More than a decade of growth in A-level maths entries is threatened by government exam reforms that risk shattering students’ confidence in the subject, new academic research warns.
The final report of the Rethinking the Value of Advanced Mathematics Participation (Revamp) study raises concerns about the impact of a new, tougher maths GCSE and new grading system, as well as the decoupling of A and AS levels.
Co-author Andrew Noyes, head of the school of education at the University of Nottingham, said that there was “a possibility of a perfect storm”.
“When you change everything all at the same time you run the risk of unintended consequences,” he added.
‘When you change everything all at the same time you run the risk of unintended consequences’
Professor Noyes warned that the changes were likely to particularly affect girls – who are already less likely to take maths post-16 – despite pledges from the government to do more to encourage continued study of the subject.
Meanwhile, maths teachers have revealed that GCSE grading changes has already led to schools making entry requirements for sixth-form maths courses harder, which is threatening the “fragile” improvement in A-level maths uptake.
The warnings come at a time when the continuing study of maths is high on the government’s agenda. Ministers have asked Sir Adrian Smith to explore the feasibility of compulsory maths study for all pupils up to the age of 18, although his report, due at the end of 2016, has yet to be published.
Negative psychology brewing
The Revamp report, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, says that the new GCSE 1-9 grading structure “is likely to have a detrimental effect on student self-perception” of their ability in the subject and therefore on A-level maths entries.
Because the new, so-called “big, fat” maths GCSE was designed to be more challenging than the previous GCSE, fewer students would be expected to achieve the equivalent of A and A* – grades 7, 8 and 9 under the new numerical system – making them less likely to choose to progress to A level.
The expected drop is also due to the psychological effect of dividing the current A and A* grades into the three new grading levels, according to Professor Noyes.
Under the former system, 51,000 pupils would have received the highest grade: an A* in GCSE maths. But it is estimated that the new top grade 9 would go to only 22,000 students under the new approach, the study says.
‘The GCSE may not be a very positive experience for young people’
“The issue is more one of perception,” said Professor Noyes. “If you get a 7, you are two grades off the top grade. I think the psychological impact will be students thinking that they are not as good at maths because they are two grades off the top.”
Sue Pope, of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics, said that the progress in post-16 maths uptake after the “devastating” impact of Curriculum 2000 – which saw an 18.5 per cent drop in A-level entries after unexpectedly low AS grades – was now in jeopardy because the new GCSE grades were making A-level entry requirements tougher.
“Some schools that were taking B [grades] at GCSE [for pupils] to start on A-level courses are now just taking [grade] 7, even though the GCSE is harder,” she said.
“The GCSE may not be a very positive experience for young people. They may come out feeling they are not able to do a lot of it, even if they get a good grade. With all the changes now happening, we are saying that post-16 maths is fragile – you have to be careful what you do. It all feels very precarious”.
Grades have predictive effect
Professor Noyes is concerned that the GCSE changes will have a particular effect on girls.
“Girls and boys do about the same at GCSE [maths], but girls do better in GCSE overall,” he told TES. “So girls’ maths grades are slightly lower than their average grade.
“The difference between GCSE maths grade and the average GCSE grade does have a bit of a predictive effect: if you get all A* grades and then get an A in maths, you are less likely to do maths than if you get As in everything and an A in maths.”
The Revamp study argues that decoupling AS and A levels could also threaten maths A-level completions. It says the reform, together with changes in funding, mean schools are increasingly encouraging pupils to start only three A levels to see through to completion. This could mean fewer students starting AS-level maths as a fourth subject before deciding to switch it to one of their main three A levels later.
A DfE spokesperson said maths was “essential” and the increase in numbers studying the subject was “encouraging”.