Goal of all students studying maths to 18 is at risk from qualification reforms

02 July 2014

Reforms to GCSEs and A levels risk undermining the government’s goal of universal participation in post-16 mathematics education, particularly if new ‘Core Maths’ qualifications are not backed by universities, according to a new report published today by the Nuffield Foundation.

Plans to make GCSE Maths more demanding, detach AS from A levels, and replace the modular structure in favour of terminal exams could actually discourage students from continuing to study the subject beyond the age of 16 warns the report, which brings together a wide range of evidence on mathematics education policy and participation.

The report welcomes the development of a new ‘Core Maths’ qualification to serve as an alternative to the traditional AS and A level Mathematics. But it says the new qualification will only lead to a significant increase in the numbers of young people continuing to study maths if it has cross-party political support, backing from universities and employers, and is heavily marketed by the awarding bodies.

Despite an increase in the proportion of students taking AS and A level Mathematics in recent years, the UK has very low rates of participation in post-16 maths compared to other OECD countries. Evidence from countries with high participation rates in maths suggest the biggest incentive for students to continue with maths is that they need to do so to progress to higher education and employment. The report recommends that universities should encourage and incentivise prospective students – not only in STEM subjects, but also in the social sciences – to continue to study maths after GCSE.

The report argues that the potential for increasing the proportion of students taking AS and A level Mathematics is limited. Of those taking A level Mathematics, 91% have an A* or A grade in GCSE Mathematics. And the majority of those who achieve an A* or A grade at GCSE already go on to study mathematics to at least AS level. Students with B or C grades are significantly less likely to get a good A level grade in maths and so choose not to take it, or are discouraged from doing so. The introduction of a new and ‘tougher’ GCSE in 2015 could make it harder for students to achieve the top grades and thus to progress to AS or A level Maths.

The limit to the numbers of students for whom AS or A level Mathematics is an option means there is a critical need for the new ’Core Maths’ qualification to be a success. The report argues that previous attempts to introduce alternatives – such as AS and A level Use of Mathematics – have failed because they have not received full and sustained support from universities, Ofqual (the exams regulator) and government. In addition, the report argues that the timescale for the introduction of the qualifications may be too rushed, leaving little opportunity for coordination with other subjects.

Josh Hillman, Director of Education at the Nuffield Foundation and the report’s author said:

“There is overwhelming evidence that large swathes of students do not have the necessary quantitative skills for higher education and employment. But that won’t change until the HE sector as a whole backs the range of post-16 maths qualifications and moves towards making them a requirement for undergraduate admissions. Whether universities will value the new core maths qualification if it is not an AS level remains to be seen” 

Download the report: Mathematics after 16: the state of play, challenges and ways ahead (PDF) 

Contact: Fran Bright, Communications Manager on 020 7681 9586

1.     The 2010 Nuffield Foundation report Is the UK an Outlier? showed that fewer than one in five students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland study any kind of mathematics after GCSE, the lowest levels of participation out of 24 countries surveyed. Levels of participation are higher in Scotland, where just under half of students study maths after S4, but still below the average.

2.     The Nuffield Foundation, ESRC and HEFCE are funding Q-Step, a £19.5 million programme designed to promote a step-change in quantitative social science training in the UK. Fifteen universities (Q-Step Centres) are being funded to develop and deliver specialist undergraduate programmes, including new courses, work placements and pathways to postgraduate study.