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'This year's GCSE maths students are guinea pigs - and they now face the havoc of results day'

It's no wonder pupils, parents and teachers are furious – the major reforms to GCSE maths needed understanding developed over many years, but instead reform was rushed through, writes one maths expert

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It's no wonder pupils, parents and teachers are furious – the major reforms to GCSE maths needed understanding developed over many years, but instead reform was rushed through, writes one maths expert

This year’s cohort of GCSE maths students have been used as guinea pigs in a misguided experiment that has left them underprepared for the new-style, harder exams which, for the higher tier, contain elements previously only seen on the A-level syllabus.

The new maths syllabuses often gained accreditation only a matter of weeks before students were due to start courses. Schemes of work, crucial to effective teaching, were being written as teachers started to deliver the curriculum. And textbooks, crucial to effective teaching of mathematics, were not ready in time. And those that were ready had been rushed through, with resulting errors.

This year’s GCSE cohort have not benefitted from changes in the primary maths curriculum, which are beginning to see real improvements in attainment. In particular, the government’s sponsorship of the maths mastery programme is leading to more confident students at this level, although it has not been running long enough for benefits to have been felt at secondary level.

Mastery is typified by the Singapore system, which seeks to build flexible learners with a depth of understanding that allows them to access a range of problems in a format which they may not have come across before, but which they nevertheless have the skills to solve. The current GCSE cohort have been prepared in a system which has tended to accelerate those perceived as "advanced" learners, often at the expense of the majority.

A more "joined-up" approach, beginning with the introduction of the mastery method at primary level, segueing into a tailored mastery curriculum for secondary students, would have been far better. But successful implementation of the mastery method requires time and patience. In Singapore, maths results were transformed over a generation; the UK, too, should be looking at change over the long-, not the short-, term.

But in Britain we have a history of accelerating children through content, which means that children in secondary school lack the foundations of maths learning – which is vital if they are to master the subject.

The Singapore mastery model has three key components which help to lay the foundations of learning:

  • a spiral curriculum enabling students to lay foundations which are then revisited with understanding deepened and honed, before the student develops them further, adding complexity.
  • CPA (Concrete, Pictorial, Abstract), which builds in time for students to "play" with real materials, to illustrate the mathematical concepts before moving on to pictorial and finally abstract representations. 
  • provision of fully worked-through examples and focus tasks which have a structure, which leads students in their creative thinking and is not simply learning by rote or repetition.

GCSE maths, maths, GCSE results day

But maths teaching requires high-quality teaching materials, and failure to provide the expert framework of a textbook is hampering teachers’ ability to teach maths to the level demanded by the new maths GCSE.

Only one primary-level maths mastery textbook has been approved by the Department for Education. This paucity of resources of the right quality applies even more at secondary level, where teachers are now expected to teach A-level content to GCSE students.

Teachers 'demoralised'

Crucially, teaching for mastery takes time and to implement the model without the right materials will knock the confidence of teachers and further demoralise them at a time when there is already a shortage of specialist maths teachers. Change needs time and shouldn’t be reflected in high-stakes exams too early.

Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, says that countries with the best maths results invest in and value their teachers. They pay competitive salaries to attract the best talent and invest heavily in the ongoing professional development, and give them time to collaborate and improve their practice. 

Major change to the examination system of the type seen in GCSE maths requires rigour and understanding, which should have been developed in students over many years. To demand that the first experimental cohort demonstrates this with none of the careful preparation necessary for success is manifestly unfair. No wonder that parents, teachers and students are furious.

I fervently hope that this year’s GCSE cohort – my son included – are happy with their results. My fear is that the new grading system will lead to havoc and we may see a whitewash by the boards in a bid to avoid the political fallout from yet another ill-thought-through government strategy.

Suzanne Terrasse is the commissioning editor of the Maths — No Problem!  series, which is the only textbook to be approved by the Department for Education for its maths mastery programme. The scheme of work for the primary series is available to download free at

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