After the Conservative Party’s recent proposals to shake up the 16–19 curriculum with the Advanced British Standard qualification, the Labour Party countered with its own headline-grabbing initiative at its recent conference in Liverpool. Labour’s big idea is to “bring maths to life for the next generation” by teaching so-called ‘real-world’ practical maths knowledge and skills, including financial literacy, in primary schools to encourage stronger lifelong numeracy. There is politics involved, of course – note the phrase “six, never mind sixteen” in the shadow education secretary’s conference speech – but the basic idea has undoubted merit and is likely to be widely welcomed. The Financial Times called it “a sensible step towards bridging the gap between academic learning and practical life applications”. The proposed initiative chimes with a fundamental principle of Life-Based Learning – a curriculum for children and young people that is relevant to their lives and meets the personal, social, economic, cultural and environmental opportunities and challenges of the future.
The shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson talked in her conference speech of a “chronic cultural problem with maths”. She called for “the numeracy all our young people need – for life and for work, to earn and to spend, to understand and to challenge. I want that to be part of their learning right from the start.” And she spoke directly of the importance of maths in the real world: “…be it budgeting or cooking, exchange rates or payslips, maths matters for success.”
The Labour Party said that its maths plan would centre on upskilling primary school teachers who are not maths teachers with the right skills and knowledge to deliver high-quality maths teaching. A previously announced curriculum review taskforce would be given the job of “bringing maths to life and directing teachers to show children how numeracy is used in the world around them, such as through household budgeting, currency exchange rates when going on holiday, sports league tables and cookery recipes.”
Labour’s plan is a deliberate shift away from the emphasis of the current government, which has set out proposals for compulsory maths for all young people to the age of 18. Indeed, the Labour Party has said that it would redirect the work of the Maths to 18 advisory group set up by Rishi Sunak in April so that it focuses on primary maths. Phillipson said: “Maths is the language of the universe, the underpinning of our collective understanding. It cannot be left till the last years of school.”
The soundbite ‘phonics for maths’ is a conscious echo of the scheme introduced in 2012 to improve reading levels. Professor Camilla Gilmore of the Centre for Early Mathematics Learning notes that the two – teaching phonics and teaching maths – are not directly comparable but that the parallel with phonics is encouraging:
The phonics revolution was informed by research and developed from a better understanding of how children learn to read. This can and should be emulated for mathematics. Research evidence on the early stages of learning maths can help build a solid approach to teaching mathematical skills to young children.Professor Camilla Gilmore of the Centre for Early Mathematics Learning
Labour is also proposing to work with nurseries to develop trained ‘maths champions’ who can support early learning in childcare settings. According to the BBC, a study by education charity the Education Endowment Foundation found children in nurseries employing a ‘maths champion’ made three extra months of progress in maths, on average.
We have noted many times that Life-Based Learning is not party-political. The basic caveat that initial ideas launched at party conferences or set out in policy documents sometimes bear only a passing resemblance to what is eventually enacted applies as much to Labour’s proposals as they do to those set out by the government. Nevertheless, the Labour Party’s idea for ‘real world’ maths does reflect some of the thinking behind Life-Based Learning.
LBL is a critique of education policy as it has been implemented since the introduction of the national curriculum in the eighties, and despite the current government’s efforts to pick up on some modern-world challenges through personal, social, health and economic education (PSHEE), the focus of the current curriculum remains too narrow. Its priority is not the urgent personal, social and environmental challenges facing humankind.
Too many children are switched off learning as they struggle to see its relevance. A life-based approach will improve children’s motivation to learn. From a young age they will:
A life-based approach to learning for young children will ensure that they are better prepared for adult life, including for the world of work.
Society as a whole will be the beneficiary, as young people grow up equipped and ready to make their mark, helping to build a brighter future.
Image at the head of this article by Falk Schirrmeister from Pixabay.