National Numeracy Day — [Dame Maria Miller in the Chair]

Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 2:54 pm on 18 May 2023.

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[Dame Maria Miller in the Chair]

[Relevant documents: Third Report of the Education Committee, The future of post-16 qualifications, HC 55; Oral evidence taken before the Education Committee on 7 February 2023, on Government proposals for compulsory maths to age 18, HC 1059; Correspondence from the Education Committee to the Secretary of State for Education, on the extension of maths provision up to 18, reported to the House on 28 February 2023; Correspondence from the Education Committee to Ofqual on Government proposals for compulsory maths to age 18, reported to the House on 18 April 2023.]

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East 3:00, 18 May 2023

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered National Numeracy Day.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I declare an interest as a graduate in physics and maths. I have had a particular interest in this subject for a long time; indeed, I have three maths A-levels.

Yesterday was the 11th anniversary of National Numeracy Day—a day earmarked for the championing of everyday maths. We learn various different aspects of maths at school, but it is important to remember that the purpose of maths is to inspire everyone, at whatever age and from whatever gender or socioeconomic background, to possess the confidence and skills to competently understand numbers and be able to apply them in our day-to-day lives. We do not use trigonometry or Pythagoras’ theorem when doing the weekly food shop, but basic numeracy crops up all the time. When writing this speech, for instance, I had to estimate how long to speak for to keep my colleagues interested and not allow them to doze off for too long.

Numeracy is the ability to apply numbers in everyday life, solve problems, make informed decisions and seize the opportunities that are presented as a result. National Numeracy is an independent charity. It was initially funded by one of the big four multinational professional services networks, namely KPMG. Since launching, it has attracted a growing number of organisations that recognise the importance of improving the nation’s numeracy. Since 2012, through National Numeracy Day the charity has helped over 2.7 million people unlock new levels of potential, be that in school, work or their personal lives. One of the concerns is about the number of people who leave school without basic numeracy capabilities.

It is not until we really think about it that we realise how prominent mathematics is in our day-to-day activities. It is crucial for developing logical thinking and for reasoning strategies. I will give a few examples of where mathematics come in. Financially, it is important to have the appropriate skills to understand our payslips, calculate mortgage rates or rental payments, account for bills or any other outgoings, pay for items either through cash or card, and make sure we are not being ripped off. Practically, we use maths to negotiate journey times, plan the food shop, use cooking recipes, read the time and relate distances for travel. Recreationally, we might use the skills in music, when playing sport, to set time limits on phones or even with driving. It is prominent everywhere, and we must understand that maths is vital.

For those who significantly struggle with numeracy or who lack confidence, it is extremely difficult to get through the basic tasks we undertake daily. Research has shown that people who have low maths skills are increasingly vulnerable to debt, fraud, financial exclusion and unemployment. In 2020 it was estimated that more than two thirds of unemployed adults possessed extremely low numeracy skills. This is a consequence of not acquiring the skills in school or early life.

As a nation, we are often regarded as one of the richest and most powerful countries globally. Despite this stature, our numeracy levels are significantly below the average for developed countries, ranking just 21st in the widely-recognised Survey of Adult Skills. The consequence is a cost to the UK economy of millions of pounds—in unemployment, poor health and treatment costs—as well as a widening of the skills gap between those who are highly skilled and those who are not. To give an idea of how much it is costing, Pro Bono Economics recently commissioned data estimating that up to £25 billion is lost in earnings each year owing entirely to low numeracy skills.

Across the UK, low confidence and competence when dealing with numbers disproportionately affects disadvantaged communities, with deprivation of numeracy skills traditionally being passed on from one generation to another. It is even more important, therefore, that those people have access to easy, supportive and free recourses to help to improve such struggles, and prevent future generations from adopting those anxieties. Staggeringly, half of working-age adults in this country—more than 16 million people—have numerical skills equivalent to those of a primary-school leaver. That has led to more than half of young adults admitting that they have avoided a particular job, interview or qualification, thereby hindering their full potential, because they feared that it would involve using mathematics when they had no confidence in doing so.

There is also a distinct gender gap with regard to number confidence. Women are significantly less confident than men when self-assessing their numeracy skills—so much so that they feel twice as anxious about maths, and consequently are disproportionately affected by negative experiences with maths at school. Unless we encourage young women to take up maths and develop those skills, we will never close the gender pay gap, which we all wish to see removed.

Children are undeniably far more impressionable than adults. The very make-up of those whippersnappers’ brains allows them to absorb information faster and much more efficiently. It is therefore of the utmost importance that nurseries, schools and education centres are taking the opportunity to equip our youth with the skills necessary to possess numerical competence and confidence. Teachers and learning assistants undergo vast training to get to their positions. They are advised on the syllabus and learning techniques that are required to educate, and hopefully have an in-depth knowledge of the subject. It is clearly far better to have those experts teach our children, so that the information they learn is accurate, rather than struggling to teach themselves at a much later stage, with a risk of misunderstanding and not being corrected. If a child does not have a good teacher, they often have to rely on their parents. If the parents are averse to maths, that can cause a challenging intergenerational cycle.

If children are taught how to competently negotiate bus timetables, money and other numerical skills, interfrastically it prepares them for life. It is essential that they are taught such skills as youngsters to ensure that they do not lack the understanding once they have reached adulthood, and therefore are able to gain greater independence. When stripped of such skills, people are immediately dependent on others and have to rely on the honesty of others, subjecting them, sadly, to a high possibility of being taken advantage of. In many cases, people doing a big shop do not know whether the bill they are being charged is correct, because they are unable to add up in their heads the rough cost of what they are buying as they go. Only when they get to the till do they realise. Even then, they may not pay the right amount, so there is a real challenge to everyday life.

I am very pleased that earlier this year the Prime Minister announced his ambition that all school pupils in England will have to study some form of mathematics until the age of 18. That does not mean that they will have to study in detail the sort of things that would be studied for A-levels and at degree level, but it does mean that basic mathematics will be understood by someone leaving secondary school. Some believe that that will have inconsequential results, but it will drastically increase the UK’s productivity and give stronger emphasis to the huge importance of possessing competent numerical skills. It will also equip school-leavers with a quantitative and statistical intellect, which is needed for many of today’s jobs and those of the future. For example, we have heard today of different companies requiring artificial intelligence and reducing the number of people involved. Well, if people have high mathematical skills, that will mean they will be able to do the higher-skilled jobs required in the future.

I am encouraged that the Government have recognised the impact of the pandemic on education and responded by establishing a national tutoring programme, investing over £1 billion to bring children’s education up to speed. By 2024, over 6 million tutoring packages will have been delivered to support struggling children. That is an important provision to come out of the pandemic, because if children have not been in classrooms, it has been quite a challenge for teachers to teach them these skills, and recovering from that position is all-important.

Many people only realise when they reach adulthood the impact of their lagging numeracy. I reiterate: it is by no means too late to improve, and it should not be something to be embarrassed about, ignored or avoided at all costs—far from it. We need to normalise later learning and asking for help, because doing so will open so many doors. People who face a challenge in getting back into the employment market can acquire these skills and therefore acquire a better job with better rates of pay. More than 9 million people in the UK rate their numeracy as low and 86% say that their financial knowledge is also minimal. Surely that emphasises the need for more later learning in such matters. This is a case of getting not just schoolchildren to catch up but also adults who may have been failed in the past.

National Numeracy hosts a vast range of programmes, initiatives and campaigns to help adults to take the leap and improve their numeracy in a bite-sized and approachable way. Thousands of testimonies tell us that the programmes have boosted people’s confidence and drastically reduced the anxiety that surrounds mathematics for many people. The charity has found that the most influential way to support adults is to help them first to understand the value of numeracy in their lives, which is clearly important, and then to help them to experience quick success, which builds their belief in their ability and capability to use mathematics.

This Government, who I am proud to support, are a great champion of lifelong learning, and are investing £560 million in the Multiply programme to give thousands of adults the opportunity to gain employer-valued maths qualifications, and to improve their skills through Multiply’s easy-to-use and accessible digital platform.

As I come to the end of my speech, I thank my colleagues for attending. I look forward to hearing others’ remarks—if not from the Back Benches, from the various party spokesmen and indeed from the Minister for Schools, my right hon. Friend Nick Gibb. I hope that, if nothing else, this debate can inspire a few people to make a conscious effort to improve their numeracy skills and in turn unlock an unlimited number of new opportunities.

On National Numeracy Day, we aim to break the taboo that maths is scary, not cool or impossible. Indeed, maths is the gateway to many amazing opportunities. The National Numeracy campaign, the Government, local schools and Protect Pure Maths are always available to offer help and support. The message to people out there is: be sure to get in touch; if you fear your maths skills are not up to speed, look for opportunities to improve your capability, gain confidence, gain new abilities and, if nothing else, improve your basic skills.

Finally, I thank all those at National Numeracy who made yesterday such a success and wish the charity all the best for the rest of the events it is hosting throughout May.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe) 3:14, 18 May 2023

It is my pleasure, Dame Maria, to contribute to this debate. Like Bob Blackman, I am a physics and a wee bit of maths graduate. A long, long time ago, I qualified as a physics and maths teacher, although I sometimes say that it is so long ago that I have forgotten half the physics I learned and Stephen Hawking proved that the other half was wrong.

As the hon. Gentleman said, we use numbers every day of our lives, very often without realising it, but a lot of people are scared of them—sometimes, too scared to even try to get over their fears. People go through their entire lives avoiding particular occasions that might show them up or make them think they look silly because their basic numeracy skills are not as good as they would like them to be. For people of my age, some of it is to do with bad experiences at school. Certainly when I went to school, teachers had a habit of humiliating any pupil who was struggling with any part of their work. Thankfully, that does not happen now.

When I go into the schools in my constituency, I am very encouraged by how supportive and patient teachers and other school staff are with pupils who, in my day, would just have been left behind. I am also amazed when I look at some of the techniques that are used now, particularly with children at a very young age, to get them speaking numbers in pretty much the same way as they learn to speak their native language without really understanding how the grammar works. The contribution that is being made by teachers at every stage of education in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom is making a big difference in helping young people to learn essential skills, and there is no doubt that numeracy is one of the most essential.

Not only am I a graduate in two very numerical disciplines, but I was lucky enough to be absolutely fascinated by numbers when I was a wee boy; I could not get enough of them. That, plus the fact that I was probably one of a small minority of children at the time for whom the education system was well suited, meant that I did very well. I sailed through my maths exams at school. I used to do maths Higher papers for fun, to relax after I had spent an evening studying for my other exams.

Sometime towards the end of my first year at Glasgow University, the maths caught up with me and I clawed my way along by my fingertips for the remainder of my degree, but because I still love playing with numbers, it makes it genuinely difficult for me to get the concept that people find numbers scary. There is no doubt that an awful lot of people do. If we could get an honest assessment of 650 MPs, we would probably find that most of them, or certainly a significant number, will try to avoid doing anything with too many numbers in it, or they will get someone in their office to do the number part of a briefing or a speech they are preparing.

On National Numeracy Day, the Deputy Prime Minister did not know how many years the SNP had been in Government in the Scottish Parliament. It may simply be that he had forgotten the year we first got elected, and mistook it for the much more recent coming to power of the Conservatives, but it was an interesting—although I suppose light-hearted—way to mark such an important day.

I have heard people say that they have never tried a sudoku puzzle because they are no good at maths. A sudoku puzzle has numbers in it, but there is nothing mathematical about it. We could put in letters, shapes or wee dogs of nine different kinds, and the puzzle would be exactly the same; there is something about seeing a lot of numbers or an array of numbers that puts people off. The more we try to understand what does that to people, the quicker we can help them set aside their fears and get familiar with numbers, in the same way as when we find out what makes people scared of other languages when they get to certain age, we may be able to change the fact that the UK as a whole is shamefully bad at second, third and fourth languages. Children who are brought up bilingual become expert linguists when they are a wee bit older, so there may be something to think about there.

I mentioned sudoku puzzles, but basic skills in numeracy are not just important to be able to do puzzles—in the sudoku puzzles, they are not important at all. Numeracy is an essential skill for everyone to be able to look out for themselves. As the hon. Member for Harrow East said, it is important for understanding the strengths and weaknesses of different financing offers, such as mortgages or bank loans. We had to bring in regulations about how the annual percentage rate is calculated in order to standardise it across the whole industry and make it a requirement to be brought to the attention of any customer before they sign on the dotted line, because the sales reps—the conmen and women—were presenting numbers in a very misleading way, knowing that a significant number of their victims, or customers, would not spot what they were up to.

Even a lot of people who think they are numerate do not understand what happens when different probabilities are combined. That can make someone who spends their time at the bookies or online gambling an easy target. A lot of people, for example, think that if they are being offered 10 lottery tickets per pound, it is better odds than one lottery ticket per pound, but if everybody gets 10 tickets and there is the same amount of prize money, their chances are exactly the same. People are encouraged to gamble more because the chances of success are made to look much better than they are.

We need people to be more numerate so that they can avoid being taken in when politicians use numbers to try to completely deceive them. There is a well-known saying: “Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.” Clearly, nobody present would ever think to do this, but every single time I go into the main Chamber I will hear a politician deliberately using numbers and statistics in such a way that will cause people to believe something that is not true. Technically that is not lying, but it is still deceitful. We could do with losing it entirely from our public life, but we could also prevent it from being successful by helping people understand what different combinations of numbers and percentages mean.

I am sad to say that the first example I can find comes from the late, much-lamented Margo MacDonald, an absolute stalwart of the SNP. The first time I was old enough to vote was in 1979, and I was swithering between the SNP and the Labour party, which is what my dad, grandad and great-grandad had always gone for. In a party political broadcast a few days before the election, Margo MacDonald was tearing into the record of the Labour Government on inflation. I think she said that over a five-year period prices had gone up by 50%, meaning that the pound in the pocket was worth only 50p compared with five years previously. But that was not true. As an 18-year-old first-year student at the University of Glasgow, I knew that, and I suspect I would have known it when I was 10 or 11. It did dent my confidence in the SNP of those days that it had been able to put that into a party political broadcast and nobody had picked up on it.

More importantly, a few years ago, we had a really serious issue with the marking and awarding of results in Scotland’s exams during lockdown. Students could not have exams, so all results had to be based on the school’s predictions and assessments of how pupils were likely to have done. That is never going to be a fail-safe system. Education Scotland wanted to have a pass rate that was about the same as usual, because universities would not have bought it if everybody had passed, so it had to come up with some way of amending the figures. That meant that it was very difficult to explain why some people had passed and some had failed.

One of the things that got me was that the teachers understandably spoke up on behalf of their pupils, saying things like, “We filled in the assessments, and our prediction was that everybody in the class would pass.” But that is not what they had done. They had considered each individual pupil in the class and said, “I think the probability is that that child will pass.” However, if we add a lot of individual high probabilities, we can end up with a very low probability. For example—I checked this just before I started speaking—we could say that an individual pupil is 90% likely to pass an exam. However, if there is a class of seven pupils, each of whom is 90% likely to pass, the probability that all seven will pass is less than 50%. With a class of 30, it is almost certain that they would not all pass. There is no way of predicting which one will and which one will not—and that is assuming that the 90% estimate is anything other than a guess.

Numeracy is also about interpreting what numbers mean, rather than simply being able to play with them. It is about being able to spot when people are using numbers to put a precision and reliability on a piece of information that does not really deserve it. I do not like it when numbers are applied to something that should be assessed by way of a judgment. We can say that we think that someone will pass their exam or driving test, but putting a number to it makes it look like a hard, scientific fact, because that is what we usually use numbers for. We have to make sure that people are able to tell the difference between numbers that are used in the right context, correctly and accurately, and numbers that are misused, as they all too often are, in a way that is designed to con people.

I have a number of times had to look into investment-type scams that have caught out my constituents. In the information that is sent out to people in order to reel them in, at some point there is usually something that somebody with high numeracy skills would have spotted, so they would have known there was a catch to the guaranteed investment scheme, guaranteed pension scheme or whatever it is. The scams are deliberately worded in such a way as to prevent the vast majority of people from spotting where the catch is.

That leads me to the need for much better financial education. I heard today at the Public Accounts Committee that about 25% of young people leaving school think they are financially educated to the extent that they need to be to survive in today’s financial world. Everybody here knows this, but let me say for the record that 25% is not enough.

I am looking at the number on the clock that tells me how long I have been speaking, and at the faces of Members who are probably thinking that it has been more than long enough, so I will draw my remarks to a close. Numbers are important, but sometimes they do not tell the whole story. The number of Members here today is not a measure of how important our colleagues think adequate numeracy is. It really is an essential skill. I cannot speak for England, but in Scotland we have certainly made a lot of progress in improving numeracy skills, particularly of vulnerable young people and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. That said, we have to go much further.

Photo of Stephen Morgan Stephen Morgan Shadow Minister (Defence) (Armed Forces and Defence Procurement), Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 3:25, 18 May 2023

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Dame Maria. I thank Bob Blackman for opening the debate. It is a pleasure to be speaking about National Numeracy Day, even if it is a day after it. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to call it National Numeracy Day plus one.

I pay tribute to all the maths teachers, tutors and numeracy charities across the country. Maths can be a trickier subject than others for some people, but the hard work of teachers, teaching assistants, tutors, parents and volunteers goes such a long way in educating our nation’s children and improving their numeracy skills.

The hon. Gentleman made a number of helpful contributions. He is clearly very qualified to do so, given his three A-levels in maths. I note that the Minister jotted that down; perhaps he will encourage the hon. Gentleman to take up a career in maths teaching one day. I thank him again for securing this debate.

As we have heard, the importance of numeracy cannot be overstated. The skills that we learn in maths classrooms last us a lifetime, and we use them every day. As the hon. Gentleman said, whether it is dividing up a bill at a restaurant, working out which supermarket deal offers the best value or figuring out how many days it is until the weekend, we all use maths every day. However, according to the National Numeracy charity—the organisation behind National Numeracy Day, as the hon. Gentleman said—nearly half the UK’s working population have the numeracy levels expected of an 11-year-old child. Only a fifth are functionally numerate, measured as the equivalent of a GCSE grade 4 or above. As a result, the UK sits in the bottom half of the OECD numeracy skills rankings.

Although people sometimes make light of the fact that they are bad at maths, it really should not be a laughing matter. Poor numeracy skills impact people’s lives in a real way. They can impact personal finances too, and leave people more susceptible to fraud and amassing debt. Skills learned in school are later needed when it comes to valuing a mortgage deal, planning credit payments, taking out loans or saving for retirement. As the hon. Gentleman said, National Numeracy estimates that poor numeracy costs the economy up to £20 billion per year, as a widespread lack of confidence with numbers contributes to sluggish productivity.

These problems clearly require urgent attention, but they are not fixed by gimmicks, pledges or empty rhetoric. In 2011, the then Education Secretary, Michael Gove, said that he would like to see the vast majority of pupils in England study maths to the age of 18 within a decade. Of course, the Prime Minister has reheated that pledge in recent months, but he is yet to explain how he expects to deliver it given that the Government have failed to meet their maths teacher recruitment target every year for the past decade, leading to a total shortfall of more than 5,000 teachers.

Despite the Prime Minister’s words, the problem is not getting any better. Last year, more teachers left our schools than joined initial teacher training courses. Under the Conservatives, teacher vacancies have risen by 246%. The Government’s failure to recruit and retain teachers has left schools scrambling to fill roles and asking non-specialist teachers to go above and beyond. Recent Labour party analysis found that one in 10 maths lessons in the past year were taught by non-expert teachers, meaning that high standards are currently for some of our children but not all. Ministers have also quietly shelved plans for the £100 million digital aspect of Multiply. It was supposed to be launched last year and was previously described by the Department as a “critical pillar” in the plan to boost maths skills, and as the “centrepiece” of the Prime Minister’s push to improve adult numeracy, but according to recent reports, it has been put on hold. It remains unclear whether the £100 million earmarked for the scheme will be used for other numeracy initiatives or whether the money will go back to the Treasury.

The Government’s levelling-up White Paper set

“a new national mission to ensure that 90% of children leaving primary school in England are reaching the expected standard in reading, writing, and maths by 2030.”

But in 2022, 41% of year 6 pupils in England left primary school without meeting the expected standard. That is 50,000 more children than 2019. We are moving backwards. The figures are even worse for children on free school meals, fewer than half of whom are meeting expected standards by the end of primary school. The same is true of secondary school, where the attainment gap is now wider than at any point in the last decade.

The Government will claim that those gaps are due to the pandemic, but the gap was widening before covid and has worsened since. Last week, the Education Policy Institute reported that primary school children are still struggling to catch up on maths in the wake of covid, with children aged four to 11

“five weeks behind their expectations prior to the outbreak more than three years ago.”

We should not forget that during the pandemic, the then Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), said that he had “maxed out” funding for children. The hugely damaging impact of the Prime Minister’s inaction on children’s learning of maths—his alleged priority—is only beginning to become clear.

In the debate, all Members have said that improving numeracy for children and adults is extremely important. The first step to addressing the problem is ensuring that children are taught the subject properly. That means being taught by experts, not overstretched teachers covering for their colleagues. That is why Labour is committed to ensuring that pupils are taught by specialist teachers in each subject, including maths. We will do this by recruiting thousands of new teachers across the country, ensuring that schools are not understaffed, that maths is not being taught by English teachers and vice versa, and that teachers are not burnt out from both doing their own job and covering someone else’s. Once in schools, we will also support teachers by entitling them to ongoing teacher training, providing them with the skills and knowledge to thrive—the skills that teachers tell us they need to develop their professional expertise in their chosen area—and ensure that every young person has a teacher with the expertise and time to teach with confidence and care.

Labour will also look at the curriculum and what young people are learning as a whole to ensure we are equipping them with the knowledge and skills they need to thrive in the world and in the workplace of the future. Under Labour, young people will learn practical life skills such as pension planning, understanding credit scores, applying for a mortgage and understanding employment and rental contracts. We want to see young people succeed academically and in life. Central to that is developing literacy and numeracy skills. We will support them to be ambitious, creative and confident young people, who enjoy music, arts, sports and culture. We will also support them to be great communicators, collaborators and problem solvers and to be happy and successful.

Labour will deliver an excellent education for every child in every school in every part of the country. In doing so, we will drive up standards in all areas, including numeracy, and support all children to fulfil their ambitions. As we have heard, the importance of numeracy to children’s future life chances is simply too crucial to not be addressed with immediacy. I therefore hope the Minister will outline what his Department is doing to recruit its target number of maths teachers for the first time in a decade and to retain the brilliant maths teachers already in the profession, ensuring that our children are taught by subject specialists.

Can the Minister update the House on his Department’s plans for the digital platform Multiply, which was set to be launched last year? It was previously described by the Department as a crucial pillar in the plan to boost numeracy skills, but according to recent reports has been put on hold. In his response, it would be helpful if he could specifically update us on whether the £100 million earmarked for the platform will be used for other numeracy-focused projects. I look forward to the Minister’s response, and I thank all colleagues for their contributions to this important debate.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education) 3:35, 18 May 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Maria. I congratulate my hon. Friend Bob Blackman on his opening speech, celebrating National Numeracy Day, which, as everyone has pointed out, was actually yesterday. I guess someone miscalculated. My hon. Friend was worried about the length of his speech; it was absolutely the right length, and kept us all interested. None of us who were listening nodded off.

I pay tribute to Peter Grant for his excellent speech, which revealed his clear understanding of maths in general, and statistics in particular. There was a 50% probability that I was not going to like his speech, but it turned out I 100% liked it. I congratulate him on his contribution.

Maths is crucial. We use it every day, whether at work, managing households, or understanding loans and credit. Without a solid foundation in the subject, young people risk being shut out of the careers to which they aspire, and the life they want to lead. Adults with poor numeracy are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as those with competent numeracy at age 30. That is why the Prime Minister announced last month new details of how we will transform our national approach to maths. We will change the way the system works so that everyone will study some form of maths up to 18.

Quality maths education must be built on foundations laid throughout schooling, starting in primary school. The subject is an important part of a knowledge-rich curriculum, giving pupils fluency in key concepts so that they can explore more complex mathematics in secondary school and beyond. That is why we have undertaken fundamental reforms to strengthen maths teaching over the last decade.

Since 2010, the Government have made great strides in improving maths performance across all ages. The way the subject is taught has been transformed in schools, based on the best available international evidence. That includes learning from the approach used by the countries that perform the highest in maths. We reformed the national curriculum teaching methods and the use of textbooks in order to raise standards. More than half of England’s primary schools have now adopted the mastery-based pedagogy from south-east Asia. Teaching for mastery has been supported by 40 beacon schools that demonstrate exemplary teaching, known as maths hubs, as well as by the National Centre for Excellence in Teaching Mathematics.

Mastery pedagogy encourages fluent recall of number facts, and promotes efficient written methods, as well as a whole-class teaching approach with the objective that no pupil is left behind. In mastery teaching, as in top-performing jurisdictions such as Singapore and Shanghai, significant time is spent developing a deep understanding before moving on to the next part of the curriculum sequence—teaching the components of calculation, step by step. That approach to teaching has shown that wide attainment in the subject is possible. In the 2019 trends in international mathematics and science study survey, year 5 pupils in England achieved their highest ever mathematics score of 556, which improved significantly on 546 in 2015.

To complement evidence-based approaches to maths teaching, the Government introduced more challenging assessments at both primary and secondary levels. That included the multiplication tables check in year 4, which was made statutory in 2021. For pupils who took the check, the mean average score was 19.8 correct answers out of 25, with 27% of pupils achieving full marks. The Government also introduced new key stage 2 maths tests, and reformed GCSEs and A-levels. Those assessments ensure that children master the basics of mathematics before tackling more demanding content, and match the standards set in the highest performing countries and jurisdictions around the world.

The improvement in maths attainment was seen in England’s 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment results, which were our highest ever for 15-year-olds. PISA assesses the performance of 15-year-olds in reading, maths and science in approximately 80 countries. In terms of international league tables for maths, the UK was 28th in PISA 2009 and moved up to 18th place in PISA 2018.

Last month, the Secretary of State announced plans to expand the maths hubs programme so that more children can benefit from those proven teaching methods. By 2025, the proportion of schools supported by teaching for mastery will expand to 75% of primary schools and 65% of secondary schools. Maths hubs’ intensive support will aim to reach the schools that need it most, and they will also deliver an expansion of the mastering number programme, which helps children in the first years of primary school to master the basics of arithmetic, such as number bonds and times tables. The programme will reach over 8,000 schools by 2024, and we will also expand it to years 4 and 5 in order to bolster those cohorts’ fluency in times tables.

Last month’s announcement also included further support for teachers of 16 to 19-year-olds who are resitting their mathematics GCSE or functional skills qualification. We know that teaching for mastery also works for this age group, because an evaluation showed that GCSE resit students taught by teachers in the full mastery intervention made one month of additional progress in maths compared with other students. Tellingly, students from disadvantaged backgrounds made even greater progress, averaging two months’ additional progress compared with other students. Since 2014, 16 to 19-year-olds without maths GCSE grade 4 or above have been required to continue studying maths, and more students than ever are now achieving that important benchmark. In 2021-22, 80.3% of 19-year-olds achieved grade 4 or equivalent in maths—the highest level on record.

Enhancing pupils’ mathematics requires us to fully support those capable of the highest attainment in the subject, and since 2018 we have funded the advanced mathematics support programme to increase participation in core mathematics, AS and A-level mathematics, and further maths. My hon. Friend has A-levels in maths and further maths: I am trying to work out what the third one is, but perhaps he can tell me.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

Of course.

The advanced mathematics support programme also supports improved teaching of level 3 maths qualifications. Additional targeted support is offered in areas of low social mobility and low participation in level 3 maths, to increase opportunities for all students to study the subject beyond the age of 16. Since the programme began, it has reached 86% of state-funded schools and colleges in England, with over 3,000 participating in at least one form of its maths support.

Our reforms and interventions have shown that no pupil’s maths destiny is fixed, as targeted support and proven teaching methods can dramatically improve attainment. To build on our progress, we have announced a fully funded national professional qualification for primary school maths leaders, to improve pupil outcomes still further. That will include instruction in how to train other teachers in maths mastery pedagogy, and we expect it to be available to all primary schools from February next year. We will update the targeted support fund for the 2023-24 year to provide additional funding and incentivise uptake by teachers.

A good understanding of maths has significant benefits for young people’s economic prospects, as has been discussed in this short debate, and a mathematically literate population is essential for a strong economy, as I know my hon. Friend will agree. We are one of the few countries in the OECD where young people do not routinely study some form of maths until the age of 18. The Prime Minister recently confirmed his ambition for all young people to study maths until the age of 18, which will equip them with the knowledge they need to succeed, whatever their chosen career. Indeed, he announced the policy at the London Screen Academy, which is where young people over the age of 16 are taught to make movies. If we get this right, it will deliver a transformative change for our economy and society.

The maths to 18 expert advisory group has now been established to guide the next stages of our thinking. It will consider both the maths needed by the changing employment market and the most effective way that this can be taught. To support those aims, the Government will commission research on post-16 maths provision around the world, so that our curriculum can rival those of the best-performing countries. Additionally, the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education will work with employers to review the maths content in apprenticeships. I look forward to hearing the group’s conclusions on how we can enhance young people’s maths knowledge before they start work and make Britain more globally competitive.

Teachers already work tirelessly to deliver high-quality maths education. Rolling out maths to a substantially larger post-16 cohort will require a greater workforce, trained and equipped to teach young people the maths skills that they need, and we will work closely with schools and colleges to do that sustainably. We are already expanding the Taking Teaching Further programme, delivering funding for further education colleges to recruit and offer early career support to those with relevant knowledge and industry experience to retrain as FE teachers, and we will launch a financial incentive pilot this year for up to 355 teachers that will be targeted at some of the hardest to fill subjects, including maths.

We know it is not enough to bolster the abilities of the up-and-coming workforce: as has been pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East, some 8 million adults in England have maths skills below those expected of a nine-year-old. We announced the Multiply adult numeracy programme in 2021, which is the first priority of the UK shared prosperity fund, the Government’s flagship fund for supporting people and places. That programme teaches adults maths that they can use in everyday life, and can support them to attain a formal qualification, such as functional skills or the GCSE. Some 81 local areas in England are receiving up to £270 million in funding up to 2024-25, and that programme has already reached over 10,000 people.

Following National Numeracy Day, I would like to restate the Government’s commitment to maths as an essential pillar of children’s education. It enables them to build logical thinking and intellect, while equipping them with practical competency for work and life. The Prime Minister wants to change how we value maths as a country while making a positive difference to people’s lives, their career prospects and the economy, and we hope to build on the advances in school-age teaching in the past decade to ensure that every young person leaves education with the maths they need to succeed in modern life.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East 3:47, 18 May 2023

Thank you, Dame Maria, for presiding over the debate, and I thank colleagues for their contributions. Peter Grant posed a number of questions and highlighted a number of examples of the bad use of maths that, I suspect, would have had many of our colleagues scratching their heads, not quite understanding what he was alluding to. That probably demonstrates why so few of our colleagues have come to speak in today’s debate.

Stephen Morgan reminded me of Douglas Adams, one of my favourite authors who is sadly deceased. Apart from writing “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, he also wrote “The Meaning of Liff”, and one of the great words I always remember from that book is “bodmin”—when a group of friends go out, the bill is presented and everyone puts in what they consider to be their share, there is always a balance left. That is a “bodmin”—the balance that someone has failed to calculate. I thank the hon. Member for his offer of taking up a mathematics tutorship, but I am looking forward to continuing to represent the good citizens of Harrow East for many years to come.

My right hon. Friend the Minister, of course, has relayed exactly what the Government are laying out on numeracy. One of the important points that the Government are taking action on is rolling out a clear programme for young people in schools and beyond, enabling them to acquire those skills. We need to combat the gender gap in maths as well, because at the moment, from bitter experience, young women tend to move away from mathematics in an unfair way. Those who do go into mathematics are highly skilled and brilliant and succeed in life, but we need to get this idea that mathematics is not cool—it is not for them—out of the system in many respects. Equally, I was glad that the Minister relayed some of the actions that the Government are taking to combat the lack of numeracy in older people. That is holding our country back, and we need to ensure that those people who possibly have a great fear of maths and do not want to share that fact get the skills they need, so that they can contribute to our society in a far better way.

Dame Maria, I thank you and others for the debate. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us to have it, and note the fact that we have managed to continue the debate long after the main Chamber has adjourned. That just proves how important mathematics is, not only in today’s society but in the future.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered National Numeracy Day.

Sitting adjourned.