Teachers report ‘inadequate’ algebra grasp among A-level maths students

Students embarking on maths A-level programmes often have an inadequate grasp of algebra, a survey of teachers has revealed.

Research carried out by Nicky Rushton and Dr Frances Wilson of Cambridge Assessment will be presented to the British Educational Research Association (BERA) annual conference in London today.

The survey results will be delivered along with a warning that the level of understanding required to pass GCSE maths exams is inadequate, meaning many students are poorly-equipped for A levels.

Ms Rushton and Dr Wilson spoke to teachers from 179 schools which offer OCR’s maths exams to find out whether GCSEs were preparing pupils for A-level.

The teachers surveyed reported that students were adequately prepared in most areas of mathematics, but 44 per cent said this was not the case when it came to fluency in algebra.

One teacher told the study that “the GCSE exam requires very little understanding to gain the top grades and thus the issue at A-level”, while another said: “You can now get a B with very little algebra. This is unacceptable.”

The BERA conference will also hear research showing that the attainment gap between pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and those who are not has more to do with issues outside the control of schools than anything related to their education.

You can now get a B with very little algebra. This is unacceptable.

Professor Steve Strand, a former government consultant and professor of education at Oxford, will warn that efforts to hold schools to account may make it harder for schools serving disadvantaged communities to recruit good teachers.

His research shows that in terms of the proportion of pupils gaining five GCSEs A*-C grades, including English and maths, the gap between those students in outstanding schools who do not qualify for means-tested free school meals (FSM) versus those who do is 25 points – with 75 per cent of non-FSM achieving the benchmark, against 50 per cent of FSM students.

In schools judged as good, the figures are 64 per cent and 39 per cent, also a 25 point gap. The corresponding gap in schools that require improvement or are inadequate is similar at 22 points.

Strand also found that FSM pupils generally made three GCSE grades’ less progress than non-FSM pupils.

The research paper says: “Schools do not appear to be the major cause of the FSM gap since there appears to be an FSM gap in nearly all schools.

“Factors outside the school gates (in the home, wider community or peer groups) are likely to be more influential.

“For example, children who grow up in poverty may do less well  in education because they have parents who are more stressed, less able to afford educational activities and resources and less well-placed to help them with their school work.

“This is not to say that schools should not do everything possible to strive to close the FSM gap, but does indicate that a punitive approach to ‘failing’ schools misconstrues the nature of the problem.”

Professor Strand added: “By failing to account for any factors associated with pupil background or the socio-economic composition of the school, current accountability mechanisms such as performance [league] tables and Ofsted inspections are biased against schools serving more disadvantaged intakes.

“These are a disincentive for talented teachers and school leaders to work in more challenging schools.”

The BERA conference begins today at the Institute for Education and runs for three days. For further coverage see next week’s edition of Schools Week.