The Importance of Maths and English in our Schools and Colleges

Having a strong grounding in maths and English is vital for young people in today’s job market. These subjects act as basic filters for employers. Employers talk of an alarming gap between the literacy and numeracy skills they require and the skills that job applicants possess.

It has long been clear that those with an A level in maths go on to earn 7 to 10% more than similarly educated people without the qualification – in girls there is an even greater contrast with those studying two or more STEM subjects at A level seeing an average boost in their earnings of an incredible 33.1%. Good qualifications in maths and English open the door to a wider variety of careers than would be possible without them. 

It is vital therefore, for those who do not reach the required grade at age 16, that they should continue to study these subjects until they have reached the level of a C or better at GCSE.

Of course this discussion begs the question, how do we ensure that fewer pupils are failing to achieve a C grade in English or maths at GCSE? This is partially what our overhaul of the primary and secondary curriculums is directed at ensuring.

From 2005 to 2010, as Shadow Minister for Schools, I visited hundreds of schools across the country and it became increasingly clear to me that maths and English were not being taught as effectively as the evidence suggested they could. This is not to say that teachers were not hardworking professionals who wanted the very best for their pupils. They were. They were simply being let down by the curriculum and by some of the ideas emanating from university education faculties. At the time it was a curriculum that prioritised inefficient methods in maths with an over-emphasis on concepts such as ‘learning to learn’ and ‘individualised instruction’ at the expense of content, practice and through that, fluency and mastery.

Pupils at primary and secondary schools did not know their times tables. I rarely found long multiplication or long division being taught and where they were taught idiosyncratic methods such as chunking and the grid method were used.

In 2010, nearly 1 in 5 children left primary school unable to read at the expected standard. The OECD Survey of Adult Skills published in 2013 showed that unemployed adults are twice as likely to have a poor level of literacy as those who are in full-time employment and 65% of the prison population have numeracy skills below that of an 11 year old or under with 48% showing the same levels in reading ability.

This has led to the stagnation that is reflected in our international performance in maths and English. The UK is currently positioned at 23rd in reading and 26th in mathematics out of 65 countries that participated in the PISA 2012 study. In maths alone this represents a three year difference between the performances of our 15-year-olds compared to those at the top of the table in Shanghai, and the take up of post-16 maths in England, although improved, is still low compared to other advanced economies.

In the UK, 38% of 19-year-olds left full time education failing to achieve A* - C in English and maths. 

This is why the Government has attached such importance to these subjects, along with other STEM subjects.

The reformed curriculum at secondary level sees maths GCSEs becoming more challenging. They will contain broader and deeper mathematical content which requires more teaching time, greater fluency and deeper understanding. A levels will see the introduction of only a small amount of new content, but, again, with the requirement for deeper understanding.

This will exist alongside the new Core Maths qualifications for those who do achieve a C or better at GCSE but who elect not to go on to A level.

We have already seen these changes start to take shape and this is reflected in the recent GSCE and A level results. Progression from GCSE to A level has increased by 13% since 2010. Maths is now the single most popular A level choice. There has been a rise of 8% in girls taking Maths A level and 10,000 more STEM A level entries for girls, with subjects such as chemistry seeing a 9% rise.

We are learning from the best performing countries. In Shanghai teachers deliver a meticulous approach to teaching maths, focusing on whole class teaching with short but intense 35 minute lessons using a step by step approach to teaching each step of the algorithm. Frequent practice and homework allow pupils to commit rules and understanding to long term memory. We have organised a number of teacher exchanges and those teachers from England have been hugely influenced by what they have seen. This best practice is being taken forward by teachers in the 34 Maths Hubs across the country.

Similarly in English.

The UK only ranked 47th out of 65 OECD countries on a measure of the number of young people who read for enjoyment in PISA 2009. 6 out of 10 teenagers in the UK regularly read for pleasure, compared to levels as high as 90% in countries like China and Thailand. The difference in reading ability between those pupils who never read for enjoyment, and those who read for even half an hour a day, is equivalent to a whole year of schooling at age 15.

In order to address the root cause of these challenges, the effective teaching of reading in our schools is crucial and begins with the process of learning to read at a young age. A substantial body of evidence shows that systematic synthetic phonics is the most effective way to teach all children to read, and that’s why we changed the national curriculum to make the requirements for phonics clearer.

In order to supplement this, the government provided £23.7 million of matched funding to more than 14,000 schools for phonics training and resources. We have also published core criteria for effective phonics programmes and provided the catch up premium, worth £500 per pupil. 

One of the most important developments has been the introduction of the phonics screening check for pupils at the end of year 1 in 2012. The check measures how many of 40 words and non-words pupils can decode successfully and helps to identify who may need further support. In 2012, 58% of pupils taking the check met the national standard. In 2013, it was 69% and by 2015, the proportion of pupils meeting the standard had risen to 77%: equivalent to 120,000 more 6-year-old children on track to read more effectively in just 3 years.

New GCSEs in English Literature will now require pupils to read and understand a wide range of classic literature, including Shakespeare, the Romantic poets and 19th century novels. In total, pupils will have studied at least three Shakespeare plays by the time they have completed key stages 3 and 4. GCSE English Language will also draw on a wide range of high quality books and greater weight will be placed on a pupil’s demonstration of accurate spelling, punctuation and grammar.

Since 2014, all 16-19 year olds who don’t hold a GCSE at grade A* - C in English and maths have been required to continue their study of these subjects. This is a condition of funding for post-16 institutions.

The conditions have been revised as of this August so that full time 16-19 year old students with a grade D or below must study towards a GCSE rather than previously accepted ‘stepping stone’ qualifications. This condition of funding works. This year there were 4000 more 17+ GCSE passes in English and 7500 more such passes in maths.

Teacher recruitment in maths has been historically challenging and so, to tackle this, the Government has pledged up to £67 million to improve the skills of 15,000 existing non-specialist teachers, and to recruit an additional 2,500 specialist maths and physics teachers over this Parliament.

Higher bursaries are also available to trainees in the subjects where it is hardest to recruit teachers. This will equate to a bursary of £25,000 for those with a first class or 2.1 degree who train to teach maths. We are also making additional funding available to maths trainees on the School Direct salaried route and have introduced a £9,000 bursary for final year undergraduate maths and physics students on opt-in courses that lead to qualified teacher status.

Securing sufficient numbers of teachers is challenging but we allocate all requests for ITT places in maths and physics and have established the Chairs in Maths and Physics, and Researchers in Schools programme to support post-doctoral researchers working in schools and training as teachers.

Similar financial incentives exist for English with £9,000 available for trainees with a first class degree and £4,000 for those with a 2.1. However, we have recruited more than the required number of teachers in this subject every year since 2010.

Further to this, the Further Education workforce package of support from the DfE, BIS and the Education and Training Foundation has been available since 2013 which has resulted in the recruitment of over 680 new graduate teachers. 3800 teachers have also benefitted from the enhancement programmes designed to improve teacher confidence and knowledge of new GCSE English and maths qualifications.

Maths and English are both crucial subjects needed to get on in life whether through employment or further study. It is therefore essential that a world-class, academically rigorous curriculum reflects this and supports all pupils in their study both pre- and post- GCSE for those that do achieve a grade C and for those that don’t.