematics. Not everyone needs to know tensor analysis, algebraic topology or Lobachevskian geometry. But arithmetic, some algebra and some calculus, are essential. 

In the misty past, the elements of calculus – differentiation and integration – were introduced early, in the ‘O’ Level syllabus; calculus is now not taught in schools until after GCSE. Its importance in a world dominated by computer science, AI and the various fields of engineering is a major motivation for wishing to ensure that school-leavers are equipped with it.

But is this best achieved by making maths mandatory to the age of 18, instead of introducing the desired areas of it by 16? 

The GCSE system was introduced in the late 1980s to unify the two preceding exam systems – ‘O’ Level (taken by the most able 30% of pupils) and what was known as CSE (a school leaving certificate for the rest). Some of the harder parts of the curriculum were simplified to cater for inclusiveness. Delaying calculus to ‘A’ Level maths was one aspect of that. Arguably, that is to go too far in lowering expectations about what pupils can achieve.

Sunak’s uncosted – indeed, perhaps scarcely thought-through – suggestion would require more investment in education. But the same additional investment in enhancing maths not after but before GCSE would better achieve the desired effect, by ensuring everyone has an insight into the maths that runs today’s world while not diminishing the post-GCSE time that students have for concentrating on other academic interests, which would happen if everyone were required to do maths to 18. It would reduce ‘A’ Level choices from the standard three to two, and the subjects lost would be arts and humanities. 

The suspicion that Sunak is a natural-born company accountant who has been over-promoted to CEO – the inevitable way of putting things in our banausic world, in which politics and government, at least Conservative politics and government, seems to have become merely a handmaiden for corporates – is deepened by the lack of imagination his nostrum demonstrates.

Whereas it is obvious that good basic literacy and numeracy are essentials, a broader view of what is conducive to individual flourishing would recognise that people are not just the jobs they do. They are also travellers, neighbours, voters, lovers, parents, hobbyists, friends, enjoyers of entertainment and leisure. “We educate ourselves,” said Aristotle, “so that we can make a noble use of our leisure”. Crucially, they are participants in the general conversation about what matters in society. 

Leaping Over the Lords

AC Grayling

For all this, much more is needed than the minimum skill-set required to be an employee in a tech firm or a financial institution, which seems to be the utmost horizon of ambition that the Sunaks of the world have for our youth.

Education in a mass-production school system is cursory if done on the cheap. This is not the fault of teachers, who are among the most important people on the planet given the effect they can have on whole human lifetimes: we all remember good teachers. Cut-cost mass schooling which gives too little attention to arts and humanities comes nowhere near achieving the genuine article education – so much more than mere training in basic competencies – that would make for a more thoughtful, perceptive and aware populace. 

A telling current example is that if the study of history and literature received greater attention in our education system, I doubt Brexit would have happened. 

What does it mean to say that a country has standing in the world, is a respected player in international affairs, and profits both in invisible and economic ways as a result? It does not mean being a ‘great power’ in terms only of military and economic might.

Rather, it means influence – and not merely the kind that those two conventional forms of power exert agonistically, but social and cultural influence which makes the country admired, gives its citizens a welcome abroad, promotes productive emulation, makes it easier for its diplomats to achieve the country’s ends and businessmen to do business. Others want to visit a notable and admirable country, to study there, and to do business there. Those who study there return home with links established and, in turn, treat it as their first port of call in trade and diplomatic alliances.

A marked example of how this was the case for the UK in the century between the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War is in the details of how it was perceived by our European neighbours (its impact on non-European parts of the world is far more complicated, as a critical examination of imperial history reveals). Typically, there was admiration and emulation. Judge it from the clues and cues – the marks of that past attitude remain highly visible. 

In every major European city, there are grand hotels named after British cities and personalities. Walk along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice on the Cote d’Azur and you pass the Westminster, the West-End, the Royal. In Paris, the George V and the Prince des Galles stand side by side. And as Geneva has a Hotel d’Angleterre, in Vienna the Hotel Bristol looks across the street at the Staatsoper on the Ringstrasse – and indeed ‘Hotel Bristols’ are ubiquitous in Europe: Warsaw, Sorrento, Paris, Berlin, Oslo, Rome, Caen, Trieste, and more. 

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Elias Canetti wrote of how it was his family’s dream – indeed everyone’s dream – to emigrate to Britain to find employment in Manchester and Birmingham and other great centres of industry. 19th Century Paris was full of British residents, and afternoon tea –  ‘le five-o-clock’ – and ‘le weekend’ became fashionable; the social calendar register was known as La Société et le High Life. When the Prussians occupied Paris in 1870, buildings flying the Union Jack were left alone by the invaders. The Times was the world’s newspaper, authoritative and magisterial; London news was global news.

That is what ‘influence’ and ‘standing’ mean in practice. When the UK was one of the big four economies in the EU, it continued to have much of the influence it inherited from its past and exercised it well beyond the EU. Brexit has reduced it to a side-show at best, a joke at worst, in international eyes. 

Our European neighbours look with sadness and pity at the mistake we have made. Our self-harm has therefore not only been economic and not only a matter of empowering the hard Brexit political right with its illiberal agenda transforming a once open, liberal and tolerant society into an unhappy authoritarian one.

It has diminished Britain internationally, restricted us, emphasised the eccentric and unappetising, the insular and arrogant, in our national character, and destroyed the positive image – what one might venture to call the ‘007’ image – that was a hallmark of our outward face (football hooligans aside) in better days. 

If Rishi Sunak had suggested that history and literature should remain compulsory subjects until 18 I personally, on recovering from the surprise, would have applauded the sentiment, though not agreeing with the compulsory bit.

Facility in mathematics is a matter of skill and technique; the intellectual muscles it exercises are different from those required for social, political and philosophical insight. A sufficient degree of the latter would have made us as a nation far more outward-looking and far more appreciative of what is needed for influence and standing in a world where both are at a premium, so that we would not so heedlessly have thrown them away, pauperising ourselves internationally. 

We need maths; but we need history and literature just as much. 

AC Grayling is a philosopher, Master of the New College of the Humanities, and Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne’s College at Oxford University

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