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Mathematics after 16: the state of play, challenges and ways ahead

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This report focuses on the crucial period between GCSEs and entrance to higher education, and how mathematical, statistical and quantitative skills develop during this period. It has three aims:

  • To outline the current state of play in post-16 mathematics and the explanations for it.

  • To describe a number of challenges in this area and assess how government policy attempts to address them.

  • To pose a number of ways in which these challenges might be addressed, including through work funded and undertaken by the Nuffield Foundation.


The starting point for this report was a presentation given by its author, Josh Hillman, at a Q-Step conference convened by the Nuffield Foundation to discuss quantitative skills in the social sciences, and the links between secondary and higher education. This context is a useful reminder of one of the most important factors in the debate about post-16 mathematics: namely that this is not a ‘maths problem’, nor one that affects only STEM subjects. It is an issue that cuts across different subjects and different stages of education. It is about ensuring that all young people have the quantitative skills necessary for further and higher education, for work, and for being informed citizens.

The Foundation’s 2010 report, Is the UK an outlier?, showed that England, Wales and Northern Ireland have lower participation rates in post-16 maths than comparable OECD countries. Our follow-up report, Towards universal participation (2013), showed that countries with high levels of participation all offered more than one high-status option for post-16 students to continue their mathematics education. The report recommended the development of a new mathematics qualification aimed at students for whom the traditional Mathematics AS/A level may not be suitable.

A lot has changed since the publication of these reports. The government has made a commitment to a goal of universal participation in post-16 mathematics, and is now introducing a new Core Maths qualification outside of the AS/A level structure. While we welcome the general commitment wholeheartedly, this report sets out some concerns about the timetable for change, and about the need to take all the relevant evidence into account. This includes information on current participation patterns, as well as lessons learned from previous attempts to increase participation. It is also important to consider the broader context, and to ensure that reforms to GCSEs and A levels support rather than undermine efforts to increase participation.

Our aim in publishing this report is to bring together the most relevant evidence related to post-16 mathematics participation and to offer a constructive contribution to the reform agenda. The report outlines the complex factors that need to be considered as part of longer term efforts to increase engagement with quantitative skills. It also sets out the main challenges to the goal of universal participation and presents a number of ways in which they might be addressed.

Our ambition is to see teaching and learning of quantitative skills embedded across all post-16 education provision via complementary pathways. In decades to come, when it is asked whether the UK is an outlier, we want the answer again to be a resounding yes, but this time for us to be at other end of the scale.


This report brings together the most relevant evidence related to post-16 mathematics participation and offers a constructive contribution to the reform agenda.