Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME)

ACME Chair writes about mathematics post-16

30 October 2012

Professor Stephen Sparks FRS, Chair of ACME

It is hard to imagine anything more important to a person's future than his or her education. Despite this, for years we have been content to ignore the needs of our children by failing to continue their mathematics education until the point they leave school. This puts us at odds with almost all other high income countries, who provide some mathematics for the majority of their students. It also puts our young people at a significant disadvantage when it comes to competing in an increasingly global jobs market.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland only about 15% of students continue with post 16 mathematics, mostly by taking A or AS level. Universities complain about the lack of maths skills in new students, while employers complain about the lack of numeracy in many young people seeking employment. This is not a satisfactory situation for the long-term prospects of the country in a world where numeracy is becoming increasing important for competiveness.

Our students also deserve to have enough maths to be able to cope with daily life, whether it is personal finance or understanding the statistics and numbers that inform debate in a democracy.

The Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME) has been consulting widely for the last several months on how this might be done and providing advice to the Department for Education. ACME will be publishing its full report in November. During our work to date approaches identified include embedding more mathematics in the curricula of other subjects at A and AS level and in vocational qualifications, increasing the proportion of students taking A and AS level mathematics, integrating mathematics into a baccalaureate style qualification along with other subjects like literacy and research skills, and producing a new qualification suited to those students (likely the majority) who do not want to take maths A levels. These approaches are mutually supportive, and what is needed now is to combine them into a coherent strategy alongside other measures.

Of particular importance will be any new course aimed at the large number of students (about 250,000) who achieve a C grade or above at GCSE but do not go on to take A level maths. While some of those may be encouraged into A level courses, the majority of them need an alternative.

That alternative two year course must provide fluency and increased confidence in basic mathematics, problem-solving and mathematics to help understand data and information (notably statistics). Likely the course will build on knowledge and achievements at GSCE (or equivalent). Assessment methods will need to be designed so that maths is not reduced to recipes and procedures with teaching dominated by teaching to the test approach.

Above all the course will need to be appealing. Some students have developed an aversion for maths at an earlier stage in their education. Any new course will need to attract students who will see it both as interesting and relevant to their future life and career aspirations. It will also need to be appealing to those studying other disciplines who recognise the benefit for their subject either at A level or in University courses. Finally, it must meet the needs of employers for a more numerate workforce.

Significantly increasing participation in post-16 maths has huge implications for teaching capacity in mathematics. An additional 250,000 pupils a year taking a post-16 maths course implies a very large national increase in maths teachers and therefore investing significant resources for teacher training and CPD. Without this investment, the new courses will not succeed.

Even if new post 16 courses are developed in the way we have recommended, there would still remain those young people who do not achieve a C grade at GCSE. We cannot afford to abandon them and more work is needed to identify options that will allow them to develop the skills they need for their future.

It is well past time to take action but at last, it seems the Government and opposition are agreed that action is required. The Shadow Secretary of State Stephen Twigg has stated his intention that all students should study mathematics to 18. The Secretary of State, Michael Gove, has said that he would like the majority of post-16 students to have some mathematics education within 10 years.

We live in a country where it seems acceptable to be relatively mathematically illiterate. The mathematical needs of our children are too important to ignore. They deserve to be adequately prepared for the workplace and the demands of everyday life. The time to reform and improve our educational system has finally arrived. We must grab hold of it.

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