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The recently and belatedly published review by Sir Adrian Smith rightly says international comparisons do not shed a positive light on the 16-18 mathematics provision in this country. Sadly this is despite some excellent initiatives such as the Further Mathematics Support Programme and the newish Core Maths qualification, each of which have contributed to a greater or lesser extent to an upward trajectory of numbers studying maths post-16. Smith’s review makes lots of sensible suggestions and it’s clear he knows what the situation is at the chalkface. But taking a hard look at recent, current and future policy decisions, it is difficult to know whether anyone is putting together the jigsaw puzzle of policies to ensure they work together and don’t cut across each other. Cambridge Maths applauds the recommendations of Sir Adrian to increase both the numbers and the relevance of post-16 maths, but is less enthusiastic about the Government’s responses and recent policy decisions….
1. Post-16 maths for those without a GCSE: Smith rightly says that the proportion of resit students passing GCSE has declined as the entry numbers have risen, (and declines with each successive attempt) and that there should be fresh consideration of curricula for such students.
Government response – yes, we recognise your concern but (despite a great deal of evidence that GCSE is not fit for purpose) we’re not doing anything at the moment.
Here at Cambridge Maths we are very exercised by this. We know that FE colleges have really struggled to put support for resits in place – the numbers are huge and there are not enough qualified teachers. Students are mostly reluctant to revisit a course that was not appropriate for them in the first place, and often have to follow a course which offers them fewer hours per week tuition than they received when they initially failed. And because GCSE is predominantly norm-referenced and linked to that cohort’s results at the end of KS2, huge numbers of students start their secondary school education without any realistic hope of achieving a GCSE pass anyway. We’ve been working with National Numeracy to look at what we consider to be a more meaningful and educationally moral policy for all sorts of reasons – read a recent blog by Simon Lebus for a more measured argument on this subject.
2. A level Maths and Further Maths; Smith says that recently introduced funding changes are putting the subject at risk and that the financial incentives for AS and A level Further Maths in particular are worrying.
Government response: The answer to this and other issues is the £16 million announced for Level 3 Support.
This funding doesn’t seem to be targeted at improving funding in schools in order to enable a full offer of AS and A level Maths and Further Maths to be widely available. The focus rather is on Opportunity Areas and on stimulating demand to increase the number of students. Add in the decoupling of AS and A level which may lead to fewer students experimenting with AS Maths as a fourth A level and we have two conflicting policies – spending money to stimulate demand whilst ignoring the negative effects of recent funding and awarding changes.
3. Core Maths: widely acknowledged as one of the better maths ed. initiatives, Core Maths steadily increased in take-up from a slow start and has begun to attract agreement from Universities to be treated as an AS equivalent for entrance purposes. Smith recommends all students on academic routes should have access and the brand should be strengthened to raise the profile and take up.
Government response: yes, good idea, we’re putting £16 million into Level 3 Support.
However the termination of the Core Maths Support Programme in July has already happened, with its website being replaced by a repository for resources on the STEM learning portal – and all this at a time when schools are planning their next year’s timetables. Add in that funding at post -16 does not include any financial support for schools who wish to offer Core Maths and it’s clear there is a policy clash. It would not be surprising if Core Maths numbers next year went down, rather than up.
4. Syllabus and grading changes: we’ve got new GCSEs which are more challenging and a new grading system which differentiates more at top grades.
Government response: Ofqual says that it’s necessary to have a new grading system for a new qualification and they will check that there is no grade inflation or deflation by matching grade boundaries of old and new.
Whilst devising a more challenging syllabus which should better prepare students for A level, changing the grade structure to make the highest grades more difficult to obtain means that fewer students will get higher grades and thus fewer possibly opt to continue to study maths. Schools are also having trouble deciding on entry requirements for A level maths (they were even before these reforms) – now, serious issues of accessibility and equity are coming to the fore, with little agreement among schools as to which students could or should take A level Maths and Further Maths.
5. Workforce: Smith refers to the significant challenges in recruiting maths teachers but doesn’t make any specific recommendations other than improving the evidence base on the FE workforce.
Government response – ‘we are taking steps to expand the capacity of the mathematics teaching base…we know we will have to go further to increase significantly the provision of 16-18 mathematics education over coming years.’
I have written elsewhere about teacher retention and James Handscombe recently made some interesting suggestions about teacher recruitment. What is very clear is that current policies just aren’t working. The government has paid out £620 million in teacher bursaries in the last five years, but there is little evidence that those recruited wouldn't have gone into maths teaching anyway – and there is NO requirement for a recipient to go into teaching at the end of their course. Perhaps a better use of that money would be to make conditions and CPD better for existing teachers so that we don't lose even more.
Results will be out towards the end of the month and we know that Maths A-level is at present the most popular A level. But it will be interesting to see whether the picture over the next few years improves as result of all these 16-18 policies or, as I suspect, the DfE has unintentionally created a perfect storm in which we will compare even less favourably with our international colleagues. I hope I'm proved wrong.