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Good times for A-Level mathematics but issues need to be addressed earlier

Recent reports from Ofqual and Mathematics in Education and Industry (MEI) highlight positives in the depth of content and takeup of A-Level Mathematics and Further Mathematics but an Ofsted report finds problems in earlier stage mathematics teaching.

An Ofqual report ‘International Comparisons in Senior Secondary Assessment’ looks at international qualifications which are comparable to A levels from a wide range of countries including: Hong Kong, China, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, France, the Netherlands, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Ireland, the USA, Canada and the UK.

Ofqual noted the following key differences in assessment of A-Levels and systems in other countries:

  • the use of baccalaureate or diploma-style assessment systems elsewhere, which can provide additional breadth but at the expense of depth
  • use of other modes of assessment, including oral exams and multiple choice
  • the use of individual projects and extended essays.

MEI (who operate the Further Mathematics Support Programme) note that the report says that A-level mathematics was “the broadest and the deepest qualification reviewed” and that some of the mathematics included in A-Level Mathematics and Further Mathematics was amongst the ‘most demanding’ considered in the study.

MEI reports that Further Mathematics has been “the fastest growing mainstream A level subject in the UK over the past 5 years”. MEI records the number of students sitting A-Level Further Mathematics in 2011 at “an all-time high of 11,805” (in 2005 the figure was 5,627). MEI also reports that the proportion of state-funded schools and colleges with students taking A-Level Further Mathematics has increased from 40% in 2005 to “well over 60%”.

Noting the “dramatic increase in the take-up of A-level and further mathematics”, Ofsted claims that its report ‘Mathematics: made to measure’ “emphasises the importance for every pupil to have the best possible mathematics education”. However, the Ofsted report highlights “three key areas in primary and secondary mathematics in schools in England which need to be improved:”

  • Firstly, not enough is being done to help pupils catch up who fall behind early. The 10% who do not reach the expected standard at age 7 doubles to 20% by age 11, and nearly doubles again by age 16.
  • Secondly, inspection evidence shows that pupils in lower ability sets and younger pupils received the weakest teaching. Inspectors regularly saw outstanding and satisfactory teaching, and sometimes inadequate too, within an individual school.
  • Thirdly, lots of the brightest pupils do not fulfil their potential when they get to secondary school. 37,000 of the highest attaining primary school pupils got no better than a grade C at GCSE in mathematics last year. Schools which routinely enter students early for GCSE mathematics are hindering their ability to reach the highest grades.

The report says Ofsted will work to address these issues by “placing greater emphasis in school inspection on:”

  • how effectively schools tackle inconsistency in the quality of mathematics teaching
  • how well teaching fosters understanding
  • pupils’ skills in solving problems
  • challenging extensive use of early and repeated entry to GCSE examinations.

The Ofsted press release contains messages welcoming the report from National Numeracy, CBI, Carol Vorderman and the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM). Professor Celia Hoyles, Director of NCETM, the mathematics teacher professional development organisation, is quoted saying

A deep understanding of mathematics and of subject-specific pedagogy is crucial for teachers of mathematics. The NCETM welcomes the recommendations Ofsted have made, and looks forward to helping to embed them as part of the professional development of all mathematics teachers.

Comparison of A Levels with International Qualifications‘ (Ofqual).
A level students flock to ‘most demanding’ qualification‘ (MEI).
Every pupil needs a good mathematics education‘ (Ofsted).

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