Is Sunak’s Compulsory Maths Plan the Answer to the UK Tech Talent Shortage? 

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Rishi Sunak Maths

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced plans to ensure all pupils study maths until the age of 18, but experts are divided on whether his approach will help solve the country’s worsening tech talent shortage.

The plans were announced on Wednesday in Sunak’s first policy speech of 2023, in which he pledged to introduce a new “British baccalaureate” that would extend the obligatory study of Maths until the age of 18 to combat low numeracy rates. 

They come as part of the prime minister’s five main priorities for 2023, which included providing additional funding to tech R&D in areas such as artificial intelligence, life sciences, quantum, fintech and green tech. 

The UK remains one of the few countries in the world to not require students to study maths up to 18. Currently, all pupils in England are only required to study maths up to GCSE, with final exams taking place at the age of 16. 

“Right now, just half of all 16-19 year-olds study any maths at all. So we need to go further. I am now making numeracy a central objective of our education system,” Sunak said in his speech. 

“In a world where data is everywhere and statistics underpin every job, our children’s jobs will require more analytical skills than ever before,” he added. 

Sunak’s “optimistic endorsement” of tech 

As part In his speech, Sunak named the tech industry as one of the most crucial sources of growth for the British economy, believing the UK has the potential to produce some of the best tech talent in the world. 

“Some people think innovation is about gadgets and geekery – a nice to have, peripheral to growth compared to the traditional levers of tax and spend. That’s exactly the mindset we need to change.”

Many industry experts have welcomed for the prime minister’s support for UK tech and his promise to creating new tech talent within England through education. 

Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates founder Russ Shaw said Sunak’s announcement comes as an “optimistic endorsement” for UK tech and backed the government’s support for innovation within the country.

Robin Sutara, Field CTO at Databricks, said “ensuring that children have the best possible grasp of maths and statistics until the age of 18 should be welcomed with open arms.”

“In our data-driven world, with new AI technologies emerging rapidly, the UK tech sector simply needs more candidates with sound statistical and mathematical backgrounds to fill certain roles in the fields of data engineering, data science and more,” she explained. 

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Sunak’s latest speech is not the first time Sunak has shown his support for turning the UK into one of the world’s greatest tech powers. 

Last December, the prime minister released a new scheme for young professionals in the field of artificial intelligence and transform the UK into a “beacon” to attract the “brightest and the best” from across the globe. 

Andrew Roughan, CEO of Plexal, believed the government’s focus on tech and innovation will be important for driving economic growth.

“Innovation will play a crucial role in effectively resolving the world’s collective problems – whether it’s the climate crisis, cyber security, healthcare staffing, national security or even knife crime, innovation is being developed across the board, and we need to start deploying it,” Roughan explained. 

A tunnel-vision approach to creating tech talent 

While experts are encouraged by the prime minister’s support for tech, they have also found flaws in his concept of uniquely creating tech talent through mathematical education. 

As Ms Sutara explains, “just focusing on hiring maths students and graduates only solves half of the problem when it comes to the growth of the UK tech sector, Ms Sutara said. 

“Hiring staff from non-traditional statistical or mathematical backgrounds, such as humanities, can also add another fresh perspective when it comes to getting the most out of data, she added.”

Other industry experts have criticised the government’s previous cuts to R&D tax credits to SMEs and believe there are better solutions than remodelling an already-fragile education system. 

Sarah Barber, CEO of investment firm Jenson Funding Partners, said that UK tech success still depends on “innovation and driving systemic change.” 

“We’re not yet at a stage where the UK has the best talent and in order to retain the best opportunity of remaining competitive, we would like to see this part of R&D policy changed," she explained. 

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