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

On Wednesday 02 July the Nuffield Foundation published report Mathematics after 16: the state of play, challenges and ways ahead. It argues that reforms to GCSEs and A levels risk undermining the government’s goal of universal participation in post-16 mathematics education, particularly if new ‘Core Maths’ qualifications are not backed by universities. The report brings together a wide range of evidence and warns that plans to make GCSE Maths more demanding, detach AS from A levels, and replace the modular structure in favour of terminal exams could actually discourage students from continuing to study the subject beyond the age of 16.

The report is available to download from the Nuffield Foundation website.


GCSE and A-level reforms timetable delayed

Ofqual has published an exchange of letters with the Secretary of State about the next  steps for A level and GCSE reform. In short, Glenys Stacey, Ofqual’s chief regulator, told the education secretary that new A-level examinations in Mathematics and Further Mathematics would not be ready until 2016.Regarding GCSEs, she wrote:
It is clear that the amount of work needed on GCSEs, including the development of strengthened regulator arrangements, means we cannot be confident that new, high-quality GCSEs in all subjects could be ready in good time for first teaching from 2015″ …
We have therefore decided that we should focus the GCSE reform programme initially on English language, English literature and mathematics, which are the subjects where there are the biggest concerns.

Ofqual has also published the report by Professor Mark Smith on the exam boards’ subject-by-subject review of A level content requirement:

Russell Group universities ‘to review new A-level exams’

From ‘s article in The Telegraph:

The Russell Group, which represents 24 leading institutions including Oxford and Cambridge, is to launch an immediate review of exam questions and course syllabuses […] The sciences, maths and foreign languages could be subject to the biggest changes. […] Maths professors have become increasing alarmed at the “overly structured” and “formulaic approach” to the subject at A-level […]

Prof Nigel Thrift, vice-chancellor of Warwick, said it would form an independent company – [Alcab],  the A-level Content Advisory Body – to represent the views of Russell Group universities and consult other higher education institutions and learned societies.

It will focus on the “facilitating subjects” seen as essential in the sixth-form – maths, further maths, English literature, physics, biology, chemistry, geography, history and both modern and classical languages.

In a letter to Mr Gove, Prof Thrift, who will lead the board, said it would review these A-levels between now and the autumn to “identify where changes are required to ensure the subjects are fit for purpose”.

It will mean delaying the introduction of new-style A-levels in these subjects from 2015 to 2016 if changes are needed, he said.

Prof Thrift also said that the advisory body would contribute to Ofqual’s “longer-term” monitoring of A-levels “to make sure that new qualifications are reviewed each year”.

Mr Gove welcomed the intervention, adding: “Strong leadership from Russell Group universities, and engagement across the wider higher education sector, is critical to the future development of A-levels.”

Read the full article.

Labour would reverse Gove’s A-level plan

From BBC:

Labour will reverse many of the coalition’s changes to A-levels if it wins the next election, shadow schools minister Kevin Brennan has told England’s exam regulator.

In a letter to Ofqual, Mr Brennan said Labour could not support “a policy that undermines both rigour and equity”[…]

Mr Brennan, writing to the chief exams regulator, Glenys Stacey, said “the weight of opposition” to decoupling the two sets of qualifications [A and AS levels –AB] was “overwhelming

He said the move would narrow students’ A-level choices, remove a key indicator for assessing university applicants and undermine progress in widening access to higher education. […]

I understand that the secretary of state’s position on this constitutes a policy direction to you, but in undertaking your work we think that it is important to signal clearly what our position will be following the next general election.

It is on this basis that I write to you to inform you that a future Labour government in 2015 would not proceed with the decoupling of AS and A-levels.

The letter says that under Labour AS-levels would continue to be building blocks towards A-levels and students would continue to choose which AS-level subjects they take as full A-levels.

Mr Brennan also raises concerns about other aspects of the government’s plan, including “linear assessment for all subjects at the end of two years of study, the rushed timetable for implementation, and the limited evidence base on which the proposals have been made“.

A Labour spokesman added that further consultation with subject experts was needed before deciding the exact form of assessment for each A-level.

Read the whole article.


Russel Group’s comment on AS level reform

From the statement by Dr Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group:

“Results from AS-levels taken in Year 12 are useful to universities in the admissions process, especially in considering applications for the most competitive courses. […]

“Whilst we have welcomed the Government’s review of the modular structure of the A-level, we do not believe this need be extended to the complete removal of the AS examination from the A-level.”

More on A Level reform

From THE:

[T]he group of 24 large research-intensive universities will seek to establish an advisory body on 10 A-level subjects to help maintain standards.

The working group on the new standards body will be chaired by Nigel Thrift, vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick, and will focus on A levels in maths, the sciences, languages, geography, history and Classics.

Read the full article.

A major A-level overhaul

From The Telegraph, by  :

[…] on Wednesday Mr Gove will set out a further reform of the qualification – effectively turning the clock back to the 90s before exams were overhauled by Labour.

[…] under the new plan:

• AS-levels will become a standalone qualification with results no longer counting towards final A-level marks;

• Pupils will be able to take new-style AS-levels over one or two years, with qualifications covering exactly half the content of the full version;

• Full A-levels will be completely separate from AS and turned into “linear” qualifications, with all exams sat at the end of the two-year course.

[…] The move is likely to prove controversial among some universities because it will stop them using AS marks to award provisional places on degree courses.

[…] the Russell Group […] would form a new academic board to advise Ofqual on the content of A-levels.

Read the full article.

Ofqual announces changes to A levels

A press release from Ofqual:

Ofqual has today (Friday, 9 November) announced that from September 2013 students in England will no longer be able to sit A level exams in January, after the proposal received strong support following a three month consultation into A level reform. The change will also address recent concerns over how many times students can sit their exams by reducing resit opportunities. […]

Key findings from the consultation are published today and show support for:

  • the principle of higher education engagement with A level design, however there was less support for universities “endorsing” each A-level
  • students being assessed at the end of each of their first and second year of study
  • the removal of January exams and reduced resit opportunities
  • increasing synoptic assessment in A levels, allowing students to integrate and apply their skills, knowledge and understanding with breadth and depth
  • reducing internal assessment.

Full text of the press release. Related reports:


Rethinking maths for the 21st century

From Research News on the University of  Cambridge website:

An exciting new Maths Education Programme is being launched by the University of Cambridge which aims to provide innovative, rich and stimulating materials to help support and inspire teachers and students of advanced post-16 mathematics.

The Project will receive £2.8 million from the Department for Education over the initial three years of the five year project, with a review after three years.

It will be led by Professor Martin Hyland, head of the Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics, and Lynne McClure, director of NRICH, part of

the University’s Millennium Mathematics Project.

The programme will seek to reconsider and rethink how changes in our understanding of maths impact on the mathematics which is studied at school level. The past few decades have seen advances in our understanding of core mathematics, major developments in areas such as probability and the emergence of new disciplines, including mathematical biology.

It will provide rich resources for advanced post-16 mathematics which will augment and support current teaching, be published online and be freely accessible to all. The emphasis will be on simple underlying mathematical ideas, helping students to explore connections between different areas of mathematics, and supporting the development of key mathematical skills and clarity of thought. The impetus for the programme comes from a belief in the importance of dialogue between schools, higher education and research.

Building on the University of Cambridge’s long history of working with schools, for instance through the Millennium Mathematics Project, researchers will consult widely with teachers during the development of the programme. While individual students will also be able to work through the resources independently, the project will provide extensive teacher support material to encourage classroom use. In addition, the programme will include professional development summer schools for teachers. The University of Cambridge programme will also work closely with other organisations supporting advanced post-16 mathematics.

It is anticipated that pilot versions of material will begin to be published next summer, with development continuing over the following two years.

Professor Hyland says: “We are very grateful for this opportunity to share thinking about the major themes in mathematics with teachers. One of the key aims of the project is to provide material to support inspirational and committed teachers in exploring the subject beyond curriculum boundaries, leading to a richer educational experience for all.”

Cambridge University ‘to set maths A-levels’

From  ‘s article in The Telegraph:

Leading mathematicians are to script new syllabuses and exam questions as part of radical reforms being introduced to drive up education standards.

Revised qualifications will feature an emphasis on key disciplines such as trigonometry and probability, “demanding” questions will be set to stretch the brightest pupils and lesson materials will be available online.

The move is designed to address major concerns over a sharp decline in teenagers’ maths skills – leaving hundreds of thousands of young people unfit for the demands of higher education.

Cambridge warned that even the most talented students did not have “sufficient mastery of basic mathematics” and existing A-levels were too “superficial”.

Academics including Sir Tim Gowers, who won the prestigious Fields Medal for mathematics in 1998, will be involved in the project, although it could lead to a significant delay in the introduction of new sixth-form exams. […]

A source close to Michael Gove said: “It is vital we raise standards, raise ambition and get people who really understand subjects back in charge.

“It is incredibly exciting that some of the best mathematicians in the world want to fix A-level maths. This will spread understanding of teaching the deep problem-solving skills that are so vital to universities and businesses, and give many more pupils an advanced education.”

Cambridge’s Department of Pure Mathematics has submitted a report to the Department for Education outlining how new-style maths A-levels should be structured.

It claims that changes are needed because “the majority of the talented students which Cambridge is able to recruit do not have sufficient mastery of basic mathematics to enable them to confidently engage with anything other than routine problems”.

“Existing A-level curriculums treat topics superficially and the UK has lost the tradition of teaching school mathematics coherently and in depth,” it adds. “The effect on Cambridge is acute.”

The document, by Prof Martin Hyland, head of the department, suggests focusing A-levels around a series of “key mathematical ideas”. This is likely to include complex numbers, trigonometry, combinatorics, probability and centres of mass.

In a key change, it recommends creating “graded sets of problems” for bright teenagers. A major part of assessments will be addressed at all students, but Cambridge is proposing a “range of demanding questions to challenge the most able”.

Academics are pledging to “exploit the potential of the web” by making maths materials available online and creating a newly-constructed website for teachers’ feedback.

Mathematicians from other universities will be asked for their input into the new A-level, which will extensively trialled in schools.

But the move is likely to lead to an overall delay

to the introduction of new-style qualifications in the subject, with Cambridge suggesting they could take five years to develop.

The Department for Education originally suggested it wanted new A-levels to be taught for the first time in 2014, although the Cambridge plan would rule out major changes until 2017 at the earliest.

Read the full article.