Post-16 maths for employability

The Sutton Trust have just published a report: “The Employment Equation: why our young people need more maths for today’s jobs” by Professor Jeremy Hodgen and Dr Rachel Marks of King’s College, London which demonstrates the need for young people to continue to study maths after GCSE. Of particular interest are two of their recommendations:

5. In general, students with at least a grade C at GCSE have already covered the critical mathematical techniques and concepts, but they do need to understand what they already know better. Any specialist mathematical techniques can be learnt in the workplace, provided students understand and can apply GCSE mathematics. The curriculum should also include more “simple maths in complex settings”, by providing students with problem-solving opportunities involving “messy” contexts that do not have straightforward solutions. Students should have many more opportunities to collaborate and discuss, working together to understand, interpret and communicate the mathematics they are involved in.

6. To allow students to more easily transfer their mathematical skills into the workplace they should use computers extensively, particularly spreadsheets and computer-generated graphs, to apply and learn mathematics. Competence in these skills matters in the workplace.

“Simple maths” is defined as:

…[that]  almost wholly within the GCSE curriculum, covering the core areas of:

  • Number, particularly mental maths, approximation, estimation and proportional reasoning
  • Using and interpreting calculators and spreadsheets
  • Statistics and probability, including data collection, interpretation and representation
  • Algebra, particularly graphical representation and diagrams
  •  Geometry and measures, including 2D and 3D representation

The report also notes the increased use of technology, particularly spreadsheets and automated approaches, which has led to a “black-box” mentality where employees have little understanding of what the software is doing. Therefore a combination of developing understanding whilst using software tools extensively in real-world problems  is recommended.

To what extent would this vision of post-16 maths help students entering bioscience degrees? It would certainly be better than the current situation where the majority of bioscience undergraduates  don’t take any maths during their A level studies and thus become rusty on the maths that they had done at GCSE.

However there are some additional  topics that are really essential for bioscientists namely scientific notation, exponentials and logarithms. I think you could argue that basic calculus in the sense of understanding rates of change could also be included. Many mathematics educators argue that bioscientists should at least do AS maths as they would then cover logarithms and basic calculus but then bioscientists argue that it could become difficult to recruit sufficient students and after all it’s really not that important. Or is it?


About JennyAKoenig

I specialise in science education and communication. Projects have included 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. Until Sept 2015 I divided my time between my science education and communication consultancy Science ETC (see and teaching at Lucy Cavendish College (where I was a Fellow). I am now a secondary science and maths teacher.
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