There is no lack of consensus on the importance of education to promote economic growth and the well-being of individuals. I still do not know of any economist or politician who believes that a good education is a luxury that most people can do without.

A prevailing criticism of many European schools and universities in recent years is that they do not prepare their students for jobs in the various sectors of today’s and tomorrow’s workplace.

Modernising education and making it more relevant to workplaces is the holy grail of some politicians who find time to focus on issues that go beyond winning the next election.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak occasionally raises the issue of improving education to boost the sluggish economic growth that his country, like many European countries, faces.

Sunak argues that in Britain, unlike most other major economies, children do not have to learn maths after the age of 16. He believes that numeracy problems hold back children’s future and the UK economy. Sunak wants to fight the “anti-maths mindset” by wanting all school pupils to study some form of maths until they are 18. In a combative mood, he argues, “I won’t sit back and allow this cultural sense that it is OK to be bad at maths to put our children at a disadvantage.”

Sunak is prime minister, so he should be able to resolve the problem of inadequate skills training by doing what it takes to reverse the trend of insufficient educational achievement. Undoubtedly, numeracy is an issue in most European countries. According to the UK education charity National Numeracy, around half of working-age adults only have the numerical abilities expected of a primary school-age child.

Of course, knowing what needs to be done is very different from knowing how to do it. Apart from a change in the law, making maths compulsory up to 18 will cost a lot of money for training teachers and then paying maths teachers more.

This change would also likely lead to industrial unrest in the strongly unionised teaching profession. Solving long-term structural problems is difficult, expensive, and controversial. Governing politicians responsible for finding solutions for low achievement in education have the added difficulty of not finding credible political adversaries who believe that no reforms are necessary.

Education policymakers must identify the spectrum of skills demanded by the modern economy. This should then be followed by an action plan to match the investment in the staff resources needed to teach them

Still, focusing on just one issue behind the inadequacy of the present education system is an oversimplification of a complex problem. Sunak’s proposal creates a risk of tunnel vision. Of course, numeracy is important, ranking only second to literacy, but putting maths on a pedestal risks devaluing other skills that are also important in the current workplace.

Some academics will argue that tertiary education is not about preparing students for the workplace. Business leaders have a very different perspective. So many students regret choosing the wrong tertiary education courses after the euphoria of graduation. Many graduates with qualifications in soft subjects find it challenging to find a job that leads them to a successful career.

Some academic subjects are more challenging than others. For instance, it is estimated that between six and 10 per cent of people in Western economies suffer from dyscalculia, a learning difficulty which makes it harder to use and understand maths. Imposing more maths lessons on students suffering from this condition could be counterproductive as it may discourage them from even considering furthering their education. 

Undoubtedly maths is essential. According to the UK National Foundation for Educational Research, almost half of the secondary schools in England have used non-specialist maths teachers to deliver at least some lessons amid ongoing recruitment problems in the sector. 

But the modern workplace requires a variety of skills that go beyond proficiency in numeracy. Other critically essential skills include soft skills, such as respectfulness, empathy, general knowledge, an awareness of different cultures, and even a sense of humour are all must-haves for a successful career. So why is training in these other skills not being proposed?

Education policymakers must identify the spectrum of skills demanded by the modern economy. This should then be followed by an action plan to match the investment in the staff resources needed to teach them. Insisting that education is not also about helping young people prepare for a career that opens to them the prospect of future economic prosperity is a stumbling block on the road to educational reform.

Modernising education by making it more relevant to workplaces remains one of the best solutions to promote national and individual prosperity.

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