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Is the UK an outlier in upper secondary maths education?

Researchers: Professor Jeremy Hodgen | David Pepper ...

Project overview

It is often said that the British education system is unusual in requiring or enabling so few of its young people to continue studying mathematics after the age of 16.

In order to gather evidence on upper secondary mathematics education both in the UK and other countries, we commissioned Dr Jeremy Hodgen to undertake an international survey. The findings were published in December 2010, in a report entitled ‘Is the UK an outlier? An international comparison of upper secondary mathematics education.

Dr Hodgen has now written a follow-on report which looks in more detail at a smaller number of ‘mathematically successful’ education systems across the world.

Key findings

  • In a survey of 24 countries, England, Wales and Northern Ireland had the lowest levels of participation in upper secondary mathematics.
  • They were the only countries in which fewer than 20% of upper secondary students study maths. This includes all mathematics qualifications at this level, but excludes GCSE retakes.
  • Scotland does slightly better, with just under half of upper secondary students studying maths. This is still below average.
  • In the majority of countries surveyed (18 out of 24), at least 50% of upper secondary students study maths.
  • In eight countries, practically all students in this group study maths. Unsurprisingly, these are countries that make mathematics at this level compulsory for all students.
  • England, Wales and Northern Ireland also have comparatively low rates of participation in advanced mathematics (equivalent to AS Level). Between 11-15% of upper secondary students study mathematics A level. Countries with similar levels of participation are Germany, Ireland, Russia and Spain. All other countries for which data were available have higher levels of participation.
  • England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are four of only six countries that do not require compulsory participation in mathematics at upper secondary for any students. Mathematics is compulsory in all other countries surveyed for at least some students in general or vocational education.

Latest on this project


  • Professor Jeremy Hodgen
    King's College London
  • David Pepper
    King's College London
  • Linda Sturman
    National Foundation for Educational Research
  • Graham Ruddock
    National Foundation for Educational Research

  • Director, Education
    Nuffield Foundation

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