Education leaders have welcomed government plans to make learning mathematics compulsory until the age of 18 in England, while warning that significant investment will be needed to drive a “culture change” around numeracy.

UK prime minister Rishi Sunak on Wednesday set out an ambition to extend the mandatory study of maths after 16, with the aim of equipping young people with vital skills needed for future jobs.

However, critics have warned that the proposal overlooked other priorities as English schools face a funding crisis, adding that without additional funding the plan would struggle to get off the ground.

In a speech on Wednesday, Sunak said the country needed to make numerical skills a central objective of education. “We will work with the sector to move towards all children studying some form of maths to 18 . . . Just imagine what greater numeracy will unlock for people.”

“In a world where data is everywhere and statistics underpin every job, our children’s jobs will require more analytical skills than ever before.” A failure to properly equip them would be “letting our children down”, said Sunak.

Amanda Spielman, chief inspector of education regulator Ofsted, said extending maths learning in schools could be beneficial and force a “culture change”, turning numeracy into an accessible skill.

She added that the proposal would require sustained investment in well-trained teachers and a coherent curriculum. “It’s very clearly something that can only be done if the government recognises it needs to be fully funded.”

Teacher recruitment for maths is consistently below target most years and vacancy rates are among the highest of any subject, according to the National Foundation for Education Research (NFER).

David Robinson, director of post-16 and skills at the Education Policy Institute think-tank, said the government had “broadly the right ambition” but faced major resourcing challenges. “The foremost of this is teachers,” he added.

According to NFER, 45 per cent of schools reported using non-specialist teachers to cover maths classes.

Jonathan Simons, head of education practice at consultancy Public First, acknowledged that shortages in trained staff would make it almost impossible to deliver the plan through classroom teaching alone. “That is where the tech comes in,” he said. “There are a lot of edtech products out there that focus on maths.”

Learning maths until 18 is compulsory in most OECD countries. But in the UK only around half of 16 to 19-year-olds study the subject, according to the government.

However, maths is the most popular A-level subject in the UK, taken by 11 per cent of the 47 per cent of pupils who sit the academic qualification.

Catherine Sezen, director of education policy at the Association of Colleges, a sector body, said resources could be better targeted at pupils who have to repeat their maths GCSE after failing it the first time round. GCSEs are an academic exam taken at 16 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

“Colleges have to prioritise,” she said. “In reality there are so many other things that we need to get right.”

The government said it would not make A-level maths mandatory but was exploring ideas such as core qualifications and vocational subjects that incorporate numeracy, among other “innovative options”.

Sunak highlighted education as a key priority in his leadership campaign, floating the idea of an “English Baccalaureate”, which mirrors the International Baccalaureate and other European systems and includes a broader range of subjects.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, the headteachers’ union, said that the plan was “unachievable” in the light of current teaching shortages.

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