If you want to meet the business leaders of the future, visit a school. The children in classrooms today are the inventors, makers and entrepreneurs of decades to come.
If we give them the education they need, that is. Businesses’ demand for skilled people keeps on growing. The world economy is changing, and it rewards the highly skilled as never before. There are huge opportunities for young people who leave school confident about their choices in the adult world.
But at the moment, too many are leaving school without the right knowledge or skills to take advantage of those opportunities. Today I will be speaking at SUMMIT: The Future of Growth, an event that explores the barriers to economic growth in the UK. Growth Britannia, a new report launched at the summit, finds that one of our biggest problems is that young people are deeply ambivalent towards studying science, technology and maths. And the main problem comes at age 16, when the vast majority of young people decide to drop these subjects.
As a result, we have one of the smallest proportions of 16-18 year olds studying maths amongst developed countries. Last year, 149,000 state school pupils took physics GCSE, but just 32,000 — and only 7,000 girls — took the subject to A-Level. Fully half of all co-ed state schools have not a single girl going on to do A-level physics.
That matters to each of those pupils. Maths is changing every sector, so if it ever was a niche subject for niche careers, it isn’t now. The world around us – the algorithms that power smartphones, the software that creates designer clothes – is powered by maths, and some of our top business leaders come from science backgrounds. Look at the CEO of Prudential, Tidjane Thiam. He’s been a government minister and business leader, and he trained as a nuclear physicist. Or Sarah Wood: her innovative company Unruly looks at the science of consumer behaviour to market viral videos (yes, maths can even be used for cat videos). About 70 per cent of students who win a place at Cambridge University have A-level maths. So if our pupils drop maths, they’re narrowing their options. What’s more, they are setting themselves up to earn less – because maths is the only A-level proven to increase people’s earnings, by up to 10 per cent, well into their 30s. It’s a one-way bet on a better career.
It matters to the rest of us, too. In a world turned inside-out by globalisation and technology, nurturing a highly-skilled, numerate population means the difference between growth and stagnation. We have a flexible labour market, so better skills mean more higher-skilled jobs. The more people with advanced maths, physics or computing we produce, the more companies will come to the UK, and the more home grown entrepreneurs will emerge.
So for their sake, and ours, we need a shift in perceptions. We need a stronger message about what maths and science offer, and how much they can enhance careers and lives.
That message is more credible when it comes from employers themselves. Last week, the Your Life campaign launched. It’s led by Edwina Dunn – who revolutionised retail (using maths. Obviously.) with the Tesco Clubcard – and backed by major companies. Other members of the Your Life board include Eben Upton, who invented the Raspberry Pi computer, and engineers like Roma Agrawal, who helped build the Shard, or the 17-year-old creator of Summly, Nick D’Aloisio – who unfortunately couldn’t attend the launch because he was sitting his A levels.
We are injecting both university subject specialism and business know-how into schools through the maths and physics chairs programme. Firms from BAE Systems to Samsung are providing the salary increase to pay £40,000 for these top recruits to go into schools and get children excited about maths and physics. They will show how maths and science can get you everywhere.
We’re also making subject data easy to access. Our Ebacc, which encourages pupils into the most respected subjects, has been very successful: single sciences are up by over 30 per cent since 2010, and we have the highest number of entries to triple science since records began. But we need to understand the break after 16. So from this summer, we will publish information showing what proportion of boys and girls studying A-levels are taking maths, further maths and physics, on a school by school basis.
Put those things together and we can start to shift the mindset, and drive up the numbers taking maths and science. And that, in the long term, is the single most important thing we can do to ensure our future prosperity. The equation is simple: better maths equals a better Britain.
Elizabeth Truss MP is Under Secretary of State for Education and Childcare. She will be speaking at SUMMIT: The Future of Growth on Friday 16 May
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.