From education to employment

Maths for all (up to 18) is worth exploring

Tom Thacker

After the final summer 2023 maths GCSE exam, CENTURY’s Chief Education Officer and former maths teacher, Tom Thacker, reflects on solutions for the Prime Minister’s plan for compulsory maths to 18.

In recent weeks, the final maths GCSEs of the summer have been taken. Many 16 year olds up and down the country threw their pens down and said goodbye to their least favourite subject. They left the exam halls excited for a summer of freedom before the step up to post-16 education where, currently, they are allowed autonomy over their subject choices (if they “pass”). Though this may not be the case for long.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s plan to make maths compulsory to the age of 18 has been met with mixed feelings. Happy Valley star James Norton, raised concerns that compulsory maths to 18 would have a damaging effect on the take up of arts and humanities subjects. Stephen Follows, a film data analyst, described the policy as both “misguided” and “tone deaf”, before adding that he had not even been asked if he supported the policy before being appointed one of the government’s “maths champions”.

Will Maths to 18 disengage students?

I disagree that this will damage the arts or disengage students (caveat: if it is implemented well). The government is not legislating, as Norton and many others have assumed, for all pupils to take maths A Level. That could indeed have a negative impact on the take-up rate of other A Levels, as well as a huge increase in the failure rate. In 2022, around 276,000 students took A Levels. About 89,000 students took maths A Level, making it the most popular subject by some distance, almost 15,000 more than the second-most popular (psychology). Around 187,000 A Level students took no maths at all. If each of those students had to take maths as one of their three A Levels instead of their preferred choice, that would mean 187,000 fewer A Levels taken in other subjects. But this policy is for those students to do some maths as well as their three A Levels.

Follows argued that by “imposing a blanket requirement that many will resent”, the government “risks stifling the passions and interests of individual students”. However, in education we must have some blanket requirements. Few people argue against our blanket requirement for compulsory maths to age 16. Many other countries with high quality education systems have compulsory maths until 18, including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Finland, Japan, Norway and the USA. It should be possible to find the time to sharpen everyone’s maths without entirely demoralising them.

Broader Curriculum from 16 to 19

There has been a building case for a broader curriculum from 16 to 19, too. Last year the Times Education Commission recommended a baccalaureate with a mixture of humanities and STEM subjects – including maths and English. I agree with Follows that the education system “should focus on helping students discover who they are and then provide the necessary support and resources for them to become the best version of that person”. And maths can be part of this. As a former maths teacher, I am naturally, and rationally, biased, but for balance, I also believe English – or at the very least a humanities subject involving analysis and essay-writing – should be compulsory to 18 too.

It also goes without saying for those of us who know the FE sector well, but there are a lot more than 89,000 A Level students who already do compulsory maths after 16. These are the students who do not achieve at least a grade 4 in their GCSE. In 2022 there were over 250,000 of these students in England. If roughly a third of students have to continue because they have “failed”, and roughly an eighth of students opt for maths A Level anyway, that leaves us with just over half who do not continue with maths (thirteen twenty-fourths in actuality, but that fraction is unwieldy).

This policy is aimed at just over half of the student cohort who achieved between a grade 4 and a 9 in their maths GCSE but do not wish to continue. Of course, delivering two years of maths tuition to an extra 300,000-plus students every year is no mean feat. I can hear other post-16 maths teachers across the country shouting to the heavens “But isn’t this what core maths is for?”. Correct (maths teachers often are). This is exactly what core maths is for. 

Unfortunately, core maths is unpopular, with only 10,000 entrants in 2019, despite benefits to learners and institutions, such as UCAS points and a good funding offer respectively. Perhaps core maths struggled as a one-size-fits all solution for students ranging from grade 4’s to 9’s, at institutions serving a range of post-16 courses and provision. Or perhaps, this illustrates the major logistical problem of compulsory maths to 18: there are not enough maths teachers. Schools and colleges are in the midst of the recruitment crisis, meaning a traditional classroom model could not work for this policy.

Allow me to ‘do the math’(s).

For argument’s sake, let’s assume the policy is for two hours of maths in class per week, and one teacher can teach 30 students in each class. (For context, an A Level requires around five hours of teaching time per week, usually in a much smaller class). Let’s take a conservative estimate of 300,000 extra maths students per year: counting Years 12 and 13 that makes for 600,000 students. That’s a total of 1.2 million hours of extra maths lessons per week. Divide that by the 30 students per class and that leaves us with 40,000 classroom hours each week. Let’s assume these teachers are solely responsible for these maths classes and all the prep and marking is done, so they can teach five one-hour lessons five days a week. 40,000 hours divided by five days, divided by five lessons, leaves us with a conservative estimate of 1,600 superhuman maths teachers required. 

However, the government has reduced their maths teacher recruitment target for 2021-2022 by almost 800, from 2,800 to 2,040, after a shortfall of 631 over the prior two years. They then missed that target by only recruiting 1,844 new maths teachers, leaving a deficit of 196. With a renewed higher target of 2,960 maths teachers for 2022-2023, recruiting an extra 1,600 would seem overly ambitious any time soon.

If the recruitment and retention crisis seems unlikely to be solved in the short term, should Sunak do away with the policy for now? In a (calendar) year that has already seen teachers strike for eight days, with two more to come in July, ASCL General Secretary Geoff Barton has said that resolving this industrial action is “the most pressing matter in education in England”. Perhaps I am being overly optimistic, but I would quite like to see an ambitious education policy slate that resolves industrial action, addresses the recruitment and retention crisis and has enough left in the tank to improve the country’s numeracy skills.

So what are the potential solutions to a lack of teachers?

Working for an edtech company my first thought is unsurprisingly toward technological solutions to bridge that gap, considering models that are not linear with one teacher per class. Using an edtech platform that automatically marks and delivers feedback can save teachers vast amounts of admin time, reducing their workload and making planning quicker and easier. Platforms that provide real-time data insights to teachers can also streamline the process of targeting interventions, remediation and support, so learners are not left behind, nor are they bored without appropriate challenge,

As Association of Colleges (AoC) chief executive David Hughes pointed out, “three-quarters of 16 to 18 maths is delivered in colleges, so colleges are the crucial partner to delivering maths to 18”. I completely agree. At CENTURY, we work with over 60 per cent of the FE sector who use our AI-powered platform for English and maths. Over the past five years, we have collaborated with a variety of colleges and providers, supporting a range of successful, scalable remote and hybrid delivery models.

One of our college partners, the award-winning Activate Learning group has achieved roaring success with theirs. Last month, Dr Fumiko Pescott told CENTURY and BMet’s post-16 maths and English conference about their completely online delivery method for maths adult learners. Dr Pescott and her team of tutors assigned a series of nuggets (micro-lessons) to each of their students on CENTURY’s platform. They use weekly text messages to ‘nudge’ the students to work through the nuggets in their own time and, if they were feeling confident, to continue on through CENTURY’s AI-powered personalised learning pathway.

Of Activate’s summer 2022 GCSE online cohort, 64.4 per cent achieved at least a grade 4, compared to  37.9 per cent of adult campus-based candidates nationally in 2018/19. Instead of regular classes scheduled at the same time each week, Activate tutors use real time data to target emergency clinics in areas that students are having trouble with. Depending on tutor and student availability, according to Activate, this model could be scaled to 120 students per tutor.

Delivery is not the only issue.

How can we address the issue that forcing students to continue with maths after they are already disengaged may damage their engagement with learning? Clearly, given the take-up rate, core maths is not the solution. Learning theoretical maths in the abstract for a generic qualification between a GCSE and an A Level has proved so unpopular that perhaps a rethink of what kind of maths is on offer for these students post-16 is required.

There are two key elements we could rethink. Firstly, the style of assessment. If a student has achieved a “passing” grade at GCSE and is not working towards A Level, it is not necessary for them to work toward one high-stakes exam. Instead, students could have their competence rewarded by achieving smaller qualifications. 

Assessments could be broken down into levels and marked on a pass or fail basis (without grades), similar to a driving theory test. This, combined with unlimited resits, would reduce the stakes for the students so as not to detract from their other studies, while ensuring manageable goals they can work towards at their own pace and ability. There is also precedent: when I completed my teacher training 13 years ago, similar tests to ensure competence in maths, English and ICT were required. They were even taken at driving theory test centres.

The other element to rethink would be the way these smaller qualifications are focused. Instead of learning theoretical maths skills, courses could be adapted for general use and interest. For example, statistics and data analysis are more relevant today than ever before in areas such as sport, journalism, music, television, film and theatre, and may attract young people aspiring to careers in these areas, or those simply who enjoy them as hobbies. Financial literacy is regularly commented upon, and ‘maths for money’ courses could help. Applied maths courses could be directly linked to vocational subjects, such as maths for construction, maths for hair and beauty, maths for plumbing, electrical engineering, or nursing. Alternatively, courses could be linked to academic subjects such as how to use maths when studying history, sociology or politics.

There are challenges, as many have pointed out. However, improving numeracy skills before leaving education should be a priority, and would mean costly initiatives like Multiply will no longer be necessary. There are doubts about raising the participation age, but few would argue that our maths skills should be weaker. The UK came 25th in the 2012 OECD rankings for numeracy with a middling score. The requirement for everyone to achieve a grade 4 was introduced in 2014. In 2018, the UK had climbed to an above-average score in 17th place. A similar improvement would see this country rank among the world’s elite for maths. That is surely an opportunity worth taking.

By Tom Thacker is Chief Education Officer at CENTURY Tech

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