Young people could be limiting future salaries by dismissing A level maths

13 January 2017

A new report funded by the Nuffield Foundation has found that 80 per cent of 17-year olds disagree with the idea of making maths compulsory post-16 even though there is evidence that those with A level maths earn more later in life. 

The report also shows that an increase in the number of pupils achieving A* and A grades in GCSE maths has led to an increase in the numbers taking A level maths. This means the changes to the GCSE grading structure could lead to a decrease in the number of pupils choosing A level maths, as fewer will achieve the top grades at GCSE.  

The study ‘Rethinking the value of Advanced Mathematics Participation’ (REVAMP), was undertaken by Professor Andrew Noyes and Dr Michael Atkins from the School of Education at the University of Nottingham and set out to investigate the value of A-level mathematics from several viewpoints. 

Experts looked at four different strands of analysis within the project – the economic returns to A level maths, the changing participation in A level maths from 2005-13, the relationship between A-level maths and degree outcomes, and a national survey of ten thousand 17-year-olds.

The researchers found compelling evidence of a continued wage return of up to 11 per cent to those who have studied A level maths.

Professor Noyes said: “The findings of our research do raise a number of concerns that will need to be addressed if the Government wants to get the ‘vast majority’ of young people continuing their study of mathematics to 18. One clear way to encourage take-up is to communicate to young people that there are economic benefits in choosing maths as a subject.

“Unfortunately, the economic benefits of studying maths are overshadowed by the differences between men and women and according to where they live. These are figures that need addressing,” adds Professor Noyes.

“There are also the additional challenges of the current qualifications and assessment reform processes. As our figures show, if mathematics was made compulsory post-16, this could act as a deterrent to young people choosing the subject as an A level rather than encourage take-up.”

Key findings

On economic returns to A level Mathematics

  • There is compelling evidence of continued wage returns of up to 11% to A level Mathematics. 
  • The economic benefits of A level Mathematics are overshadowed by the differences between males and females and according to where one lives. For example, for those with A level Mathematics in this sample born in 1970, females earned around 20% less than their male contemporaries at age 34.

On changing patterns of A level Mathematics completion

  • The main driver of increased A level Mathematics participation is the rising number of A* and A grades in GCSE Mathematics. The new GCSE 1-9 grading structure that will be implemented in 2017 is likely to have a detrimental effect on student self-perceptions and A level Mathematics uptake, in particular where students who would have achieved the top grade(s) are now less likely to do so.
  • At each GCSE Mathematics grade, the proportion of students who then proceed to complete A level Mathematics has changed very little, particularly for GCSE grades A-C.
  • A key factor in the increased engagement with advanced mathematics is the rise in numbers completing AS Mathematics, in particular girls and those attaining GCSE A and B grades. The decoupling of AS and A Level is, therefore, a threat to advanced mathematics participation.
  • GCSE Mathematics A* students have been increasingly likely to study A level Mathematics or A level Mathematics with AS/A level Further Mathematics, though this is heavily biased towards boys. The decoupling of AS and A level, and changes to funding that encourage schools to focus on 3 A levels are likely to reverse this trend.
  • There is continuing evidence that, all other things being equal, girls are less likely to choose A level Mathematics.

On the educational value of A level Mathematics for science undergraduates

  • Whether school mathematics prepares students well for undergraduate chemistry and biology degrees is contested in the international research literature.
  • There is little evidence that A level Mathematics completion has much effect on the likelihood of attaining the best degree outcomes in biology and chemistry. Those with the top grade in A level Mathematics did, however, have some small advantage.
  • The effect of high attainment in A level Chemistry upon undergraduate biology degree outcomes and vice versa is clear. This may have implications for those advising students on their educational choices.
  • For a given student, the greatest influence on their chances of achieving a first class degree is the university attended. The differences are striking and have serious implications, for example in how initial teacher education bursaries are awarded, which is a particular concern for STEM teacher recruitment.

On young people’s attitudes to studying mathematics post-16, in particular A level Mathematics or equivalent

  • Students are generally opposed to the idea that they should be compelled to study ‘some maths’ post-16 (78%) but are less opposed to being ‘encouraged’ to do so;
  • Amongst the target group for Core Maths, i.e. those not currently studying AS/A level Mathematics, 80% disagree with the idea of making mathematics compulsory post-16.