Exclusive: Maths 'disaster' as schools report 'alarming' decline in post-16 take-up

'Despair, bitterness and anger' over multiple reforms to subject, according to new survey of maths teachers

Helen Ward

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Maths teachers warned that it was going to happen – and now they have been proved right.

An “alarming” decline in the number of 16-year-old students willing to continue studying maths after taking this year’s tougher GCSE has been revealed by new research.

The Mathematical Association’s study, shared with Tes, also shows that schools and colleges have cut back on the maths courses they offer in response to funding changes and the move to linear A levels from the old A/AS-level modular system.

More than half of the maths departments surveyed by the Association reported a decrease of at least 10 per cent in applications to start A-level maths in September, compared with September 2016. 

Applications for A-level further maths have also fallen sharply – one in four maths departments said they were expecting no more than half the number they had this year.

“The scale of these potential decreases is alarming,” David Miles, spokesman for the Mathematical Association, a subject association for school and university maths teachers said.

“Many comments revealed a sense of despair, bitterness and anger that the hard-won advances in the popularity of both A levels will apparently be undone by the simultaneous introduction of multiple significant reforms.”

The anonymous opinions of teachers who participated in the survey were stark. “It’s a bloody disaster,” one said.

“We’ve all dedicated our professional lives to building these numbers, only for everything to be ruined by a handful of uninformed meddlers,” another commented.

“Well done to the government for reversing the take-up of maths – idiots,” said a third.

Maths has become the most popular A-level subject in recent years – after a massive 18.5 per cent drop in A-level entries in 2002, following the unexpectedly low AS grades that resulted from the introduction of Curriculum 2000 exam reforms.

The new drop in entries is also being blamed on exam reform. This time, the new “big, fat” maths GCSE – tougher and with more content – is cited as a major reason for the drop-off in interest post-16.

Maths teachers had already flagged up the problems that are now emerging. 

Warnings about the effect of government reforms on the take-up of A-level maths stretch back to at least 2014, when the A-level content advisory board – made up of academics from leading universities – wrote to the Department for Education. It said that “proposed changes to GCSE, and the introduction of core maths, could all put a downward pressure upon student uptake at A level”. 

The board added that the decoupling of AS and A level also made maths a “higher risk option” than other subjects for 16-year-olds, and it warned that “the threat to further maths is even greater.” 

Now, the responses from maths teachers taking part in the association’s survey suggest those fears were more than justified.

One wrote that the new GCSE has “completely destroyed” the confidence of students who have “had enough of maths”.

Craig Barton, Tes' maths specialist, said the negative impact from the introduction of the qualification was “a real shame”. 

But he said: “The thing with the 9-1 GCSE is it’s a far better preparation for A level than the legacy GCSE. 

“There is more geometry and the algebra is more complex. The massive jump between GCSE and A level will be less.

“But I think it comes down to the fact that the GCSE has been so mishandled and there has been so much uncertainty about how it would be assessed, and I think that has knocked confidence. What a terrible tragedy that numbers have dropped.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: "Maths A-level entries are rising, not falling. It is the most popular subject at A level for the fourth year in a row, with 88,000 entries in total and the percentage of people studying it rose three per cent in the last year."


This is an edited version of an article in the 14 July edition of Tes. Subscribers can view the full article here. This week's Tes magazine is available at all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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Helen Ward

Helen Ward

Helen Ward is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @teshelen

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