Further engagement from all quarters required for Core Maths to fulfil its potential and boost participation in post-16 maths

By Josh Hillman

Core Maths has the potential to address low participation in post-16 maths. However, as our Director of Education Josh Hillman writes, further engagement is needed from all quarters for the qualification to fulfil this potential.

In a speech at the Royal Society in June 2011, the then Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove said: “We should set a new goal so that within a decade the vast majority of pupils are studying maths right through to the age of 18”. This was partly motivated by Nuffield Foundation research showing that fewer than one in five students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland studied any kind of maths after GCSE, the lowest levels of participation in the 24 countries surveyed. Professor Sir Adrian Smith’s 2017 review of post-16 maths education, which drew on Nuffield research, also pointed to the fundamental importance of numeracy and data skills from an economic perspective and highlighted priority areas for action.

Gove’s goal was extremely ambitious, particularly in the face of constraints imposed by available maths qualifications. One policy response in train prior to the Smith Review was the development of Core Maths, a qualification aimed at those young people who have done relatively well at GCSE (at least a Grade C or Grade 4) to supplement A levels or vocational qualifications. In a 2014 report we identified a number of challenges to be met if Core Maths was to fulfil its potential: vigorous and sustained political backing; clear and strong signalling across higher education and among employers that the qualification is valued; and sufficient funding and staff for schools and colleges to deliver it well.

A new report from Nuffield-funded researchers at the University of Leeds gives us the first independent analysis of what early take up of Core Maths can tell us about the extent to which these challenges have (or have not) been addressed. Some of its findings are promising. Those students who have undertaken Core Maths are generally very positive about its content and value. The schools and colleges that have decided to offer Core Maths have found sensible ways to combine it with A levels and other complementary qualifications. The focus and approach of the qualification aligns well with demands for numeracy skills from employers and higher education institutions.

However, there are many disappointing findings. Given that we are now several years in, the range of schools and colleges offering Core Maths is frustratingly limited and this is of course reflected in low student numbers. While annual entries continue to grow slowly, this conceals a certain amount of churn, with some schools dropping the award after just one cycle of engagement. There are concerns about the status of the qualification: it is not an AS level, despite having the same UCAS tariff value; and it goes against the grain of the DfE-driven shift from modular AS/A2 level courses to linear A levels. Funding arrangements have resulted in a shift from the intended two-year model to a more compressed approach within a single school or college year. Awareness of Core Maths remains poor, perhaps the most worrying finding given that this is a necessary (but of course not sufficient) condition for employers and universities to signal to students that they value the qualification.

The introduction of a new qualification is always difficult, especially when it sits outside the well-understood framework of GCSE and A level. Even with consolidated and sustained government backing it can take several years of development and promotion to gain recognition and value. Core Maths has all the ingredients of a valuable addition to the qualification landscape, but this report – nearly a decade on from Michael Gove’s speech – suggests significant additional engagement is required from all quarters for it to fulfil its potential in addressing low participation in post-16 maths.  

About the author


Josh Hillman
Director, Education

Josh Hillman has been Director of Education at the Nuffield Foundation since 2008. He leads the Foundation’s work in education, encompassing both research funding and student programmes in STEM and quantitative skills. For 15 months in 2015-6, Josh was also Acting Director of the Foundation.

Josh was formerly Head of Education Policy at the BBC, where he was responsible for development of education policy and partnerships for the BBC’s output across media for children and adults. Prior roles include Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research, Research Officer for the National Commission on Education, and short periods at the Institute for Education and the Department of Education and Science.

Josh was Deputy Chair of Governors at an Inner London primary school for five years. He is a member of the advisory board, chaired by Professor James Heckman, of the TrygFonden’s Centre for Child Research at Aarhus University. This multidisciplinary centre uses randomised controlled trials and administrative data to study child and adolescent development.

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