Sunak would rather have us all trained to ‘work in cyber’ than pursue our own interests.Lauren Hurley @Flickr

“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,” claimed Rishi Sunak in his first speech of the year. While data and statistics might be more frequently drawn upon than ever, a working knowledge of them is not necessary for “every job”. But for Sunak, data literacy is a prized trait. He’d rather have us all trained to “work in cyber” than pursue our own interests. Apparently, by electing not to push every child in the direction of jobs in STEM, we’re letting down a generation.

I’ve argued before that the government’s current rhetoric about the arts is proving dangerous. But the vast majority of university students (even staunch defenders of the arts and humanities like myself) cannot deny the current edge in employability of STEM degrees. This appreciation is rarely reciprocated: even casual Camfess browsing reveals widespread scepticism of arts degrees among students, symptomatic of the much wider undermining of these subjects. There seems to be a complete absence of understanding of what arts degrees offer in their entirety, and by extension, the merit and nature of A-levels in the arts and humanities.

“There seems to be a complete absence of understanding of what arts degrees offer”

Sunak is right to point out the usefulness of numeracy in our modern job market. It’s widely acknowledged that maths is not just about memorising formulae; it teaches a distinct and logical way of processing information. However, many fail to recognise the transferability of similar skills, such as critical thinking, facilitated by the arts and humanities. Arts subjects do not just offer what’s advertised on the tin. History, for instance, is not just about learning the facts of the past: it also teaches you to reach substantiated conclusions using well-judged evidence – something just as important when thinking about how we use and interpret data in modern professions. Often, the scope which such subjects offer and the breadth of skills involved surpass those outlined by narrower and more specialist STEM subjects. The constant diminishing of the arts and humanities has directly produced attitudes such as Sunak’s, resulting in an education policy which discredits their value and overemphasises alternative routes.

Regardless, maths is already the most popular A-level subject, being essential for the vast majority of STEM degrees and a formative part of the secondary school curriculum. Despite being a student of English – frequently held against maths as its antithesis – I have nothing against maths. In fact, I took it as an A-level myself (albeit only for one year), reasoning that it would give me some variety amongst my essay subjects. Students already recognise the value of such a qualification and have the capability to decide whether or not to take it up for themselves. It is belittling of Sunak to suggest that it must be made compulsory to demonstrate its importance. For many career paths, it simply isn’t relevant, beyond the fact that students generally do not want (and should not have) to study something they are not interested in after having reached a functional level. This is in addition to the fact that many of the jobs Sunak gestures towards require skills contrary to those taught at A-level maths, leaving the proposal unfit for bridging the gap he observes.

“Making any subject compulsory would deter students from further study and breed apathy in those who choose to take it”

The ability to specialise early, placing interest and career direction at the centre of students’ last couple of years of secondary education is in many ways advantageous. It’s a practice which hypothetically places individual choice at its centre. Making any subject compulsory would deter students from further study and breed apathy in those who choose to take it. Many commentators omit to mention the fact that as 16-year-olds, we’re also given the choice to leave mainstream secondary education altogether. While more people are acknowledging that A-levels certainly aren’t the only path to university, never mind a successful and fulfilling career, making maths compulsory is a sure-fire way to put students off this particular route – having negative implications, no doubt, for social mobility.


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If students already struggle with maths (a fifth having failed the GCSE last year), how will they be expected to cope with it at this advanced level? Some (like Sunak) can afford a private education or personal tutors to boost their grades, but few have this privilege. A-levels will favour privilege, becoming restricted to those who are either fortunate enough to have the subject as an academic strength or afford the resources required for potential improvement. This is in addition to furthering the misconception that those who succeed in STEM are “more intelligent” than those with strengths in other (and not always academic) areas.

It’s no wonder that the current PM, privy to Winchester College’s stellar teaching standards, would view extending his experience of A-level maths to all pupils as a “silver bullet”. Sunak’s own maths teacher has admitted the “self-revealing” nature of Sunak’s proposal. The benefits he speaks of simply cannot be extended to everyone.

Like so much of recent Conservative education policy, its slogan only exists in rhetoric. If Sunak is truly concerned about improving students’ ability to navigate this increasingly data-driven world, making thousands of teenagers peruse the A-level maths syllabus will not produce the desired results. Thinking about how we improve numeracy levels is a good start – but this proposal is hardly the “silver bullet” it claims to be.