Tougher maths GCSE risks turning pupils off subject

24th June 2016 at 00:00
Difficulty of new test may have unintended negative effect on numbers continuing at A-level, experts warn

Experts are warning that the government’s tougher new maths GCSE is so difficult that it risks driving pupils away from the subject.

TES understands that one exam board has told teachers the higher-tier version of the GCSE will be so demanding that pupils could achieve a grade 4 – the equivalent of today’s C grade – with just 12 per cent of the marks.

Sue Pope, the chair of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics’ general council, said: “This is going to put children off wanting to carry on studying maths and we really want children to study maths post-16. Pupils will think, ‘I may have got a C but I couldn’t do most of the exam’.”

The new qualification, which will be sat from next summer, is deliberately designed to be more stretching. But there are growing fears that the GCSE will be counterproductive and jeopardise the past decade’s rise in A-level maths entries (see box, right).

Charlie Stripp, director of the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics, said: “We applaud the aspiration [to raise standards in maths] but worry about whether schools and teachers will have the support they need to meet it and, if not, whether the changes might have the opposite effect of what was intended, by putting people off if they don’t have access to what they need to be able to succeed.

“Students that are well prepared for the new GCSE should be more likely to choose maths A-level, but for students who are less well-prepared it may have a negative effect on wanting to carry on with maths.”

A report from Mathematics in Education and Industry – an education charity headed by Mr Stripp – published this month, highlights a “serious shortage of specialist mathematics teachers” that has been “exacerbated” by the increased demands of the reformed maths GCSE. It calls for Ofsted checks on how schools are handling the new GCSE.

“If the demand of the qualification is increased without ensuring schools have the capacity to provide the necessary quality and quantity of teaching, students will not be properly prepared for the examinations,” the report says.

Tony Staneff, the vice-principal of Trinity Academy in Halifax, and the leader of a government-backed maths hub based in West Yorkshire, told TES that many schools had made only small changes to the way they taught maths since the introduction of the new curriculum.

The warnings are only the latest controversy relating to the new qualification. Last year, sample papers for the GCSE – already approved by the exams regulator Ofqual – had to be torn up because they had been pitched at the wrong standard (see box, left).

The problems led the regulator to say that it will, for the first time, have to scrutinise actual exam papers for the new maths GCSEs before they are sat in 2017.

And the level of demand is still an issue. A head of maths from a state school in the South East has told TES that they, and colleagues from other schools, had been informed by an exam board that just 12 to 15 per cent of marks in the higher-tier paper could be sufficient for a grade 4.

“We mentioned it to the students and they were shocked; they couldn’t believe it,” the teacher, who asked not to be named, said.

“If they’re sitting a paper where it’s about 12 per cent to get a C, they’re not going to feel good or confident in that paper.”

Mr Staneff said teachers faced “a big selling job” and would have to try harder than ever to persuade pupils that they would be capable of studying maths after 16, either with A-levels or the new core maths qualification.

Dr Pope said the “inevitable” low grade boundaries in the tougher GCSE would make grades less useful in allowing both colleges and employers to understand what candidates could do.

An Ofqual spokesman said: “We will require exam boards to have regard to an appropriate range of evidence when setting specified levels of attainment.

“We are also putting in place qualification-specific requirements about how grade boundaries should be set. It may be that the boundaries are lower than currently, but until the first new exams are sat in summer 2017, we cannot know for sure what the mark distributions will be.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We are providing enough resources for maths education and have also reformed the maths GCSE to bring it into line with the academic standard expected in the highest performing countries around the world.

“We continue to offer generous bursaries and scholarships for trainee maths teachers. We are also actively supporting schools to encourage former experienced teachers to return to the classroom.”


Plea for the pressure of GCSE preparation not to ‘infect’ pupils in earlier years

GCSE reforms risk the pressures of high-stakes exams “infecting” pupils at a younger age, turning them from “enthused learners” into mere “exam exponents” for a longer period, new research suggests.

Kevin Stannard, head of innovation and learning at the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST), said that analysis of a major pupil survey showed that a trend towards teaching the GCSE syllabus from Year 9 had extended the years that students were focusing only on exam grades.

This, he said, would only get worse with the tougher, more content-heavy new GCSEs.

“Educationalists should not let GCSE ‘infect’ the younger years, and minimise the impact of the exam structure,” he told TES.

“We don’t believe that students at that age should be narrowing their perception of great teaching. We can’t take the return (to being inspired) in the sixth form for granted.”

It was up to schools, he said, to provide a “long-term view” to pupils focused only on grades, to encourage arts and sports and to minimise the impact of the exam structure.

Dr Stannard was speaking after analysing the preliminary findings of a survey of 11,902 pupils by the GDST – a chain of mainly independent girls’ schools – showing how their view of “what makes a great teacher” changes dramatically over the course of their school careers.

The survey revealed “a key stage 4 bottleneck where students’ mindsets switch from being enthused learners to exam exponents”.

Paul Spencer-Ellis, headmaster of the Royal Alexandra and Albert School, a state boarding school in Reigate, said: “I see more and more schools doing GCSEs over three years, but the danger is you are going to bore children rigid and you’re making them specialise much earlier.

“It means they have one year less maturity, and one year less to find out what they really enjoy.”

Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, agreed that the new GCSEs may make it necessary for more schools to teach exam syllabuses from Year 9.

However, he added that just because it was exam content, it did not need to be “boring or tedious”.

A Department for Education spokesman said: “The best teachers inspire and excite their pupils, and we have given them the freedom to do this by freeing them from an over-written curriculum and develop their own lessons.

“We have also taken steps to ensure pupils only take their exams when they are ready, counting only student’s first entries in performance tables.”


Sample papers ‘too tough’

In May 2015, Ofqual told all exam boards to tear up sample question papers for the reformed maths GCSE, even though it had already approved them.

The exams regulator said three boards – OCR, Pearson Edexcel and WJEC Eduqas – produced sample assessments that were too difficult. Two of them, Edexcel and Eduqas, produced higher-tier papers so tough that the boundary for grade A would have had to be set at less than half the available marks.

The fourth board – AQA – was informed that one of its papers was too easy. The wait for new sample materials prompted maths teachers to call, unsuccessfully, for the introduction of the GCSE to be delayed.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today