From education to employment

New maths GCSE proposed to break demoralising resit cycle

A new maths GCSE curriculum for post-16 resit students

Throughout 2019, MEI worked in consultation with key stakeholders to develop a new curriculum in maths for post-16 GCSE students with a greater emphasis on applying maths in realistic contexts. This project included a small-scale study to assess the suitability of the curriculum as a basis for an alternative to the existing GCSE Mathematics.

The project aimed to address the recommendation of the Smith review that:

“In view of the low GCSE resit success rates and new GCSE requirements, the Department for Education should review its 16-18 resit policy with the aim that a greater proportion of students without a grade C or equivalent attain appropriate mathematical understanding by age 18. Specifically, there should be fresh consideration of appropriate curricula and qualifications for these students and the extent to which current policy incentivises these to be offered”.

We are delighted to announce the publication of the final report of a project conducted by Mathematics in Education and Industry (MEI), with funding from the Nuffield Foundation, to investigate the feasibility of a new maths GCSE curriculum for post-16 resit students.

The report outlines a curriculum for a new qualification that focuses on the maths needed for everyday life and work, which also has sufficient rigour to meet the requirements of a GCSE qualification. It recommends that such a post-16 maths GCSE qualification should be developed and that it should have the same status as GCSE Mathematics at the same grade. It should also include a paper that can be taken early as a stepping-stone.

The proposed new post-16 maths GCSE would be available at Foundation tier only (grades 1-5). This is appropriate for the majority of resit students as over 90% of resit GCSE Mathematics entries are for the Foundation tier. Those resit students likely to benefit from taking the Higher tier (grades 4-9) are well served by resitting the standard GCSE Mathematics.

Maths Resit Policy

Educational policy in England requires full-time students aged 16–18 who have not achieved grade 4 or higher in GCSE Mathematics to continue studying maths, with those who achieve grade 3 in GCSE Mathematics at age 16 required to continue to study towards GCSE Mathematics post-16.

This often results in young people lacking confidence in maths and the prospect of ‘more of the same’, combined with low expectations of success, can be very de-motivating. As a result, many young people do not achieve their full potential and can be left with a lasting sense of failure and a reinforced negative attitude towards maths. This may prevent them from engaging with learning and using maths in the future.

The resit success rate is also very low. Over 180,000 people resat GCSE Mathematics in the summer of 2019, but only 22.3% achieved the target of at least a grade 4 (a Level 2 pass grade). Provisional results published on 16 January 2020, indicate a pass rate of 26.5% for the 53,270 people who resat GCSE Mathematics in November 2019. The pass rate for the November session is usually higher than for the summer session because those who came closest to passing it at age 16 tend to resit it at the earliest opportunity.

The GCSE Mathematics, which is designed for 14-16 year olds, attempts to do two things:

  1. Prepare students for further academic study of maths, and
  2. Develop the knowledge and skills to apply maths to practical problems encountered in the workplace and other aspects of life.

Most resit students need to focus on the latter. The development of this new curriculum is the start of a process to improve the learning experience for GCSE Mathematics resit students and outcomes for the wider population by improving knowledge of, and attitudes towards, maths.

It would require the Government to act upon the report’s recommendations and amend the requirements for resit GCSEs to allow this new post-16 maths GCSE. The DfE could then work with Ofqual to develop detailed content and regulatory requirements for the proposed new post-16 maths GCSE, opening the way for awarding bodies to develop the qualification.

Sector Response

Professor Sir Adrian Smith said:

“There has long been concern that the policy of requiring substantial and increasing numbers of students post-16 to resit GCSE Mathematics does not best meet the needs of the majority of these students. This MEI report provides a well thought out blueprint for a new curriculum that could provide a more appropriate alternative for many students. It merits serious consideration by everyone involved in post-16 mathematics education.”

Charlie Stripp, Chief Executive of MEI, said:

“It has been clear for years that the current resit policy is not fit for purpose for young people who do not succeed in maths at age 16. These young people deserve better!  They need a different maths GCSE curriculum – one that better reflects their status as young adults and which they can see is relevant to the maths they need for their future life and employment. We have demonstrated that it is feasible to develop a more suitable alternative qualification that has the same status as GCSE Mathematics. This paves the way for the policy to be changed.”

Josh Hillman, Director of Education at the Nuffield Foundation, said:

“All 16-18 year olds should continue to develop their maths skills, and have the opportunity to gain high status qualifications. For many young people the stubbornly low success rate for maths GCSE resits is having a detrimental impact on their immediate and long-term education, training and employment opportunities. If we are serious about equipping all young people with the maths skills they’ll need throughout their lives, reform is needed. As such, we welcome this proposal for an alternative, more practically focused GCSE, which would be feasible to implement, and potentially have status equal to the current qualification.”

David Hughes, Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges, said:

“The vast majority of post-16 GCSE Maths retake students are in colleges. Our sector takes the challenge of increasing achievement in maths very seriously and colleges are doing a lot of hard work to support students on this.

“A dedicated post-16 maths GCSE for these students, with equivalent grades to the current GCSE would be welcomed by colleges and employers. Most importantly I am sure that students would find it more appropriate for their progression.

“The proposed curriculum would better engage and motivate students who achieved grade 3 or below at 16 by incorporating a stepping-stone assessment of basic maths skills worth 20% that can be taken before the final exam and which has some value in its own right. I hope that the Department for Education will take this proposal seriously and consider making the necessary changes to GCSE rules to allow it to be developed.”   

Jill Durrant, Widening Participation lead at Sussex Community NHS Foundation Trust, said:

“There is a great deal of anxiety related to maths in the general population, and if people do not attain the required pass mark they don’t want to do the exam again and again. So if this new GCSE develops the maths most needed for the workplace and boosts confidence then it has to be a good thing. It’s vital that staff within the NHS are given the opportunities to progress in their chosen careers and if maths is a barrier then it can have a massive impact on recruitment and retention.”

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