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Dr Rhys Morgan, Director of Education and Diversity at the Royal Academy of Engineering, says a broader education for all would be better than just extending mathematics education

The ambition expressed earlier this year by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to extend compulsory mathematics education to age 18 was very much welcomed by many of us in the science and engineering communities. The UK needs more scientists and engineers. We need an education system where more young people continue studying subjects that keep careers in science and engineering open to them rather than make decisions that cut off those opportunities at too young an age.

There are, of course, practical challenges to what the Prime Minister suggests – the chronic under-recruitment of mathematics teachers in schools that have been going on for over ten years; the current strikes by teachers over pay and conditions; and the record number of people leaving the profession, to name but a few. But these challenges aside, Mr Sunak’s announcement missed an important philosophical point. It is not just a mathematics education that young people should be having until they are 18. All students would benefit from a broad suite of subjects: sciences, arts and humanities, technical and creative, to prepare them for their future.

Mathematics – dominant language of the future

It is true that mathematics is going to be the dominant language of the future. As we continue to develop our more data-centric society, greater public understanding and critical analysis of that data will be increasingly crucial for engaging in public debate on matters as broad as the risks in future pandemics to changes in climate and global temperatures. This requires a population that is more comfortable and confident with mathematics so it can understand the use of data and statistics to position arguments. Naturally, engineers and scientists welcome the idea of a more mathematics-literate population that is better informed when engaging in these debates. But we focus solely on mathematics education at our peril. All people, including engineers and scientists, would benefit from a broader education to 18.

The value of diversity in education

In engineering, we increasingly recognise the value of diversity, not just for the moral and ethical reasons of a more diverse profession better representing the society it serves but also because it brings with it the cognitive diversity of different thoughts and perspectives. A broader liberal education that includes studying a range of subjects – from music to history, philosophy, art and drama – helps bring a diversity of perspectives that, in turn, bring about new and innovative solutions to problems.

21st century societal challenges to learn

In the 21st century, our societal challenges are becoming increasingly interdisciplinary. We need to think differently about solutions in this new world of complex systems. Historically, for example, in my engineering world, the answer to traffic congestion was to build a new road extension, bypass, bridge or tunnel. But new technologies and the introduction of new thinking has led to a reassessment of the problem. In some cases where additional road capacity is required, smart motorways have been rolled out using digital technologies to increase road capacity, saving hundreds of millions of pounds in new infrastructure and many natural habitats from destruction. But a more fundamental solution for the future must be reducing the number of vehicles being used at any time.

COVID-19 and our way of working

COVID-19 precipitated and accelerated a fundamental change to our way of working, with far more of us working from home than ever before, which reduced rush hour traffic. Of course, a global pandemic forced this behavioural change solution on us. But it should open our eyes to the opportunities that might arise from re-thinking our societies’ engineering challenges through the perspective of different subjects – using psychologists and behavioural change experts working alongside engineers and planners.

The Royal Academy of Engineering’s first Higher Education Leaders Conference in March for senior engineering leaders in UK academic institutions discussed how we can rethink engineering education to consider these broader solutions.

Increasing the ability to communicate through education

But we also need to get the public on our side. So another key skill critical for scientists and engineers is our ability to communicate – to articulate our reasoning and analysis clearly and accurately, along with explaining designs and solutions to a wide range of stakeholders, from technical experts to politicians, the media and the wider public.

By and large, the young people who choose to go on to become scientists and engineers stop studying English from the age of 16. But to understand the perspectives of those we are trying to influence, we also need to understand history, culture, economics, etc. These are all provided through a broader education.

So yes, we need all young people to take a mathematics education until 18. But let’s not stop there. Let’s take the opportunity of the Prime Minister’s announcement to rethink our post-16 education and introduce a broad and balanced curriculum for all young people in preparation for their futures.

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Director of Education and Diversity
Royal Academy of Engineering
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