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Exploring the maths for all proposals and the vital role of colleges

Exploring the maths for all proposals and the vital role of colleges

As students prepare to collect their GCSE results next month, Kate Wright, Quality Teaching, Learning and Assessment Innovator (Maths) at The Sheffield College, explores the government’s latest proposal to extend maths education to the age of 18.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak outlined his vision earlier this year to ensure that every young person has the maths skills they need to succeed. Despite it being a core skill, the value of maths is often overlooked when it is as essential as reading, he argues, and we need to change an “anti-maths mindset.”

All pupils, he suggested, should continue studying maths until the age of 18 partly to raise UK standards to meet those of similar nations and to boost young people’s financial literacy.

His intent is to help young people “in a world where data is everywhere and statistics underpin every job….

As a result, the government announced in April 2023 that it would set up an expert group to review how to deliver maths until the age of 18 for all.

Taking evidence from countries which have high rates of numeracy and employers, the group will also advise on whether a new maths qualification is required for 16 to 18 year-olds.

Good numeracy is the best protection against unemployment, low wages and poor health, according to the National Numeracy charity. The charity points out that the UK needs a numerate workforce to be able to create a strong economy and compete globally.

Yet, only half of adults have the numeracy expected of primary school children; this in turn has been estimated to cost the UK economy around £20 billion a year. Extending compulsory maths education past the age of 16 is not a new idea. The evidence for a greater focus on teaching maths skills for longer has been steadily growing.

For example, the Conservative Party asked former Countdown television presenter Carol Vorderman to lead a taskforce andreview the teaching of maths in schools. Its report, A World-Class Mathematics Education For All Our Young People in 2011, stated there should be some form of compulsory maths education for young people until 18.

By the age of 16, there is a 10-year learning gap between the highest and lowest achieving students. Back in 2011, the taskforce recommended two types of GCSE maths qualification rather than a higher and a foundation level and noted that recruiting and retaining maths teachers was crucial.

A Nuffield Foundation report Is the UK an Outlier? in 2010 has also noted that the UK had lower participation rates in post-16 maths than comparable Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.

England is unusual, among advanced countries, in that regard according to the Smith Review of Post-16 Mathematics, published in 2017.

Smith’s report makes a strong case for mathematics. There is a high demand for mathematics labour market skills. This is compounded by low achievement amongst 16 to 18-year-olds compared to other developed countries and a shortage of women in STEM.

Adults who have mastered basic numeracy earn higher wages and are more likely to be employed than those who do not have those skills, the report highlighted.

Whilst the case for studying maths until 18 is convincing, the government’s latest announcement has not been warmly received by all. Experts have highlighted that it fails to take into account the context needed for effective policy delivery.

For example, the proposal does not address wider vulnerabilities in the education system such as limited resources, a shortage of maths teachers and a lack of specific qualifications that would be recognised by employers.

Meanwhile, the Association of Colleges has pointed out that as three-quarters of 16 to 18 maths is delivered in colleges not schools, there must be a focus on all young people.

The AoC argues that appropriate qualifications for students at different levels, adequate staffing and sustainable funding for colleges, are a top priority and there should be a thorough review of maths education from an earlier age – 14 rather than 16.

In terms of wider issues such as staffing, Department for Education (DfE) targets for recruiting maths teachers into Initial Teacher Training have not been met for several years.

DfE figures show that 65% of the target was met for the academic year 2019/20, followed by 84% for 2020/21, 90% for 2012/22 and 90% for 2022/23.

Although the shortfall gap has been closing over the last four years, it should be noted that the targets themselves have been reduced from 3,343 in 2019/20 to 2,040 in 2022/24.

We await more details on the funding of any new maths policy, what any new qualification may look like or whether any existing qualifications may be considered as suitable.

Core maths

Core maths may be a suitable option for A level students and some Level 3 vocational learners (for example, those studying engineering). The Pearson Edexcel Mathematics in Context (Level 3, Core Maths) qualification has been extended until 31st August 2025.

The qualification is 180 guided learning hours in general and carries 20 UCAS points. However, not all higher education institutions currently recognise the qualification.

International Baccalaureate

There has been some discussion that the maths component of the International Baccalaureate could be used as a qualification. The International Baccalaureate comprises two parts: analysis and approaches, and applications and interpretations. Both can be taken at a standard and higher level.

Given the premise to equip the workforce with the relevant skills, the application and interpretations paper would seem the most suitable. However, the complexity of the questions and recommendation of 150 guided learning hours for the standard level may mean this is unlikely to be adopted for the proposed new policy.

Multiply programme

The government invested £560 million into the Multiply programme last year to help ‘transform the lives of thousands of adults across the UK’. However, this programme is aimed at over 19s and is at a level working towards Functional Skills/GCSE.

The online tutorial component could be one way for the government’s goal to be achieved; it will be useful to see the feedback about the programme and its impact.

In terms of the impact on colleges nationally, according to FFT Education Data Lab statistics published in 2022, maths is now the most popular A level subject.

Presumably, those students would be exempt from undertaking any additional maths requirement. However, this still leaves a considerable student population where additional resourcing would need to be utilised.

For example, at The Sheffield College, our most popular subjects in The Sheffield Sixth Form are biology, criminology, English language, law, psychology and sociology, not maths.

If you take all of our learners aged 16 to 18 annually, including vocational students who comprise the majority of our intake, there are approximately 4,000 young people in scope.

The implications would be approximately 8.3 full time equivalent mathematics teaching staff. 

This calculation is based on 20 students in one class attending for one hour per week.

Depending on the level of the content, these teachers may be required to be maths specialists with the likely issues around recruitment.

To be successful, a new policy for the maths curriculum would need to be relevant to a wide range of vocational and academic pathways or be an ‘essential life skills’ generic course.

But many questions remain not just for colleges and schools but also for students.

What will the course content comprise? Will making any new qualification mandatory have a negative impact? What happens if students don’t pass and, ultimately, what funding and resourcing will be put in place to ensure any new policy delivers on its intent?

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