Just before we broke up I’d wearied of a little troupe of year seven boys who found the long first floor corridor joining blocks four, five and six irresistible for time trials. Despite the impediment of fully four sets of fire doors, they bucketed along every lunchtime like cheetahs in clogs, guffawing all the while. It's not a corridor with classrooms opening directly onto it, and by the time I heard the clatter of tiny feet I couldn’t get out fast enough to seize them. Curses. Possible solution? Involve Mr Parris, more devious and fleeter of foot to catch ‘em by the simple expedient of being able to apparate silently through the lino at the requisite time. Imagine their surprise.
On being ushered into the presence to account for themselves, they took a telling and demonstrated sufficient remorse. When nudged to apologise, the Usain Bolt of the outfit did his best with ‘Sorry guys’, thereby devising another problem for himself before being taken away for reprogramming. In his favour, he’s 11 and foolish with more energy than sense. He’ll learn. As might the year 9 girls who absented themselves from their legitimate berth to flounce about in righteous indignation seeking an audience for a grievance. They progressed southwards with hands on hips, and returned northbound with outraged gestures before being posted into place. It does take time to settle back in. Mistakes are made.
And I do approve of vision-informed planning. We should all be clear about what we want and work systematically towards it. Some temperaments are better at systems than others so sometimes it goes a bit wrong, but a sincere apology is remarkably cheap and helps all parties.
Which brings me inevitably to Mr Sunak and his plan for everybody to study maths up to 18. I think it’s a great idea, especially if it can be made really practical, for those who didn’t really enjoy it much up to year 11. If we believe (and we do at Tallis) that education gives young people powerful knowledge to understand and interpret the world so they are not dependent upon those who might misuse them, then it is obviously a change for the better if everyone’s abreast of the numbers. In his speech Mr Sunak said we must "reimagine our approach to numeracy" so people have the skills they needed ‘to feel confident with finances and things like mortgage deals’. Yes indeed. As long as they don’t actually apply for a mortgage in London or look too closely at their finances anywhere I’m sure they’ll all feel confident. They’ll be able to sort out their heating and food bills, their taxes and their likelihood of getting a doctor’s appointment, having an operation or matching their parents’ standard of living.
The PM goes on. "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,.
Yes, it is. But who’s doing the letting-down? It’s a great idea, but who’s going to teach it? We don’t have enough maths teachers for our current courses, let alone invented new ones. Teacher recruitment targets have been missed nine years out of ten, only 59% of secondary training places are filled this year and 47% of schools use non-specialists to teach maths. And I’m not talking about obliging physicists or economists. I’m talking about willing French or PE teachers, anyone with a GCSE and a couple of spare hours. Schools in areas of real hardship don’t have the luxury of a stableful of pedigree mathematicians happily loving algebra together. Dreaming the extra-maths dream is meaningless unless there’s a plan to make it come true.
And a plan to stop preventing it coming true. So while schools are underfunded and teachers leaving in busloads, while the DfE promote online programmes rather than investing in time and training for real people, while recruitment’s skewed by try-teaching-for-a-couple-of-years-before-settling-for-something-easier-and-better-paid kind of talk, Mr Sunak’s dream will float off like those of his many predecessors.
Even a ‘sorry, guys’ would have made this wafty thinking more palatable. Sorry that education funding as a percentage of public spending has dropped to 1992 levels since 2010. Sorry that there aren’t enough doctors, nurses or teachers. Sorry that people are going on strike. Sorry that people die waiting for ambulances. Sorry that there still isn’t a plan.
My last maths lesson was in 1977, but even I can work out that this isn’t going to change much.