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New maths GCSE proposed to break demoralising resit cycle

A new GCSE curriculum has been developed exclusively for post-16 maths resit students.

A Nuffield-funded team at maths education charity, MEI have developed a new curriculum for maths resit students. Developed in consultation with key stakeholders, the new curriculum has a greater emphasis on applying maths to real-world contexts.

The success rate for GCSE maths resits remains persistently low, with only around one in four entrants achieving at least a standard pass. Indeed, the Smith review (2017) recommended the Department of Education re-evaluate their 16-18 resit policy and consider changes to the curriculum.

The prospect of ‘more of the same’, combined with low expectations of success, can be very demotivating for resit students. As a result, many young people do not achieve their full potential. Students can be left with low confidence, a lasting sense of failure, and a reinforced negative attitude towards maths. This can prevent them from engaging with learning and using maths in the future.

The proposed new qualification would:

  • Focus on the maths needed for everyday life and work
  • Be available to post-16 students only.
  • Have the same status as GCSE maths.
  • Include a paper which can be taken early as a stepping stone.
  • Be available at Foundation tier only (grades 1-5, grade 4 or above is required for a standard pass).

This new curriculum focuses on developing the maths knowledge, skills and confidence young people require for everyday life and work. It includes maths for financial understanding; planning activities; understanding data; working with measures and shapes; and basic use of spreadsheets. The aim is to engage young people with maths by presenting it in contexts that are directly relevant to them. This will help them to understand the value of learning maths and motivate them to gain the skills they need.

The project included a small-scale study to assess wether it was possible to offer real alternative for maths resit students. The study found it was feasible to develop a new post-16 maths qualification which focuses on the maths skills young people need for everyday life and work. It also confirmed that this new curriculum could have sufficient rigour to meet the requirements of a GCSE qualification.

The majority of resit students as over 90% of resit GCSE mathematics entries are for the Foundation tier. As such, the proposed new post-16 maths GCSE would be available at Foundation tier only (grades 1-5). Resit students likely to pass the Higher tier (grades 4-9) would still retake the standard GCSE mathematics.

MEI is calling on the government to act upon the report’s recommendations and amend the requirements for resit GCSEs to allow for this new post-16 maths GCSE. The Department for Education could then work with Ofqual to develop detailed content and regulatory requirements for the proposed new post-16 maths GCSE, opening the way for awarding bodies to develop the qualification.

Professor Sir Adrian Smith, author of the Smith review of post-16 education, said:

“There has long been concern that the policy of requiring substantial and increasing numbers of students post-16 to resit GCSE Mathematics does not best meet the needs of the majority of these students. This MEI report provides a well thought out blueprint for a new curriculum that could provide a more appropriate alternative for many students. It merits serious consideration by everyone involved in post-16 mathematics education.”

Charlie Stripp, Chief Executive of MEI, said:

“It has been clear for years that the current resit policy is not fit for purpose for young people who do not succeed in maths at age 16. These young people deserve better!  They need a different maths GCSE curriculum – one that better reflects their status as young adults and which they can see is relevant to the maths they need for their future life and employment. We have demonstrated that it is feasible to develop a more suitable alternative qualification that has the same status as GCSE Mathematics. This paves the way for the policy to be changed.”

Josh Hillman, Director of Education at the Nuffield Foundation, said:

“All 16-18 year olds should continue to develop their maths skills, and have the opportunity to gain high status qualifications. For many young people the stubbornly low success rate for maths GCSE resits is having a detrimental impact on their immediate and long-term education, training and employment opportunities. If we are serious about equipping all young people with the maths skills they’ll need throughout their lives, reform is needed. As such, we welcome this proposal for an alternative, more practically focused GCSE, which would be feasible to implement, and potentially have status equal to the current qualification.”

David Hughes, Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges, said:

“The vast majority of post-16 GCSE Maths retake students are in colleges. Our sector takes the challenge of increasing achievement in maths very seriously and colleges are doing a lot of hard work to support students on this.

“A dedicated post-16 maths GCSE for these students, with equivalent grades to the current GCSE would be welcomed by colleges and employers. Most importantly I am sure that students would find it more appropriate for their progression.

“The proposed curriculum would better engage and motivate students who achieved grade 3 or below at 16 by incorporating a stepping-stone assessment of basic maths skills worth 20% that can be taken before the final exam and which has some value in its own right. I hope that the Department for Education will take this proposal seriously and consider making the necessary changes to GCSE rules to allow it to be developed.”   

Jill Durrant, Widening Participation lead at Sussex Community NHS Foundation Trust, said:

“There is a great deal of anxiety related to maths in the general population, and if people do not attain the required pass mark they don’t want to do the exam again and again. So if this new GCSE develops the maths most needed for the workplace and boosts confidence then it has to be a good thing. It’s vital that staff within the NHS are given the opportunities to progress in their chosen careers and if maths is a barrier then it can have a massive impact on recruitment and retention.”

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