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Maths teachers worried about 'inadequate' algebra in GCSEs

Teachers are having to give A-level maths students catch-up lessons in algebra to make up for shortcomings at GCSE, new research has found.

Even the brightest pupils needed extra help in order to cope with the amount of algebra in the A-level course, teachers told academics from the research wing of the Cambridge Assessment exam board.

“They can achieve an A at GCSE with 65 per cent and little algebraic ability,” one teacher said. “They think they are good at maths but, not surprisingly, bomb at A-level, because it is so algebraic.”

Maths teachers from 179 schools were asked to name the areas of the A-level syllabus for which they felt students could be better-prepared at GCSE. Sixty-one per cent of comments referred to algebra, which forms a central part of the A-level course.

“The GCSE exam requires very little understanding to gain the top grades,” one teacher said. Another added: “You can now get a B [at GCSE] with very little algebra. This is inadequate.”

The majority – 86 per cent – of respondents said they offered catch-up lessons to some or all of their A-level students. By far the most common area addressed during these sessions was algebra, the Cambridge Assessment researchers will tell the British Education Research Association (Bera) conference today.

“Algebra, algebra and algebra,” one teacher said. “Geometry a bit, too.”

The teachers insisted that this was in no way a reflection on the quality of their GCSE lessons. “We prepare our students very well for the GCSE exam,” one respondent said. “Our students get very good results and, as a consequence, think they are better at maths than they actually are. A few students then decide to take A-level maths and are not really up to it.”

Reforms to maths GCSEs, which will be implemented next September, will include more algebraic problem-solving work. But, the researchers said: “The new content does not necessarily cover the entirety of the areas…identified as problematic.”

In a separate Cambridge Assessment study, also being presented at the Bera conference, academics found that there was a significant gap between the demands of A-level and undergraduate maths courses.

A-level maths and further maths courses were found to rely far more on routine use of procedures than was the case for university courses, which tended to require much more independent thought from students.

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