Prospects for post-16 mathematics

Report by Dr Jenny Koenig of a meeting organised by the Advisory Council on Mathematics Education (ACME) held at the Royal Society, London on Tues 10th July 2012.

On 29th June 2011 Michael Gove, in a speech to the Royal Society [1], announced that:

 “we should set a new goal for the education system so that within a decade the vast majority of pupils are studying maths right through to the age of 18.”

Clearly this idea has legs. Just over a year later (10th July 2012) ACME, the Advisory Council on Mathematics Education, held a meeting at the Royal Society to discuss its paper [2] on “Increasing provision and participation in post-16 mathematics.”

The background to this relies largely on international comparisons. The Nuffield Foundation’s “Is the UK an Outlier?” report [3] showed that the UK had an unusually low participation in post-16 mathematics compared to many other countries which was attributed to the degree of specialisation at A level. ACME also pointed out Ofqual’s study of international comparisons [4]which showed that many other education systems have a wider range of post-16 mathematics qualifications available.

However the most important factor in my view is that students who gain a B or C grade at GCSE maths are unlikely to be able to, or allowed to, progress to A level maths even if they wanted to. Therefore as ACME point out “the vast majority of young people have no widely-recognised way of continuing to study mathematics after GCSE.”

So what is to be done about this? ACME has put forward five options and the discussion at the meeting on 10th July effectively narrowed this down to three. The first option is to include maths within other subjects. Whilst this is desirable, and certainly something that must be done for biology A level at least, it was not seen as the entire answer and a separate mathematics course was also seen to be required. Therefore there were three main options remaining on the table at the end of the meeting. “Option 2” was called “Fixed Programme Approaches: Baccalaureate-type models” whilst “option 4” was a transition course between GCSE and AS-level so a student might do this transition course in the lower sixth and an equivalent to AS in their final year. An alternative, “option 5”, might be a range of “Mathematics for…” qualifications or a “generic problem-based course with a focus on mathematical thinking in context.”

There was much discussion about whether a mathematics course post-16 should be compulsory and, whilst some thought that this would put a lot of students off, the consensus seemed to be that it should be compulsory.

The remit of the meeting excluded discussion of the curriculum content and focussed entirely on the structures. I guess it was hard enough within the time constraints to keep to this and we would never have had time to cover the issue of content. But it is a very important one, particularly for bioscientists where context is essential for motivation and understanding. No doubt this will come up in future months and this will be where bioscientists will really need to be involved.

ACME is consulting on this issue and is keen to get responses. There is one question which is particularly relevant to higher education lecturers:

1- How can we ensure that any new qualifications are demanded and valued by Universities and employers?

Any views are welcomed …  please comment below or directly to ACME (

[1] Michael Gove speaks to the Royal Society on maths and science, 29th June 2011. [Accessed 12th July 2012]

[2] ACME, 2012, Increasing provision and participation in post-16 mathematics.  [Accessed 12th July 2012]

[3] Is the UK an Outlier? An international comparison of upper secondary mathematics, Jeremy Hodgen and David Pepper, King’s College London; and Linda Sturman and Graham Ruddock, NFER (Nuffield Foundation 2010) [Accessed 12th July 2012]

[4] Ofqual, 2012, International Comparisons in Senior Secondary Assessment Summary Report. [Accessed 12th July 2012]

About JennyAKoenig

I am Assistant Professor of Pharmacology, Therapeutics and Toxicology at the University of Nottingham. My interests are: maths education for bioscientists, study skills for scientists with specific learning difficulties and pharmacology: bringing the science behind how medicines work (or don't!) to a wider audience. I have a PhD in Pharmacology from the University of Cambridge and a BSc (Hons 1) from the University of Sydney. I have taught maths and pharmacology to science, medical and veterinary students at University and biology, chemistry, physics and maths at a large comprehensive secondary school.
This entry was posted in commentary, curriculum, meeting report, post-16. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Prospects for post-16 mathematics

  1. Re [4] in particular

    It would have been very useful to have
    1/ clarification of the number of options allowed (over and above the core of A level-type”Pure” Maths), and
    2/ the spectrum of choices actually taken:

    As a Physicist/Applied Mathematician, now privately tutoring and keenly interested in the health of all STEM subject education, I fear for access to engineering – particularly when interested students 16-18 are not strongly encouraged to take Physics and /or some explicitly “Applied Maths”, including modelling.

    Philip Bradfield, MA, MSc, MInstP, CPhys, FHEA, STEM Embassador

    Dunfermline, Fufe

    formerly Senior Lecturer, Physics and Computer Science
    University of Wolverhampton

  2. Philip Bradfield says:

    correction: NB Fife, not Fufe !! silly me

  3. Philip Bradfield says:

    PPS for Applied Maths substitute Applied Maths – Mechanics

  4. JennyAKoenig says:

    Hi Philip, I think they are wanting to leave A level maths alone and only focus on an alternative course that would fill the gap for those who can’t get onto A level maths because their GCSE grades aren’t good enough. That said, there was no discussion yet of the curriculum for this potential course. Hopefully there will be some input from physicists and engineers (and biologists too!) when they get to that stage.

    Having said that I don’t know of any reports on what A level maths options students do end up taking and how this gets influenced. Do schools let students really choose whether to do mechanics or stats or decision maths or do they get steered to where the school thinks they’ll get the best grades?

    • Philip Bradfield says:

      From my tutoring experience: for many A (A2) level Maths students, for one reason or another, the Mechanics option was far less commonly uptaken than was Statistics. Perhaps the Mechanics was not offered even at A2.

      Certainly, in the University-provided (Further) Maths support offering to schools (a national Scheme), the Further Maths option was almost entirely Statistics: I think they did not even offer the Mechanics option.

      Perhaps those schools (usually the more well-established./successful) who were sufficiently equipped to offer their own Further Maths were more “elightened”/better staffed, and could offer the Mechanics option..

  5. Eddie Orija says:

    I also attended the ACME Conference and joined this discussion (Post-16 Mathematics Options paper). You can download this and other discussion documents here…….

    In my experience, too many students achieving GCSE Maths grade C are unsuccessful at AS Maths, and many GCSE Maths B grade students drop out from A level Maths. This is where I agree with the point made earlier about suitability advice to prospective A level Maths students. Mathematics is unique in this respect, as many other A levels are suitable for students obtaining the full GCSE A* to C grade range.

    Yes, the redevelopment of A levels (2014) has begun, and I am hoping for just a few changes. There seems to be a mood for increased university involvement in this process. I understand that there will also be avenues for the professional groups named and industry to participate. I think the focus of the ACME conference discussion was for the group identified earlier. Almost 15% currently do A level Maths, with about 25% that could do some post 16 Maths (other than re-sits) – this group.

    How do we enable this next 25% to do post 16 Maths?

    The ACME Post-16 Mathematics Options paper goes beyond just A level Maths, but into other potential Maths study possibilities post 16. I also agree that there is no detail yet, just structures. I still think that the discussion group was very productive; it was certainly very popular on the day, and the Maths community was well represented.

    Dr Eddie Orija FIMA CSci FIfL
    Curriculum Leader – Mathematics
    OCR, Cambridge

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