What will it take to make maths to 18 a reality?

Simon Coyle identifies six strands to deliver a new maths deal for young people, drawn from a new collection of essays from sector leaders

Simon Coyle identifies six strands to deliver a new maths deal for young people, drawn from a new collection of essays from sector leaders

7 Oct 2023, 5:00

The prime minister proposed significant post-16 reforms in his conference speech, including maths to 18 for all. Labour too is committed to a broad curriculum review after the election, and its 2015 manifesto included maths to 18.

So how could it work? Our new collection of essays from sector leaders outlines the challenges and potential solutions, from which six themes arise.

Start early

Research tells us that students generally enjoy maths in key stage 2, but that fades during key stage 3. This corresponds with significant drop-offs in maths attainment: only 50% of low-income students who attain top grades in SATs go on to attain top grades at GCSE.

Schools must be alert to this key stage 3 ‘drop-off’ and pro-active in supporting. It is understandable to focus scarce resources on GCSEs, but if pupils fall out of love before, they will not thrive in GCSEs or post-16.

Enjoyment and challenge

This ‘drop-off’ is likely driven by a lack of enjoyment and appropriate challenge. Some students benefit from applied maths that is practical and engaging; others from more stretch and enrichment.

Curriculum and pedagogy are key. High-quality curriculum programmes exist but schools’ take-up is low. Meanwhile, if a Labour government encourages oracy, we should consider how it can be most effective in maths; probably no to maths ‘public speaking’ but definitely yes to precise verbalisation of mathematical concepts.

Beyond the classroom, we can do more on maths clubs. France recently announced plans for every school to have a maths club and a spending entitlement to make it happen. In England, MESME runs ‘maths circles’ for 11- to 16-year-olds and provides funding for schools to engage. Another option is to embed problem-solving in the expanding network of breakfast clubs.

Support girls

Generalising from the data, we can say that on average girls enjoy maths in primary, disengage during secondary, do well at GCSE and then choose not to study it post-16. Whatever the reasons, this becomes a big issue when maths to 18 is compulsory.

So efforts to start early and focus on enjoyment should engage and support girls particularly. This could include collaborative enrichment like the Mathematical Association’s primary challenges and UKMT’s team challenges. Other programmes like Maths4Girls and Stemettes connect girls with relatable role models.

A pathways mindset

At age 11, we cannot say definitively what a student’s post-16 pathway will be. Students have agency and make choices, and great teaching matters. Whatever the pathway, it should be relevant, aspirational and supported with the right maths courses.

We should not underestimate demand for higher-level content. Several schools have applied to XTX Markets for funding for additional key stage 4 courses, including GCSE further maths. And there is a huge untapped pool of around 45,000 students every year who achieve 7+ in GCSE maths but do not choose A level maths.

Likewise, we cannot neglect post-16 GCSE maths resits, especially given the impact on social mobility. Schools and colleges should commit to delivering these whole-heartedly, not just as a quick remedial intervention. Charities like Get Further are poised to help.

Post-16 qualifications

Whatever the vision for the new post-16 reforms, we have good tools to work with. A level maths has moved in the right direction, with greater emphasis on modelling and proofs. Core maths is widely respected too and could arguably benefit 10 times the 20,000 students who currently take it each year. Core maths specifications are diverse, but all provide a solid grounding for further study.

That said, new options are needed, potentially including new courses covering functional maths or maths for citizenship and employment. These should be rigorous too, just pointing in a different direction.

Teacher development

Most important of all is to answer the typical question to the maths to 18 announcement: “Fine. Who is going to teach it?” Schools have little control over job applicants, but where they can be pro-active is on teacher development and retention.

Policy solutions include redeploying primary teachers as student numbers fall, subject-specific training programmes for teachers of maths and deploying non-teachers such as tutors or graduate mentors, then inspiring them to become teachers too.

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