29 March 2016

A Level Reforms: First Thoughts

No doubt I will do a lot of blogging about A level reforms over the coming years. A level classes currently take up more than half of my teaching timetable. In this post I share some of my initial thoughts on how it's all going to work.

Teaching time
To deliver the new 9-1 GCSE it was recommended that schools increase their teaching time for maths. This led to difficult curriculum decisions for school leaders. We are not expecting to see a similar recommendation for A level. Although there are some content changes, I'm told that the difficulty of the new A level is meant to be equivalent to that of the current A level, so no extra teaching time is required. Also, all A level subjects must be delivered in the same number of teaching hours - timetables wouldn't work otherwise (eg students can't do 6 hours of maths and 4 hours of Psychology a week, it has to be the same amount for each subject). So let's assume that A level teaching time won't change. For me that's 10 hours a fortnight in Year 12 and 9 hours a fortnight in Year 13. If you're wondering how your school compares to others, here are the results of my Twitter poll:
It's good that we're not required to increase teaching time - there aren't enough maths teachers.

Teaching structure and specialisms
For A level Maths all students will study a combination of pure maths, statistics and mechanics. There will no longer be an element of choice.

I currently teach pure and statistics. Specialising can be a good thing - I'm (hopefully) now a 'good' statistics teacher because I've taught S1 and S2 many times. If my school asked me to teach mechanics then I would happily oblige, but having never studied nor taught mechanics, I'd have to teach myself first. Will this change under the new A level? Will I be required to teach a bit of everything? Not necessarily.

Under the new A level specification, if the final exams at the end of Year 13 are weighted as follows:
16 mechanics

then here's one possible teaching structure:
This is a simplified view. There will be opportunities to integrate the applied content with the pure content throughout the course. The order of topics is going to require a lot of thought. Teachers who have taught linear A level before may be able to offer advice here.

Modular to linear
For those of us who have only ever taught modular A level, some things will take a bit of getting used to. The loss of AS level is a notable change. Most schools have already moved to a 'three subject' model, so even though maths students are still taking AS level exams in 2016 and 2017, many will continue to study maths in Year 13 regardless of their AS result. Previously students who got a D or below at AS typically dropped maths at the end of Year 12.

Although AS levels will still exist under the A level reforms, the majority of students will need three A levels for their university applications so very few will be willing to drop down to AS in Year 13 if they're struggling.

We will need to think very carefully about how to assess students throughout the course, particularly as we will be making UCAS predictions based on Year 12 internal exam results. I hope that the exam boards provide some internal assessment resources.

It's interesting that many of the topics that we'll teach over the two year course will not be assessed in the final exams. At the moment we know that almost every topic we teach will be assessed, in fact we can often predict what the questions will look like. The new linear A level will have a lower total assessment time so there will be a lot of topics that don't come up in the final exams at the end of Year 13.

Resources and subject knowledge
The content of A Level Maths is set to change - not substantially, but enough that many schools will buy new textbooks. We will need resources for the new topics (more so for Further Maths). My blog already has fairly comprehensive A level resource libraries and I hope it will eventually become a source of support and resources for the new A level too.

Teachers may need training in how to deliver new topics and use technology (ie new calculator functions). I hope this will all be centrally funded - it shouldn't be down to individual schools to pay for essential training resulting from curriculum changes. No doubt the FMSP and Maths Hubs will offer CPD and support. The best time for training will probably be June/July 2017, once we've got the first sitting of the 9-1 GCSE over with.

The structuring and resourcing of schemes of work for the new A level will take a lot of time and effort during school year 2016/17.

Further reading and events
MEI's Frequently Asked Questions and the FMSP's list of changes to AS/A level Mathematics are useful. MEI has also produced a video summarising the changes:

The DfE's specifications are here: AS and A level Maths and AS and A level Further Maths.

I'll be at a number of events over the coming months where A level changes will be discussed, including Maths in the Sticks on 24th April, the Edexcel Maths Conference 2016 on 2nd July and the East Midlands KS5 Mathematics Conference 2016 on 9th August. 

The exam boards' specifications and sample assessment materials will be published in June.

Do let me know your thoughts about the upcoming A level changes via Twitter or by commenting below.

Exciting times!


  1. I am always surprised that so many schools choose to buy new textbooks whenever the specification changes, I agree that at A-level the approach is generally more traditional in approach but I am not sure the cost of buying new books is justified at A-level or lower down the school.

  2. We couldn't afford them anyway! We're still using our "old" GCSE textbooks. To reequip would have used the whole of a year's capitation.

  3. I'm disappointed that there's no Decision Maths in there anymore. I'm not sure there is any logical reasoning to take it out as there's some really good maths in D1 and D2. I suspect that it's the often heard misconception that D1 is 'easy' and 'not proper maths'.

  4. My sentiments exactly. At a time when our students rightfully ask for the relevance of some of the content in our maths curriculum Decision Maths and the concepts therein aptly helps to answer some of these questions. Unfortunately the perception of a lack of 'proper maths' has resulted in the demise of Decision Maths

  5. Relatively few students take the Decision modules (the most common combination of applied modules in the current A level is M1 and S1). This may be because many schools do not have teachers with the relevant expertise.

    At both my previous and current school only the Further Mathematicians took D1 (Further Mathematicians will continue to have the opportunity to study Discrete maths).

    In my experience I find that Decision teachers love teaching it and are very defensive of it! I've never taught Decision so can't comment on the content. I did study some Operational Research at university, which I enjoyed.

  6. In your piece you mention that "most schools have already moved to a three subject model". We are still defiantly sticking to four and individual departments have been asked to choose whether they offer AS or not. For the new specification, we are planning to continue to ask all our Year 12 candidates to take AS mathematics. I wonder how common this will be (and whether, in the long term, AS is sustainable).

    1. I think this might be unsustainable due to cost.

      Also, must be frustrating for students who do well in the AS & carry on to take A2 that their good AS grade doesn't count towards their final grade.