School maths reforms

There’s been a lot going on lately with regard to reform of GCSE and A levels. Keith Proffitt of OCR has written a helpful summary. Keith is a member of the mathematics team at OCR (a UK exam board), responsible mainly for A level mathematics and a new qualification for post-16 students, An Introduction to Quantitative Methods. He can be contacted on 

Key dates

September 2014

  • first teaching of the new National Curriculum in all subjects

September 2015

  • first teaching of new GCSE in Mathematics (and English)
  • first teaching of ‘Core mathematics’ for post-16 students who have succeeded at GCSE but who would otherwise drop maths
  • (first teaching of new A levels in Science subjects)

September 2016

  • first teaching of new A levels in Mathematics and Further Mathematics
  • (first teaching of new GCSEs in science subjects)

A level

A levels are being reformed for first teaching in September 2015 in 13 subjects, including Biology, Chemistry and Physics; the mathematical content in each of these subjects is to be agreed between A level specifications and must be assessed.

Reform to A levels in Mathematics and Further Mathematics has been delayed so they are to be ready for first teaching in September 2016. The reason for the delay is that there are several knotty problems to be solved. The new rules for all A levels say that

  • they must be linear (no module tests, all exams taken at the end of the course),
  • AS level must be a separate exam (so if a student sits an AS level then goes on to sit the A level, all the AS content must be re-examined in the A level examinations).

The problems to be solved include the following.

  • Can A level Mathematics be made linear, and still offer the choice of applications that it currently does (if such a choice is deemed desirable)?
  • Can A level Further Mathematics be made linear, and still offer the choice of applications that it currently does (if such a choice is deemed desirable)?
  • How can AS Further Mathematics be separated from the A levels, when it depends (in some ways) on A level Maths?
  • How can we make these changes without dramatically reducing the participation rates in mathematics and further mathematics?
  • How do we actually address HE concerns about the quality of assessment in A level Maths?

The content of A level Mathematics and Further Mathematics is to be the responsibility of the A level Content Advisory Board (ALCAB ), a company set up by the Russell Group to provide advice to Ofqual on the core content of A levels in facilitating subjects.

It is not yet clear how the other issues are to be resolved.

Core Mathematics

This refers to a working title for the maths courses and qualifications to be designed for all the post-16 students who have passed GCSE maths but who would then otherwise drop the subject. These are planned for first teaching in September 2015. This is an exciting development, a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve the proportion of post-16 students who do some mathematics, and to make sure that it is the right kind of mathematics. The Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education was asked to advise,, the Awarding Organisations were asked to comment, but the final say about the shape of these courses lies with the ministers at the DfE.

These courses will not be mandatory at first, so drivers to encourage participation will be vital; these could include funding arrangements for schools and colleges, but the attitude of Higher Education will be crucial. Will it become an expectation that students applying for more HE courses will continue with maths post-16?

GCSE Mathematics

New GCSEs in Mathematics (and English) are being developed for first teaching in September 2015. The Mathematics GCSE will be based on a bigger content than currently, and will require more teaching time. The content of the new National Curriculum, for first teaching in September 2014, can be found here

The new GCSEs will have the following attributes

  • Grades will run from 9 (high) to 1 (low). No decision has been made about which new grade is equivalent to a ‘pass’ grade C in the current system.
  • Two tiers for mathematics, with a longer content list for the Higher Tier.
  • Everything is assessed by examination at the end of the course – no modules.

Note that for a few years students will have grades from 9 to 1 in some of their GCSEs – the reformed ones – and A* to G in others.

Currently some schools try to game the system, entering their students for GCSE Mathematics multiple times from Year 10 until they achieve grade C; some schools then allow students who have grade C to give up mathematics, even if they intend to take A level Mathematics later. The DfE has announced steps to tackle these issues.

  • There will be a November examination series for Mathematics (and English) but it will only be available for post-16 students as a resit.
  • The performance of every student at every grade will count towards the school accountability measures, not just those students who get grade C or above.
  • School accountability measures will take into account only the first attempt by a student at a GCSE.

The net effect of these should be that nearly all students sit GCSE at the end of Year 11, and the most able and weakest students get as much attention as those on the D/C borderline.


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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One Response to School maths reforms

  1. Vicki Tariq says:

    I guess the question is whether/how universities will modify their minimum entrance requirements for specific disciplines, particularly in the biosciences, in light of these changes to curricula and assessment practices.

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