The “big fat maths” GCSE is not working as planned

Pupils will soon sit the first new “big fat maths” GCSE. Joanne Morgan looks at the challenges that it presented – and those still to come

Two years ago we were uncertain about how our students would adjust to the demands of the new maths GCSE. We worried that many of them weren’t equipped with the underlying understanding and resilience to tackle the higher level of challenge. We also worried that the increased timetable allocation meant that there simply weren’t enough maths teachers to go around.

Although the government continues to downplay the scale of the recruitment crisis, maths teachers are still acutely aware of it. Job vacancies are often advertised for months, with no suitable candidates coming forward.

READ MORE: What is teaching for mastery in maths?

Staff from other subjects are teaching maths, but it’s hard to find time to give them the necessary training. The least qualified or least experienced tend to be allocated to key stage 3, but this is not a sensible long-term strategy.

GCSE maths teachers have faced a number of notable challenges over the past two years. Tiering decisions have been particularly difficult. If a teacher decides to enter a student for the higher tier and that student doesn’t manage to achieve many marks in their final exams, then it’s quite possible that they’ll get a U – they almost certainly would have been much better off on the foundation tier. The increased uncertainty that comes with a new qualification means it’s hard for teachers to make the right decision.

Inventing predictions has concerned many maths teachers over the past two years

Understandably, parents want to know their child’s predicted grade. It’s relevant to A-level decisions and college applications.

We’re in no position to share predicted grades, but most schools have asked us to do so anyway, resulting in wildly inconsistent predictions.

Some schools have said that 50 per cent at higher tier will get you a grade 6, others that 50 per cent will get you a grade 7. The truth is that we have no idea; being asked to invent predictions has concerned many maths teachers over the past two years.

The next set of challenges have become apparent in recent months. After years of strong uptake of maths and further maths at A-level, some students seem to have been put off the subject this year. We fear that numbers will fall. Understandably, our current year 11s have not enjoyed being the guinea pigs. Many have had their confidence knocked by low mock exam results. Our new A-levels launch this September and our students have had enough of all the uncertainty.

Even some of our stronger mathematicians have been put off by the new grading system. A student who achieves a grade 7 at GCSE is definitely suitable to study maths at A-level, but because they’ve fallen short of a grade 9 and 8, grade 7 doesn’t feel like enough. This is a bigger problem for further maths, where students who are outside the elite “grade 9” group may feel they’re not suitable.

Funding changes have also led many schools to move from four subject choices in year 12 to three. It’s highly likely this will have an impact on the uptake of further maths. Few students want to use two of their three A-level options on one subject. Michael Gove’s qualification reforms aimed to send a higher calibre of student off to study maths at university, but with the likely drop in further maths uptake that’s not looking likely.

In the meantime we wait with bated breath to see how things turn out on results day this summer, and can only hope that our A-level classes are full to the brim with enthusiastic young mathematicians in September.


Joanne Morgan is a mathematics lead practitioner

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  1. Stephen Fowler

    “Staff from other subjects are teaching maths, but it’s hard to find time to give them the necessary training. The least qualified or least experienced tend to be allocated to key stage 3, but this is not a sensible long-term strategy.”

    Teachers in secondary schools are clever people with degrees who are professional educators. Therefore they should require no extra training before they can teach a new subject, apart from training themselves. If I showed them a past GCSE maths paper and their subject is not maths, are they really going to say ‘there is no way I can teach this competently unless I have training myself from someone else. I simply do not know what to do or how to find out how to do this maths.’

    The hurdle to overcome is not to provide the training for professionals who should be able to train themselves, it is merely a question of finding teachers who have the inclination to teach this subject. The reason that a, say, geography teacher cannot teach Higher Level maths is not that he is unable to train himself, it is that it is not his subject of interest – and I do not blame him.

    Joanne Morgan – as a mathematics lead practitioner perhaps you could give us an example of something that a geography teacher who wishes to teach maths GCSE at Higher Level can learn only by having another person train them. Something that cannot be learned from a book, or a syllabus, or a set of guidelines, and bear in mind that for the occasional question they can ask one of the maths teachers within the school.

    • Teaching maths is far more complex than you suggest. There is no one ‘set of guidelines’. The subject knowledge aspect is absolutely crucial. And that doesn’t mean just ‘knowing how to do maths’.

      My experience in having non-specialists (often PE teachers) teaching secondary maths is that they need support in things like: knowing what misconceptions might arise, knowing where to find suitable resources (schools rarely have textbooks these days), knowing how to stretch and support, knowing how to make use of visual aids and/or manipulatives. Sure, they can figure a lot out for themselves and possibly do a very good job of it, particularly if they have a lot of time and enthusiasm. But I’ve seen what happens when a department of maths teachers is too busy to properly support a non-specialist. It’s doesn’t work out well for the students.