The alternative maths GCSE curriculum: dead on arrival?

The MEI's proposed new GCSE for post-16 students: a game changer, or destined to be forgotten? Stephen Exley reports

Stephen Exley

The alternative maths GCSE curriculum: Dead on arrival?

There are few news stories that would affect teachers and students of maths as much as the announcement of a brand-new GCSE curriculum.

And, for those students trapped in a cycle of GCSE resits by the condition of funding rule, there are few things that would be greeted with as much excitement as the unveiling of a brand-new modular curriculum designed with their needs in mind.

Which is why the report announced today by the Mathematics in Education and Industry (MEI) charity ­– outlining a curriculum focused on developing fluency and confidence with the mathematical knowledge and skills these young people need – has the potential to be a game changer.

However, there’s a very real possibility that the new qualification it advocates could never see the light of day.

Background: GCSE resits: English and maths pass rate drops

Ofsted: Teaching to the test hits GCSE resit grades, says inspectorate

Opinion: Is AI the secret to improving GCSE resit pass rates?

Is a modular GCSE viable?

There was no Department for Education involvement. The project was made possible by a £60,000 grant from the Nuffield Foundation to investigate the feasibility of a new mathematics GCSE curriculum for post-16 resit students.

It’s not the first time this has been suggested. Back in 2014, I reported on calls by then exam board chief Mark Dawe (now, of course, at the helm of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers ­­– and still banging the drum on the issue of GCSE resits today) for an “adult GCSE”: a modular version of the qualification for those who would struggle with reformed, linear version.

A similar idea for a modular GCSE for adult learners emerged from Dame Sally Coates' 2016 review of prison education.

MEI’s project was inspired by Professor Sir Adrian Smith’s 2017 review of maths education for 16- to 18-year-olds in England, which recommended that “in view of the low GCSE resit success rates and new GCSE requirements, the Department for Education should review its 16-18 resit policy with the aim that a greater proportion of students without a grade C or equivalent attain appropriate mathematical understanding by age 18. Specifically, there should be fresh consideration of appropriate curricula and qualifications for these students and the extent to which current policy incentivises these to be offered.”

While some former ministers have (publicly at least) been sympathetic – not least Rory Stewart and Robert Halfon –­ any manoeuvres have been quickly stamped out by the DfE’s resident hardy perennial, Nick Gibb, who has remained staunchly opposed to anything that could undermine the GCSE brand.

As yet, there has been no official response to the MEI report. If history is anything to go by, Gibb would rather (to borrow his boss’ choice phrase) end up "dead in a ditch" than allow this vision to come to pass.

Whether the proposals will find a more favourable response than previous efforts seems to come down to which ministers will be occupying the DfE after the next government reshuffle, expected next month.

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Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley is a freelance writer, director of external affairs at Villiers Park Educational Trust and former FE editor at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @stephenexley

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