A GCSE mathematics course will meet the needs of most students in Years 10 and 11. But the formality of the assessment, and the level of demand, will inevitably put even a foundation level GCSE course out of the reach of some lower achievers. An entry-level qualification, designed to cover levels 1 to 3 of the national curriculum, may give some students a better chance to show what they can do. At present, seven entry-level qualifications in maths are approved by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and are listed on its website (www.qca.org.ukentry-level). They offer a range of options, and different awards are likely to suit students in different situations. There are several points to be considered when making a choice.
Tests and coursework The QCA requires at least 50 per cent of the "assessment components" for an entry-level award to consist of "tasks or other components which are externally set or regulated, externally marked or moderated and conducted under supervised and specified conditions".
In practice, many of the awarding bodies go much further than this, with all aspects of the assessment externally set or regulated and marked by teachers whose results are then moderated. All but one of the awards come from examination boards, which use tests to cover at least part of the assessment. But the tests vary greatly in their nature and degree of formality. Edexcel, for example, offers three tests, one each at levels 1, 2 and 3, which are carefully designed to be accessible to a wide range of pupils.
However, as the table indicates, some awarding bodies do not offer an award at level 1. Furthermore, the exemplar test materials indicate that in some cases the coverage goes beyond level 3. Again, some boards require students to do the tests in a given amount of time on a given day, while others are more flexible. Even such a simple matter as the freedom to choose when to tackle the assessment could make all the difference to some students, who are likely to perform differently on different days.
Most of the awarding bodies also require students to undertake some form of coursework - but here again, different boards mean different things by this. Centres may choose to design their own coursework tasks, following the examples provided by the awarding bodies. Many offer investigative tasks similar to those that teachers may know from GCSE, but with a more practical approach where appropriate. In addition, AQA (SEG) has adapted some of the key stage 3 level 1 and 2 tasks, which allow students to demonstrate their achievement through practical activity and discussion. Most of the exemplar material from AQA (NEAB), on the other hand, consists of traditional exercises made up of a list of sums or a set of problems relating to a particular topic.
The most flexible option comes from the Open College of the North West and does not involve any formal tests at all. These entry-level awards are assessed entirely through a wide range of tasks that are developed by teachers, with guidance from the OCNW, to suit the particular interests and circumstances of their students. These awards have more in common with national vocational qualifications and key skills than with GCSEs, forming part of an extended structure which equates with national vocational qualifications and key skills up to level 3.
The awards are likely to makeheavy demands on teachers, who are expected to observe and record evidence of their students' mathematical activity as it occurs. But the well-presented exemplar material offers useful guidance and teachers can match the assessment to the student, rather than making the student adapt to the assessment. This may suit students who have a good grasp of maths but find it difficult to manage a formal test situation. Unfortunately, this option is at present "accredited for use post-16 only" by the QCA.
Special arrangements Exam boards need to ensure that all their assessment materials are accessible, as they stand, to as many students as possible. This issue is particularly important in the context of entry-level awards, since a number of students may have significant special assessment needs that should be taken into account. Here again, practice varies widely. Even the rules relating to the use of readers and amanuenses vary between awarding bodies; some boards require centres to seek formal permission for these while other see them as routine for students who may be working at level 1 or 2 of the national curriculum.
Some entry-level awards are nearly as formal as a GCSE but others are much more relaxed, with flexibility about what students do and when and where they do it. So the mode of assessment, with accessible tests taken when the student feels ready, and the opportunity to use unwritten, ephemeral evidence for coursework, may enable the student to pass, when a more formal approach might cause them to fail. But it is the nature of the assessment, not the student's grasp of the maths being assessed, that causes the "failure".
A more flexible approach might enable some students to demonstrate achievement at or even above level 4 but, because this is permitted only for students working at entry level, the most they can achieve is level 3, which is below the bottom grade available at GCSE.
Choosing a course A teacher selecting an entry-level course for a group of students would do well to consider all the possibilities, rather than automatically opting for the exam board used for other qualifications or other subjects. A mainstream school that is heavily involved in SMP might find it easier to integrate the entry level course from the same scheme into the overall structure of the maths curriculum - but this option offers little for pupils working at level 1.
The Edexcel entry-level offers appropriate, accessible assessment materials for pupils working at all levels, and would integrate well with GCSE. The aural or mental test which constitutes 10 per cent of the assessment for the AQA (SEG) qualification may make this particularly appropriate for some pupils, although others might find it daunting.
The OCNW offers the most flexible structure, relying on the collection of evidence that arises as students follow a range of vocational courses appropriate to their particular abilities and aptitudes. This approach might fit less well with the ethos of a conventional mainstream school but it could be particularly appropriate to students in a special school, training centre or unit.
There is no single award that will suit every student in every situation. A choice must be made but selecting the entry-level award that is right for your students could make all the difference.
Tandi Clausen-May works at the National Foundation for Educational Research and is a member of the general council of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics