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Rishi Sunak’s maths drive does not add up

The prime minister’s push for numeracy rings hollow as his government persists in ignoring the numbers

Photo: Stefan Rousseau - WPA Pool/Getty Images

There is a supreme irony in the fact that the leader of a government determined to ignore almost every data point relating to its flagship Brexit policy wants the country’s children to be more numerate. 

But this is the hill multimillionaire Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has chosen to fight on as the country buckles under a cost-of-living crisis that has brought swathes of the economy to a standstill as rail workers, nurses, ambulance drivers, post workers and thousands of others strike over pay and conditions. If only they knew how to count their pennies better. 

On Wednesday, in a speech meant to lay out his big picture vision for Britain, Sunak said he wanted all pupils in England to study maths in some form until the age of 18. Listen carefully because beneath the howls of outrage from teenagers emerging tousle-haired from beneath their duvets, you might hear satire draw its sad, final breaths as it takes its leave of a land beyond farce. 

Sunak said: “One of the biggest challenges in mindset we need in education today is to reimagine our approach to numeracy … Right now, just half of all 16 to 19-year-olds study any maths at all. Yet in a world where data is everywhere and statistics underpin every job, letting our children out into that world without those skills, is letting our children down. So, we need to go further. I am now making numeracy a central objective of our education system.”

Data is everywhere? Statistics underpin every job? It seems a little, pardon the pun, rich coming from the leader of a party that gave us Brexit and which seems particularly unskilled in using either data or statistics to identify the costs of this decision. 

Nonetheless, on the basic principle, many would agree that we do need to be more numerate. Most OECD countries, including Australia, Canada, France, Germany and the United States, already require some study of maths until age 18. Downing Street says around 8 million adults in England have the numeracy skills of primary school children. 

Could some of those be in government, one wonders? Perhaps we could widen Sunak’s underwhelming defining “vision” to include members of the Tory party, who, some might say, could “try harder” in mathematics. So, in the words of Big Shaq, here are some quick maths for government ministers. 

This week, the president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said as many as 500 people could be dying each week because of delays to emergency care. Taken over a year, that would add up to 26,000 people. In November, 37,837 patients waited more than 12 hours in A&E for a decision to be admitted to a hospital department, according to figures from NHS England. That’s a rise of almost 355% compared to the previous November. Pretty definitive maths right there. 

Now, if you were to add £350m a week to the NHS budget since we left the European Union, that would give you …. Oh wait, we don’t know because that never happened. But in case you’ve forgotten what was promised back in 2016, a Vote Leave video laying out the simple sums has recently resurfaced on social media.

“Our NHS is at breaking point,” the voiceover intones. “Every week the UK pays £350 million to be part of the EU. That’s £350 million that could build one new hospital every week. £350 million that could be spent supporting our doctors and nurses.”

But it turns out that subtracting that money from the EU did not automatically lead to addition on the other side of the equation. Maths can be sneaky sometimes, something former banker Sunak must know. 

And here are a few more salient recent figures to help Sunak’s team in their quest for numeracy. 

In December, British manufacturers saw one of their sharpest falls in activity since the 2008/09 recession, largely because of a drop in new orders. The S&P Global/CIPS UK manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) fell to 45.3 in December from 46.5 in November, its lowest since May 2009 apart from two months at the start of the pandemic in 2020.

“The main driver of lost export contracts was weak global economic conditions, while there was also mention of Brexit-related issues, such as shipping delays and higher costs, leading some EU clients to source products elsewhere,” S&P Global said.

Sunak’s government is always keen on the concept of relativity when discussing such bad data – because of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, every economy is suffering, they say. The problem is that the numbers show that, in fact, Britain is faring worse than most. 

The Financial Times’ annual poll of leading UK-based economists found that the UK will face one of the worst recessions and weakest recoveries in the G7 in the coming year because of policy failings. That means more pain for households, and the workers out on the picket lines. 

The Centre for European Reform says Brexit may have reduced UK goods trade by around 7% in the second quarter of 2022, meaning economic output is 5.5% smaller than it would otherwise have been. 

Sunak says his maths mission lies at the heart of his political vision. Good to know because we were wondering.

“This is personal for me,” he said on Wednesday. “Every opportunity I’ve had in life began with the education I was so fortunate to receive. And it’s the single most important reason why I came into politics: to give every child the highest possible standard of education.”

This might sound a little more plausible if the speaker had not enjoyed a private school education at the elite Winchester College, where he rose to head boy and to which he and his wife Akshata Murthy, daughter of billionaire Infosys founder NR Narayana Murthy, have donated around £100,000.

It seems that to this prime minister, the answer to every question is maths. One is reminded of his awkward exchange during his visit to a London shelter recently when he asked a homeless man if he would like to get into finance. To which, the man identified as Dean, speaking for us all, said: “Yeah I wouldn’t mind. But, I don’t know, I’d like to get through Christmas first.”

But in the end, basic maths undermines this blatant attempt to retroactively imbue this most unlikely of prime ministers with a political raison d’etre. More maths = more maths classes. More maths classes = more maths teachers. But with a chronic shortage of maths teachers in the country, even an arts graduate like me can see it is simply impossible to balance that equation. 

Labour’s shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, called on Sunak to “show his working”.

“He cannot deliver this reheated, empty pledge without more maths teachers, yet the government has missed their target for new maths teachers year after year, with existing teachers leaving in their droves,” she said.

In any case, Downing Street acknowledges that Sunak’s defining dream may not be realised before the next election, expected in 2024. Which makes one wonder if it is just 3.141 in the sky, or simply another distraction to keep us from figuring out that Tory austerity + Brexit = economic disaster.  

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