Should all students continue studying mathematics to 18?

(The 2017 Smith Review)

YES, and it’s not just me saying this! Read the recent report from the Post-16 Smith review and that should convince you.

But, if you don’t already agree/need convincing/haven’t the time to read the Smith report/want to know what ‘mathematics’ means here, then read on.

Just to be clear: my focus here is on students who have passed their GCSE Mathematics immediately after the end of year 11. Many other areas are covered by the Smtih report for those in Post-16 education where ‘mathematics’ is compulsory anyway: GCSE resits for those that failed to pass it in year 11, Functional Skills for whom GCSE isn’t appropriate, and T levels for those on a Technical Education pathway.

For far too long England (and the rest of the UK) has been an outlier compared with ‘competitor economies’ for the percentage of students continuing with mathematics post-16, and not in a good way - England remains unusual among advanced countries in that the study of mathematics is not universal for all students beyond age 16. Almost three quarters of students with a pass in GCSE Mathematics at age 16 choose not to study mathematics beyond this level. Most of these students continue at school or college with A levels (or other level 3 qualifications), and then head off to university to study for degrees, most of which have significant mathematical, statistical or quantitative elements.

Ever since an influential report highlighted how out of step England/UK was, considerable activity has been taking place on this front by ACME and others, but more importantly by Department for Education (DfE).

This culminated recently with the HM Treasury and DfE initiating a review by Professor Sir Adrian Smith, FRS announced in the March 2016 Budget to consider:

the case for and feasibility of all students continuing some form of mathematics until 18’, with ‘mathematics being interpreted in its broadest sense, including quantitative skills, statistics and data analysis

The review was prompted by:

the increasing importance of mathematical and quantitative skills to the future workforce

which is clearly related to the issue highlighted above of low levels of participation in mathematics post-16.

The Government backed this up with the publication of their Industrial Strategy: building a Britain fit for the future, including:

Improving the take up of maths qualifications and the quality of maths teaching across the education system is one of the most significant interventions that government can make to tackle STEM skills shortages and secure wider benefits for the economy.
We will Invest an additional £406m in maths, digital and technical education, helping to address the shortage of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills.
Building on Sir Adrian Smith’s recommendation to make core maths available to all students on level 3 pathways, we will incentivise education institutions to offer maths by providing a £600 premium to existing per pupil funding rates for each additional student who takes maths or further maths at AS/A level or core maths. This will help education providers to support more students aged 16 and over to study maths.”

Sir Adrian’s long-awaited report was published in July 2017 and one which I very much welcome. It is the most comprehensive and accurate reflection of the current state of 16-18 mathematics in England one could imagine. The thorough investigation has led to Sir Adrian to make 18 clear, strong and wide-ranging recommendations.

Sir Adrian’s overall conclusion is that:

we do not yet have the appropriate range of pathways available or the capacity to deliver the required volume and range of teaching for all to continue studying mathematics post 16.

but he

would hope that if we were able to move forward over the next few years with many of the recommendations in this report, we might realistically aspire to such a vision within a decade.

The case for all students continuing mathematics to 18 couldn’t be clearer – just read the report!

The DfE agree, which is reassuring, if unsurprising, with Nick Gibb, Minister of State for School Standards, saying in his response to the report that the review had made a:

strong case for raising participation in post-16 mathematics and improving both basic and advanced maths skills.

The review has 18 recommendations which can be found on pages 7-14 in the report. The first two that need immediate action are:

The DfE should:

  • seek to ensure that schools and colleges are able to offer all students on academic routes and potentially students on other level 3 programmes access to a Core Maths qualification

  • reconsider the institutional incentives and disincentives arising from the 16-19 funding model for schools and colleges, with a view to removing disincentives for mathematics provision’ (AS and A level Further Mathematics within four/five A level programmes and core maths).

The Government’s response includes establishing a new Level 3 Maths Support Programme (L3MSP) which ‘will build on the momentum created by the Further Mathematics and Core Maths Support Programmes’. and the significant funding announced in the November 2017 Budget Statement and their Industrial Strategy: building a Britain fit for the future.

There is absolutely no doubt that Government is fully behind more students continuing studying mathematics to 18, and has provided two clear pathways for those with a GCSE pass: AS and A levels in Mathematics and Further Mathematics and Core Maths:

AS/A levels in Mathematics and Further Mathematics:

The significant reforms in AS and A levels in Mathematics and Further Mathematics, led by leading universities, will also provide for much better preparation for undergraduate study.

Core Maths

Core Maths refers to a set of new level 3 qualifications designed to provide opportunities for students who achieved a pass in GCSE Mathematics (but who are not taking AS/A level Mathematics) to continue with the subject. These qualifications are intended to complement a range of academic and technical programmes, designed to strengthen and build on students’ existing skills, with a focus on using and applying mathematics and statistics, particularly in real life scenarios, and with a strong emphasis on contextualised problem-solving.

So, mathematics for all to 18 doesn’t mean AS/A level mathematics – it means mathematics appropriate to their needs, which for the many with a GCSE pass in Mathematics will mean Core Maths.

Two key recommendations concern negative attitudes to mathematics and the importance of mathematics to a wide range of careers. Only by tackling these will all students willingly studying mathematics to 18 - students will opt to take mathematics so long as it is of clear benefit to them, i.e. it is accessible and relevant.

Compulsion isn’t the answer – getting students’ ‘buy-in’ is, though, so that ‘compulsion’ then becomes a redundant notion anyway.

Finally, the longer-term goals are clear from the report’s final recommendation on the long-term implications of the rise of data science for education and training in mathematics and quantitative skills.

In the meantime, with a cast-iron case already made for all students to continue mathematics to 18, we now all need to crack on and make it happen!

Professor Paul Glaister, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Reading, UK.