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The National (Scotland)
The National (Scotland)
Craig Meighan

Rishi Sunak’s maths plan ‘does not fit Scots’ direction of travel’

THE head of a Scottish secondary school has rejected the idea of Scotland following Rishi Sunak’s plan to make maths compulsory for all pupils in England until age 18.

Billy Burke, a former maths teacher and head of Renfrew High School, said the policy announced on Wednesday by the Prime Minister runs counter to the direction of Scotland’s education policy.

The teacher, who has previously formed an expert panel advising the Scottish Government on educational reforms, said there was no evidence such a policy would work.

He said there was a greater problem with the mindset around maths in society that needed to be tackled first.

“For me, the issue around maths in Scotland is about the attitude towards learning, the confidence and the anxiety around it,” he told the Sunday National.

“I think the issue that the UK Government, with English education policy, is trying to address is that they want a more numerate workforce.

“But one of the issues with forcing people to study maths is that I don’t think there is any evidence that doing that will increase attainment – and it will certainly not increase motivation.”

Burke said the “top-down” policy would go against the Scottish Government’s aims to empower young people to have a say in their education.

He said: “It certainly doesn’t fit with Scottish education policy because we’re signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to have a say in the things that matter to them in their education.

“We’re about empowerment. We want people to have a say in their education and have autonomy. So the direction of travel in Scotland is the complete opposite to this.

“We’ve tried to move away from top-down policy whether a politician or civil servant decides on a Sunday night what the next thing is going to be and it lands on a school on a Monday morning.”

The headteacher said compulsion was not the “right way” to achieve the UK Government’s aims, urging leaders to look towards how maths is learned and how it is presented in schools.

“We want to tackle that mindset that some people feel that it is not for them,” he said.

“So we shouldn’t be looking at 18-year-olds – we should be looking at early years through primary school.

“If kids can emerge from primary school feeling that maths is something they can do just the same as English, they have more of a chance of attaining better.”

John Winter, a former maths teacher of 18 years and a teaching fellow at Strathclyde University, said one of the strategies schools have employed to increase numeracy has been the introduction of the Applications of Mathematics course.

The qualification, previously called Lifeskills Mathematics, allows pupils who struggle with the subject to gain practical skills as well as a National 5 or Higher recognised by universities.

He told the Sunday National: “In Scotland, we have two different pathways in maths when you get to the examination level, and that was deliberate because a lot of people find that actual mathematics – trigonometry, calculus and stuff like that – really difficult.

“Applications of Mathematics is basically maths without all the hard stuff that folk do not like. It is very practical. So that is in place already in Scotland – but it is not compulsory.”

Winter said that while he was supportive of any move that would see maths take a greater role in pupils’ lives, there was some concern over the level of teachers needed to make it compulsory.

He also warned that it could mean cuts to other classes.

“Now, I am a maths teacher and I am in favour of anything that promotes mathematics,” he said.

“But the practicalities of it would be if it is compulsory are there enough people to teach it?

“So my practical head, when I heard that news, thought that could be difficult for teachers and we could have a lot of reluctant children in our class but overall I am all for it.

“However, as I said, in Scotland, there is a path for people to follow a more practical and real-life course than mathematics, so I do not think there is a real need to force the issue.”

Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said: “Under Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), all teachers have responsibility for promoting the development of numeracy. This recognises the place of maths and numeracy in life, learning and work and provides the foundation and gateway for those who wish to continue STEM subjects at the senior school phase and beyond. We have no plans to change this.

“In their independent review, the OECD was crystal clear that CfE, which has a flexible framework, is the right approach for Scotland and one that is viewed internationally as an inspiring example of curriculum practice and has expanded opportunities for learners to thrive.”

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