Maths Memos

The forgotten 16 year olds


Sybil Cock, former ACME member, opens a discussion about Level 2 qualifications. She is of the view that GCSE Mathematics is not suitable for all students and she shares her personal views about a different type of qualification that might be needed for those taking GCSE Mathematics post-16.

Government reforms have focussed on A levels, and the very welcome Core Maths.  It is to be hoped that recent upward trends in participation for those who have met the GCSE grade C gold standard will continue. This week's GCSE results show that many students have done better by taking their maths exam at the end of a two year cycle, which is good news.

But what about the estimated quarter of a million who leave Year 11 without a grade C?  From this September they will have to be in full time education and following a programme, based on prior attainment, that gives them progress towards a Level 2 qualification in maths. That's a lot of young people!

Many have rightly pointed out that GCSE retakes are not the answer for most of this group although this is what Alison Wolf in her report appears to suggest. Success rates for the retake cohort are low at around 40% - and these are mainly students who already gained a D in Year 11. The experience of re-doing Key Stage 4 (KS4) maths is depressing for teachers and students alike - these courses inevitably focus on teaching to the test with little time for problem solving, creativity or relevance.

I'm going to argue for two major changes for this group, which draws on my decades of experience in the further education sector.

GCSE is a qualification for 16 year olds and should not be retaken by older people. Time for a "Mature" GCSE!

At age 16 many students make momentous choices in the space of the few days between GCSE results and enrolment dates. Most change institutions.  Many have very poor careers guidance and, in the face of worse than expected GCSE results in core subjects (English and maths) can see no alternative to a resit - if it is on offer.  They know that the grade C is what employers and universities look for.  Surely it is time for a new qualification - a "Mature" GCSE - which has the same standing and currency as the KS4 one, but which meets the needs of those who are preparing for the world of work or higher education.  The "Mature" GCSE could have a fresh pedagogy of problem solving, of modelling and applying mathematics in a range of contexts, with creative assessments - in fact a great deal is to be learned from the forthcoming Core Maths qualifications which promise a radical change of approach.  "Mature" GCSE will be in demand from a range of adults too - in my experience hundreds of mature students, access students, mature entrants to initial teacher training are ill-served by the GCSE rehash which is all they are offered. 

But a "Mature" GCSE will not gain recognition as long as the KS4 one is on offer - it is bound to be seen by learners, parents and others an inferior.  So - time to age limit the GCSE and allow some other flowers to bloom!

Students who get low grades at 16 deserve a more coherent set of qualifications if maths is going to be compulsory.

In 2012, according to Joint Council for Qualifications around 23% of 16 year olds gained grades E or below at GCSE Maths - the equivalent figure for other subjects in 15% (see figure below).  The needs of those with grades E, F, G and U are quite distinct, as anyone who has worked with this cohort in colleges knows.  Over the years there has been a range of different qualifications on offer, most of them unsatisfactory, from Key Skills Application of Number through the Adult Basic Skills tests to Functional Skills to the pioneering Free Standing Maths Qualifications (FSMQ), which do point a way forward. Each of these is available at least Level 1 and Level 2, however many - those with, say Fs and Gs, or indeed English for speakers of other languages learners with no background in maths - are not ready for even level 1 after a year's study.  Functional Skills comes at five different levels - Entry 1, 2, 3 and Level 1 and 2. 



These qualifications can provide stepping stones to success in the context of a large institution where maths is timetabled sympathetically and where vocational and other subject teachers are led by senior managers to acknowledge the importance of maths.   

However, colleges, who have been teaching this cohort for many years, know that it's one thing to make maths compulsory, and quite another to persuade teenagers - with chips on their shoulders from 'failing' GCSE - to engage with the classes. The restricted content and rigid assessment of Functional Skills makes it difficult to teach well. 

The FSMQs, on the other hand, show an approach that students find relevant.  We have seen excellent practice, happy students, interesting and relevant teaching, good attendance and achievement, in colleges where they are used.  The certificate in Use of Maths is a model of what a Mature GCSE could be - its acceptance is only hindered by the ever present alternative of GCSE resit. 

So, what might the answer be? Reform the offer for this group by building on the best that FSMQs offer - and let's have some Entry Level FSMQs too. 

Sybil Cock is a member of the ACME Outer Circle and an independent mathematics consultant

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