Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME)

New maths GCSEs could leave pupils unprepared for A-Level

02 February 2007

The introduction of new maths GCSEs could leave students unprepared for study at A-level, the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME), warned today (Friday 2 February 2007).

The independent committee of maths education experts is concerned that the division of maths into two separate GCSEs, without a clear expectation that the majority of young people will take both, could mean that some pupils will not be exposed to more challenging maths questions.

ACME has published a statement today calling for the Government to make it clear that at least 60 per cent of pupils should be entered for both maths GCSEs when they are rolled out nationally in 2010.

Speaking on behalf of ACME, Professor Margaret Brown - a member of the committee - said: "If properly designed and implemented, the new GCSEs could be a very good thing. They should expose the majority of pupils to a greater range of types of question and provide them with both a deeper understanding of maths and greater competence in applying their skills to everyday life and employment.

"The danger in 'decoupling' the two GCSEs is that the 'compulsory GCSE', without the second GCSE, will not provide the proper foundation for further study at A-level. Pupils must not be misled on this issue. Without taking the two GCSEs they would have to undertake some form of supplementary study to go on to face the demands of A-level. Realistically this means that some pupils could potentially have their options for studying maths at a higher level closed off if their GCSE options are restricted at 13 years of age.

"Furthermore if schools only have to report on the compulsory maths GCSE for league tables, they may focus on this to the detriment of the second maths GCSE.

ACME says in its statement: "There need to be incentives, at least for the first few years, to ensure that all English schools and colleges offer GCSE2."

Professor Brown said: "The Government should send a strong signal to schools, teachers and parents that most pupils should expect to study both of the maths GCSEs. We will be failing young people if we do not give them the opportunity to come to grips with the more challenging aspects of the subject. ACME believes that both GCSEs can be taught to the majority of pupils without a significant increase in timetabled teaching.

"The risk of not properly preparing pupils for further study could be that the Government falls short on its own targets to increase the numbers studying maths at A-level.

"Furthermore, the Awarding Bodies are designing the new GCSEs now and it is critical that they get them right. For this to happen they will need to take into account the range of students that will be expected to take each of the exams. Otherwise, for example, we may end up with a situation where the second GCSE becomes an exam only for a few of the brightest students."

ACME will be discussing the new GCSEs with teachers at its 14-19 mathematics conference on February 7 at the Royal Society.


ACME Position Statement on Mathematics GCSE1 and GCSE2

The Government is planning to implement major changes over the next few years which will have a significant impact on 14-19 mathematics: these include the introduction of assessment of functional mathematics skills, two new Mathematics GCSEs (GCSE1 and GCSE2), a new Mathematics GCE, and tailored mathematics courses as part of new 14-19 diplomas.

ACME is particularly keen to ensure that take-up and performance at National Qualifications Framework Level 3 of Mathematics improves significantly and that the mathematical skills achieved at Level 2 are as high as possible. The aim must be to raise overall standards at age 16-19. These outcomes will require large-scale participation in GCSE2 for all who would benefit from it including, therefore, all who might proceed to GCE Mathematics. This leads to the following recommendations:

  • There should be a national expectation that all students who achieve at least National Curriculum Level 6 at Key Stage 3 (currently almost 60%) should be entered for both Mathematics GCSE1 and GCSE2 ;
  • Success at GCSE2 must be seen as a normal prerequisite for entry to GCE Mathematics, hence the design of new GCE Mathematics specifications should be based on the assumption that students will have succeeded in both Mathematics GCSE1 and GCSE2. There need to be incentives, at least for the first few years, to ensure that all English schools and colleges offer GCSE2 and that at least 60% of pupils/students take it, assuming that only GCSE1 will need to be included in the 5 A*-C GCSEs measure of school performance;
  • There must be a strong national message about the importance of mathematics as an academic subject in its own right, and as an underpinning subject for other academic and vocational disciplines, leading on to many career paths.

Furthermore, making this change in 14-19 mathematics a success will require the careful design of course specifications and assessment models, and accompanying professional development, to convince teachers and their heads/principals that 'stretch and challenge' in mathematics can be delivered practicably in classrooms, with at most a minimal increase in timetabled teaching.

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