Find Out More About Core Maths with Tom Rainbow 

Tom RainbowAn Interview with Tom Rainbow, Core Maths Professional Development Lead with the AMSP (Advanced Mathematics Support Programme).



What exactly is Core Maths, and what kind of topics does it cover? 

Core Maths is an umbrella term for a specific type of level 3 maths qualification that is defined by the government’s technical guidance. There are currently three different awarding organisations offering Core Maths: 

  • AQA (three versions of the AQA course enable students to specialise in either statistics, probability or modelling with graphs) 
  • OCR (there are two separate awards offered by OCR; one focusses more on statistics, the other on critical reasoning)  
  • Edexcel 

These qualifications are equal in size to an AS level qualification and are graded A-E. They have the same number of UCAS tariff points as an AS level qualification. Core Maths qualifications also count in the Advanced Level Maths measure and the Tech Bacc measure for schools/colleges as part of the 16 to18 performance measures.  

Students who study Core Maths will learn how to manage money, how to use data and critically analyse statistics, develop their estimation skills, work with probability and, crucially in this day and age, they will gain valuable experience in how to use a spreadsheet…the Core Maths classroom is just about the only place in schools and colleges in England where this will happen! But rather than approaching the learning as a series of mathematical processes, Core Maths teachers are encouraged to use interesting, authentic and relevant contextual settings as starting points. It’s an exciting way to teach AND learn.  


What are some of the benefits of studying Core Maths? 

They are numerous, and in my opinion, the most significant benefit of studying Core Maths is that it does a great job in preparing students for work and life beyond school. If done well it can transform their relationship with mathematics from a series of abstract and seemingly irrelevant exercises in a textbook into a set of tools which can be used to understand the world they live in more effectively.  

In addition, Core Maths helps to support the learning of the mathematical elements of many A level subjects that use mathematics within context such as Biology, Geography, Psychology and Business Studies. 

Here are some recent quotes from Core Maths students:  

“It is a subject which is highly applicable to practically anything you may end up doing as career”. 

“It allows you to gain critical and analytical thinking skills, you could learn so much from it and apply it to daily life”. 

“It helps you get ready for the real world”. 

“It’s extremely fun and helpful” 


Can studying Core Maths help with University Offers? 

Definitely, although this varies significantly both between and, in some cases, within universities. There are a number of universities in England that have made Core Maths part of their alternative offer structure. This means that for many of their courses if a student achieves a certain grade in Core Maths (usually a B or A grade) their degree offer will be reduced by one grade (e.g. from AAA to AAB). This is obviously very incentivising for students, and it would be in a school’s interest to let their prospective Core Maths students know of this when they are trying to recruit them onto the course.  

The universities that are currently advertising that this will happen in their literature are: Bath, Sheffield, York, Aston, Exeter and Leeds. Many other universities are using this approach but more on a case-by-case basis, it’s not overtly mentioned in their prospectuses. We have worked extensively with universities to raise their awareness of Core Maths and the course is universally welcomed by lecturers who have quantitative elements to their courses, it’s just that often they aren’t the people who are making decisions regarding admissions! Alternative admissions offers for level 3 maths.  


Tell us a bit more about your role with the AMSP… 

My colleague Catherine Van Saarloos and I head up the AMSP’s professional development for Core Maths. I am therefore in the privileged position of working with hundreds, if not thousands, of wonderful maths teachers every year who are either teaching, or planning to teach, the course. We also work with many initial teacher training providers delivering mainly one-day courses designed to inform them about the Core Maths qualifications, explain the philosophy that underpins the teaching and learning of Core Maths and illustrate possible approaches to teaching the course. We have an extensive range of professional development opportunities that teachers in state funded schools and colleges can access free of charge, from events aimed at those not yet teaching the course right through to others specifically designed to develop the most experienced Core Maths teachers in the country. Which Core Maths professional development course is right for me? 


How do you encourage students to choose Core Maths? 

A compelling argument I used to share with prospective Core Maths students when I was working in school is one of the reasons Core Maths exists in the first place – international comparisons. In a series of studies by the Nuffield Foundation (commissioned by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne) in the early 2010s, it was found that the UK is very unusual among countries with similar economies in that the majority of its young people do not study any mathematics beyond GCSE past the age of 16. England in particular had extremely low figures. One of the studies was entitled ‘Is the UK an Outlier?’. The fact that this was the name of the report tells you all you need to know! Students I spoke to were often quite alarmed that this was the case and recognised that if they wanted to have the best chance in life it would be a good thing to do Core Maths so that they can compete for university places and jobs with people from other parts of the world. 

Studying Core Maths offers many benefits for students; primarily they are learning how to use mathematics to help them in their current and future lives. This can be supporting them in their other level 3 qualifications, preparing them for their time in higher education or possible career paths or just helping them make sense of an increasingly confusing and complex world. Getting across to students that Core Maths can help ‘level the playing field of opportunity’ in a global marketplace can be very persuasive… 


What support and training are available to teachers who are teaching Core Maths? 

At the AMSP we try to cater for all levels of experience and confidence when working with teachers of Core Maths. It’s a hugely exciting course to teach but for some maths teachers the contextual and, ideally, discursive nature of Core Maths lessons can be quite a shift in practice. Our professional development support tends to fall into one of four broad categories: networking and sharing, providing information and advice, subject knowledge and pedagogical development. Obviously, there are overlaps between these categories so, for example, you may be a participant on a pedagogy work group (we run these in partnership with the Maths Hubs) but within that work group you may well be gaining information and advice and brushing up on your subject knowledge. We also run courses for teachers of A levels that use lots of the mathematics covered in Core Maths, specifically Biology, Psychology and Geography. Often teachers of these subjects will go on to deliver Core Maths themselves and the contexts and experiences they can draw on are often fascinating and highly relevant.   


What’s your own experience of teaching Core Maths in the classroom?  

I taught Core Maths since its inception in 2014 until I started working for MEI (Maths in Education and Industry) in 2018. Core Maths for me was revelatory and I would say it was the single biggest shift in my classroom practice since I started teaching in 1994. I came to realise, pretty quickly, that by shifting the focus onto context and letting the maths follow, students responded in a very different way - quiet students became chatty, bored students became curious, weaker students became more confident. The students realised that the maths was important…without it often conclusions either couldn’t be formed or would be based on weak foundations. That’s not to say that it was always plain sailing – there were many missteps and some students found that way of working discombobulating but with experience I became better at managing the transition from GCSE to Core Maths and disgruntled students were few and far between. 


Do you have a favourite topic in Core Maths?  

I like it all! As the course focuses primarily on contextualised problem solving, an interesting context could lead into any number of mathematical techniques being used -  in deciding which country has done the best in the Olympic Games for example, you end up looking at sampling techniques, different forms of summary statistics and graphical representations; you may be using spreadsheets or graphical packages such as Desmos, Geogebra or CODAP; you may look at population, wealth, life expectancy or sports funding…So, I guess it would be more accurate to say that my favourite Core Maths moments have been when a problem has started to take on a life of its own and my students have started to dictate the direction of travel they want to go in with it.  


Finally, is there anything else you’d like to share with trainee teachers regarding Core Maths? 

Working with trainees is one of my favourite parts of the job. The feedback from these days is usually really positive and trainees often leave the days fired up to make a difference in the schools they are (or will be) working in. I believe that all our youngsters in the country should have the opportunity to study this course, but the fact of the matter is that under the current funding and curriculum structures, offering Core Maths can represent a sizeable challenge to schools and colleges. Trainee teachers should not underestimate what a difference they can make in opening up, or leading, conversations about getting the course into schools, getting involved in its delivery or even running it in their school! Core Maths works best when there are Core Maths ‘champions’ within a school or college and it is always gratifying to meet teachers who a couple of years earlier were attending one of our ITT days who are now in that position. 


Useful Resources and Further Information  

All you ever need to know about Core Maths is here: Getting Started with Core Maths



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