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GCSE maths reforms will fail weak students, researchers warn

Reforms of the maths GCSE could leave weaker students stranded because of the focus on end-of-course exams, educational experts have warned.

The GCSEs are due to be changed from September 2015 to become "more demanding, more fulfilling and more stretching", the government has said.

Proposed changes include ending the current modular system, which breaks courses up into smaller chunks, to switch to exams at the end of two-year courses. The changes are currently being consulted on by Ofqual, while a parallel Department for Education consultation on the content has just ended. 

But Gillian Whitehouse and Newman Burdett, of the National Foundation for Educational Research, have said that the reforms could backfire and exacerbate problems for weaker students.

 “The proposed reforms to GCSEs focus on improving standards, with the expectation that lower achievers will be ‘dragged up’ in the wake of the reform," the academics wrote for the NfER website.

"We believe, however, that there is a risk that this strategy will further disenfranchise the weakest and lead to greater failure rates. Evidence shows that increasing examinations pressure motivates only those who already do well and runs the risk of further disengaging those who do not.”

Instead, they argue, bigger changes are needed – with a number of different levels of maths courses available for 14 to 16-year-olds and the ability to switch between them so children do not become "trapped".

They point out that there is an "uncomfortably high" level of underachievement in maths in England. One government survey, which included assessing adults’ current numeracy skills, found only 22 per cent of the population are working above the level of GCSE grade C maths.

The charity National Numeracy supports the NfER findings. In its response to the DfE consultation, it has suggested that the government waits for the results of its own pilot into a dual GCSE exam, in which students take a "linked pair" of GCSEs in mathematical methods and applications,before making major changes. A spokeswoman for National Numeracy said: “We believe there is now a very strong case for two separate maths GCSE exams.”

The DfE argues that it is carrying out a system-wide overhaul of maths. “We are introducing a more rigorous primary and secondary maths curriculum and are reforming GCSE maths to match the best exams in the world," a spokesperson said.

“From next month all students who do not get a grade C in maths GCSE will carry on studying the subject. We are involving our top universities in developing new maths A levels and are funding Cambridge University to develop an advanced maths curriculum for A level students so they are ready for rigorous degree courses.

"We have introduced new specialist maths free schools and are providing the biggest bursaries for the best maths graduates to train to teach.”

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