Maths - Does not compute

16th September 2011 at 01:00
Why do students find the subject so difficult at A-level?

It's that time of year again. Very soon, those of us who teach A- level will be faced with a classful of Year 12 students, fresh from six weeks of lie-ins, trips abroad and Celebrity Big Brother, ready to embark on their AS in maths. And as we look out at that sea of faces, we can be sure of one thing - in a year's time, half of them will not be here. Whether they choose to drop AS, or just fail, the sad fact remains that a high proportion do not complete their full maths A-level. So why do they find it so difficult?

A large part of the answer, I feel, has to do with the calibre of students. In many sixth-forms and colleges, the entry requirement to study a subject at A-level is a grade B at GCSE (although I have heard cases of Cs and even Gs being accepted). One only needs to look at what a student needs to do to achieve a grade B in maths GCSE to see the problem. I have seen students scrape 60 per cent (good enough for a grade A in some years) and yet their exam paper suggests that they have failed to grasp the vast majority of the algebra or trigonometry, which are the cornerstones of the first two A-level modules. And yet for financial, political and many other reasons, colleges and sixth-forms cannot turn away these students, even though all the evidence suggests that they will struggle.

Another aspect is the nature of the GCSE qualification. As well as the low marks required, the exam papers have become predictable and perfectly geared to rote learning. A-level is not like this. For the past few years my colleagues and I have wondered what exactly is going on in the life of the Core 3 examiner (the board will remain nameless) to cause them to produce such nasty, unpredictable questions. Students are simply not prepared for this and, naturally, come unstuck.

Is the teaching to blame? It may be a generalisation, but in many cases A- level still tends to be taught in a traditional, chalk-and-talk way to students who just six weeks earlier were enjoying the fruits of all the developments of teaching at key stages 3 and 4. But with so much content to get through for A-level, it is often hard to find time for rich tasks that will deepen understanding.

So, what is the solution? Hopefully, the new GCSE will better reward students who are problem solvers and have a deeper understanding of maths, and hence help to produce more suitable A-level candidates. Then there are outstanding, freely-available resources out there, such as Jonny Griffith's risps (rich starting points), Nrich's wealth of problems and the classic standards units, all of which will challenge students and harden them for the demands of the course.

And if all of this fails, let's just cross our fingers for another impossible question on the exam and the subsequent lowering of grade boundaries.



Craig Barton has compiled collections of materials to ease pupils into their studies at post-16 level, entitled Rich Starting Points in A-level Mathematics. Find them and lots more at

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