New maths GCSE 'causes drop in A-level applications'

5th April 2017 at 12:26
maths poll indicates drop in entries
Teachers' poll gives first indication that A-level entries in maths could fall after the introduction of tougher GCSE this year

Many students are reluctant to apply to study A-level maths or further maths next year after being put off by the harder GCSE, a new poll suggests.

As students in Year 11 prepare to take the so-called “big, fat” GCSE maths this summer, 34 per cent of teachers said there had been a drop in applications for maths A level in their school or college for September 2017 – according to a Twitter survey by the Mathematical Association (MA). 

A second Twitter poll also found that 40 per cent of respondents reported a drop in applications for further maths A level.

The small-scale polls were run after the association had heard concerns from members about applications falling.

The new maths GCSE is more challenging than the previous exam. And because it is only in maths and English that the new GCSEs have been introduced this year, these exams are now relatively harder than other subjects.

“In the last few weeks, this issue has come up time and time again,” said Jennie Golding, lecturer in maths education at UCL Institute of Education and president of the MA. “People are saying, ‘Of course, our numbers are down for next year’s Year 12’.

“It could be because of the impact that the new GCSE in maths is having – students are feeling relatively less successful in maths than they would have done historically – and teachers can’t be as confident about saying they are heading for a grade 8 or a grade 9 because they don’t know how it will pan out this summer. It is concerning.”

'Alarm bells ought to be ringing'

The poll on A-level maths, in which 127 people responded, also reveals that applications were up in 17 per cent of schools, unchanged in 19 per cent, and in 30 per cent of cases they did not know.

The survey for further maths, which was answered by 138 people, shows similar results, with 13 per cent of respondents saying applications were up, 14 per cent saying they were unchanged and 33 per cent didn’t know.

“We are getting a sizeable proportion of people saying there are multiple issues and they are affecting the take-up of post-16 maths next year. Alarm bells ought to be ringing,” said Golding.

She added that students need to hear the message that, although the GCSE is harder, it will better prepare them for A level, and that maths is an important subject for many careers.

Charlie Stripp, director of the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics, said the centre was aware of early indications from schools and colleges that they are expecting fewer pupils to start AS/A level maths courses this September. 

He said: "If this happens, it will be very bad news, coming after years of strong growth in the popularity of maths at this level. There are a number of policy changes contributing to this apparent trend, each of which has the potential to affect a young person’s choice—or what is available for them to choose—in a different way. Some changes are, in themselves, welcome: more rigorous GCSE Maths, for example. Others are less so: three A levels rather than four becoming the norm, for example.

“However, what has certainly not changed is the fact that studying advanced level maths, even just for one year after GCSE to get an AS level, provides a major boost to a young person’s chances of academic and career progression."

The fact that GCSE maths is now more demanding "should be seen as a development that will better equip pupils for A/AS level maths rather than deter them," he added, saying: "I’d urge teachers and those in positions of influence over current Year 11 students to stress this point strongly."

He urged policy-makers to take note of the "early warning signs" and "do everything possible to ensure that the financial arrangements are in place—or put back in place-- that enable schools and colleges to continue to be able to offer AS/A level Maths and Further Maths to all students who would benefit from taking them|.

He added: "Otherwise the gains we have made in recent years could disappear and  both individual students and the country as a whole will lose out.”

The poll comes after a research project into the future of post-16 maths, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, raised concerns of a “perfect storm” hitting the subject.

The "Rethinking the Value of Advanced Mathematics Participation" (REVAMP) study, published earlier this year, pointed out that as well as the psychological impact of maths being a relatively harder GCSE, the decoupling of A and AS levels meant students were less likely to gamble on taking it as an AS level with the option of continuing to a full A level in Year 13.

Changes to maths under Curriculum 2000 saw entries for A-level maths drop by 18.5 per cent between 2001 and 2002, after students got unexpectedly low AS grades.

Some schools have had to drop AS and A-level subjects, including further maths, due to the funding squeeze.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Our new GCSEs will provide more rigorous content to equip young people with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the future. The maths GCSE has been designed to match the best internationally and will mean students are better prepared to study this vital subject at A level.

“We want to see more young people choosing to study maths after the age of 16. It is the only school subject in the UK which has been proven to add to earnings and according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, children with good maths at school earn significantly more in their 30s than their peers.”

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