23 May 2016

GCSE reform - will it work?

Nine months into delivering the new GCSE and I'm starting to wonder if these reforms are going to work. The Government wants to raise standards in maths education so that England can 'win the global PISA race'. But global league table dominance is not our country's only aim. The Government is also trying to increase the quality and quantity of students taking maths at A level. This, apparently, will make the country 'more productive' and increase our students' earning potential. These aims do not sit well with teachers, but we all agree that there is room for improvement in maths education. We want what's best for our students, and for future generations.

The Government's mechanisms for raising standards in mathematics education are:
1. Supporting teachers to improve the quality of teaching.
2. Increasing the amount of time spent teaching maths.
3. Increasing the amount of content on the GCSE specification.
4. Increasing the level of challenge in GCSE exams.

So is it working?

Quality of teaching
The best way to raise standards in mathematics education is to improve the teaching in classrooms across the country. Although there's lots of brilliant teaching, if you look at the bigger picture we're actually seeing a lowering of teaching standards as schools become more and more desperate to recruit. Vast numbers of students are being taught by teachers who lack the subject knowledge to teach maths effectively. There's also many classrooms where behaviour management comes before maths. Sad but true. The current landscape is not conducive to good teaching.

Many of us find that our busy teaching timetable often gets in the way of preparing high quality lessons. The only initiative that would actually make any significant difference to the quality of teaching across the country would be a reduction in contact time, giving teachers more opportunity to develop their subject knowledge and pedagogy. Of course, a reduction in contact time will never happen because of the costs involved.

The Government has made some investment in the Maths Hubs initiative, and a number of hubs are doing fantastic work, but it's definitely not enough. Not by a long way.

As Anne Watson says, reported in today's Schools' Week article, there has been “little support provided for this very radical shift of focus in teaching".

Timetable allocation
I welcomed the Government's drive to increase the amount of time spent teaching maths, which was incentivised by double weighting maths on Progress 8. But some schools have not adjusted their timetables. This has resulted in a huge mismatch in teaching time across the country, with students in some schools getting 5 hours a week compared to 3 hours a week in others. This disparity really adds up across the course of a school year. It's a maths education lottery for children.

New content
I taught Linked Pair GCSE this year, as part of a pilot in which students take four exams, leading to two GCSEs in maths. My students were taught a lot more content than students in most other schools. So did learning more topics in Linked Pair produce better mathematicians? I don't think so. Just because my class can calculate AER and (on a good day) estimate the area under a curve, it doesn't mean that they are better prepared for A level maths than your class.

If we want our students to be better prepared to embark on A level maths, we want them to be fluent with algebra, indices, fractions and surds. Strong reasoning and problem solving skills are important too. Adding new GCSE content like frequency trees and iteration doesn't achieve this.

The worst thing about the GCSE reforms, in my opinion, is the increase in breadth when in fact all we needed was more depth. We already had too many topics on the GCSE syllabus and now we have even more.

Harder exams
Making GCSE exams harder is only an effective mechanism for improving the quality of maths education if it is accompanied by a corresponding shift in teaching quality.

Vanessa Pittard of the Department for Education says, “As a country and culture we do need to reform our whole approach to mathematics, our expectations, our teaching, our attitudes to maths”.

This huge cultural shift won't happen overnight. It certainly won't happen by next summer. It's going to need investment, strong leadership and patience.


  1. Completely agree with everything said here. My school refuse to give us more teaching time, we have 8.75 hours over 2 weeks which I suppose is more than some schools but isn't enough! The amount of content is daunting as head of dept as I simply cannot direct all staff to teach everything, trying to get the balance between breadth and depth at all ability levels us tough when all I really want is to deepen understanding. In the end it's students who are going to suffer and then they'll probably change things again anyway.

  2. I sympathise - we get 7 hours a fortnight so everything will be rushed and there will be no time to properly develop problem solving skills etc. Part of the problem is that we have to repeat topics that were taught at Key Stage 3. Although some schools say they've got their KS3 teaching sorted, most schools aren't so confident - so this repetition of topics is necessary.