Why Sunak has got it wrong by forcing Maths up to 18

By making maths compulsory for UK students up to the age of 18, PM Rishi Sunak is missing the opportunity to position the UK as “European Tech Hub”.

“Are we in need of a real education reform?” asks Louise Watson, Head of Marketing and PR at The Women in Programmatic Network, and Practice Director at Propeller Group.

Rishi Sunak announced yesterday the possible introduction of compulsory Mathematics up until the age of 18 – a big move from the complete educational reform promises just a few months ago. 

Whilst there is of course a need for change, an important opportunity has been missed to position the UK as a “tech hub”, and consider a long-term solution to the UK's skills shortage. Of course, Mathematics is a part of this. But the choice of Maths as a subject falls short of what is required to help push the UK, and its education system, forward. A necessary band-aid, but a band-aid nonetheless. 

The wider subjects that impact the progression of the UK economy and its status as a tech hub are being forgotten, and are vital to the long-term success of the country. For the advertising sector, and specifically ad tech, we are seeing first-hand the skills gaps in the UK and the impact this is having on businesses. 

Just over a decade ago, I graduated with a Computing and Marketing degree and entered a programme as an unqualified teacher, experiencing the curriculum first-hand teaching both GCSE and A-Level students. I witnessed the mass underfunding of technology-based subjects and a huge lack of diversity in the students selecting to choose certain STEM subjects. I couldn’t help but feel that we were failing to future-proof our students, and set them up for success. 

It wasn’t about learning how to use Microsoft Word or create a Powerpoint presentation, or even teach kids how to code. The curriculum failed to show just how important technology would be for students' everyday lives, whether they went into a tech role or not. While this has changed somewhat, this recent announcement is missing an opportunity for a wider overhaul of how we educate students, equipping both individual students and UK businesses with what they need to succeed. 

Missing the point

Just before Christmas, the UK Government published an article highlighting that the UK tech sector remains no.1 in Europe for investment, and no.3 globally. This puts the UK in a brilliant position for tech talent. But, what’s next? What should students be learning to be set up for success in the future? 

Currently, a huge amount of this upskilling happens once people are in the workforce, through graduate programmes, or through brilliant organisations like DigiLearning and Brixton Finishing School, which upskill young people and prepare them for jobs within the tech and advertising sectors. 

Instead, we need to consider how we can integrate some of these skills into the education system, and equip students with what they need to succeed. This might be through more practical applications of the subjects where students better understand how this applies to real life. 

For example, for secondary school students who had previously struggled with Mathematics and English, the teachers restructured the lessons focusing on practical applications of what they were trying to learn. Mixing plaster, measuring walls, and understanding weight implications on structures, all allowed these students to better understand how they were going to use Mathematics once leaving school and why it was important. 

If we’re going to enforce compulsory Mathematics until 18, I would hope that this would be done in a similar way, with students able to better engage and understand why this skill is important to them. 

Don’t leave creativity out

The metaverse, GPT-3, along with hundreds of other technological advances are leading to a need for new skills. This is constantly changing and there is a need to educate students wanting to enter the industry about how to adapt to this quickly changing environment. 

Although mathematics and computer science are obvious choices for those that are looking at going into degrees and beyond, there is also a need to balance the creative subjects and how they interject with technology. 

Sociology, Psychology, and the arts are all vital if we are to create brilliant technologies that push the industry forwards. With new technology comes new responsibility and these subjects will help ensure that we are considering the long-term impact of what we create, and reviewing whether it’s ethical in the first place.

Addressing diversity

As an industry, we are all too aware of the challenges around attracting diverse talent. The disparity in applications for degree subjects and even A-levels dramatically reflects the challenges we are seeing in the industry. In Mathematics, about 40% of A-level students were female, and for further Mathematics this decreased to 30%. Computer Science didn’t even make it into the top 10 subjects for female students, with just over 2000 female students selecting it at A-Level. At degree level the numbers are getting better, female students made up 19% of UK undergraduate computing degrees. 

It’s not just female students who are missing out, students from varying socio-economic backgrounds also seem to be avoiding STEM subjects, and for many, this was attributed to the perceived time investment needed once at degree level, as many of these students have to take a part-time job to fund their studies. 

What’s Next…

The announcement this week fell short of a solution for the education system, and wider reform is needed to better position the UK for growth, and more importantly, set up students for success. What is being proposed is one small part of this, but we have an amazing opportunity to create a system that engages students and allows them to better prepare for work, irrespective of their background.  

Within our industry, we have an opportunity to engage with organisations that are trying to address this skills gap and better equip students who are looking at entering the world of media and advertising. My optimistic view is that if we can attract the right talent by creating a nurturing environment where students feel that the industry is accessible, we may be able to really earn our title of “European Tech Hub” and put the UK on the map for tech talent as well as investment.

By Louise Watson
Head of Marketing and PR
The Women in Programmatic Network

Practice Director
Propeller Group