13 September 2017

The New GCSE Debate

On Saturday I participated in an Institute of Ideas panel discussion on the new maths GCSE. Here is the description of the session from the researchED programme:

At the start of the session each panel member was asked to speak for five minutes. Here is the transcript of what I said:
"There is so much to say on whether the new GCSE is fit for purpose. We can approach this discussion from the perspective of a number of different types of student, and I sincerely hope that we will cover all of those perspectives over the course of the debate today. But the one aspect that I want to focus on initially is whether the new GCSE is going to give us a stronger future generation of mathematicians. This includes the engineers, the physicists, the computer scientists, the statisticians, the maths teachers... - all the professions that are apparently so important to the 'success' of our country. Are we on track to create higher quality candidates for these professions?

Improving the 'top end' was one of Gove's key drivers. In his 2013 statement to Parliament, Gove said "[The new maths GCSE] will provide greater challenge for the most able students by thoroughly testing their understanding of the mathematical knowledge needed for higher level study and careers in mathematics, the sciences and computing".

So did it work?
I'm afraid that I'm not convinced that the new GCSE has had - or will have - a significant impact on the mathematical fluency and conceptual understanding of students coming through to A level maths. One week into teaching my new Year 12 classes, it seems to me that the gap is exactly as it's always been. It may even have worsened at some schools, because they are no longer able to offer AQA's Certificate of Further Maths in Year 11 (nationally, figures for this qualification have fallen by 34%).
Even though our new Year 12s have had more maths lessons over the last two years than previous cohorts, we still have students who got a grade 7 - equivalent to an A - who can't do the basics. The grade boundaries were such that these students may well have got all the algebra wrong in their GCSE. 
I have blogged previously about using an entrance test to assess algebra skills at the start of Year 12 - this wouldn't be necessary if the GCSE was doing its job correctly. I know of a student who got zero out of fifteen on his entrance assessment - which consisted of pretty basic algebra questions - even though he got a Grade 6 at GCSE. This begs the question, what does a Grade 6 in maths really mean? 
I'm not convinced that standards have improved. I'd argue that mistakes were made in designing the content of the new GCSE specification. 
Over the last two years, maths has gained extra teaching time in most schools. This has often come at a cost to other subjects. Many schools have gone from three maths lessons a week to four, or even more. But the extra time in the classroom has not been spent improving fluency in algebra and tackling fundamental misconceptions - which would have been the best way to spend the extra time. Instead we have had to spend the extra time teaching all the new, random, bitty topics that were added to GCSE - quadratic sequences, functions, iteration, frequency trees and so on. The breadth of the GCSE is vast - there are 97 topics listed in the government's specification. Why exactly were all the new topics added? 
It isn't a head start on A level at all - if our students spend a few lessons rushing through functions in Year 11, we will still have to teach them functions from scratch in Year 13. Due to time constraints, most students will only gain a superficial understanding of the A level topics that were added to GCSE.
What would have been better - what would have actually made a difference to our A level mathematicians - would have been fewer topics on GCSE. I am pleased that Higher GCSE got harder, it used to be too easy for many students, but in my opinion it got harder in the wrong way. I would have liked to have seen the questions on the important stuff - algebra, number, trigonometry - made harder. I'd have liked it if it was impossible to get a high GCSE grade without true algebraic fluency and understanding.
This increased level of difficulty - but on fewer topics - would have better equipped our students for the challenges of A level. Depth was the answer. And depth is the answer in many high performing jurisdictions. But our government went for breadth.

It all comes down to curriculum. It will be a few years until we are able to start measuring the impact of GCSE reform in any meaningful way - perhaps even longer, as we wait for the changes at Key Stages 1 and 2 to filter through to Key Stage 4. But at the moment, whilst the specification remains so broad, it's hard for me to see there being any significant impact on our future generation of mathematicians". 

There were some really interesting points raised during the debate, and I was frustrated that I couldn't address every point in as much detail as I'd have liked (particularly points relating to the suitability of the Foundation specification and the experience of students who struggle with maths). Apologies if you were at the session and raised something that we didn't have time to properly explore - it would be great if we (ie the maths teaching community) could continue the conversation on Twitter or at a future conference. It's really important that teachers make their voice heard in discussions about qualifications and curriculum.

Many thanks to the Institute of Ideas Education Forum for organising the debate, and to Tom Bennett and all those involved in researchED for hosting an excellent conference.


  1. I was interested to read your comment that some schools can no longer offer AQA further maths. Why is this?

    1. My school dropped L2 FM because we could no longer fit it in. We taught new GCSE content right up to the Easter before their GCSE exams so we had no time left for FM.

      Also, we thought (perhaps wrongly) that the new GCSE would sufficiently stretch the top end.

  2. They can! But some have chosen to put all their eggs in one basket (GCSE) and ignore Further maths. Some have made it an "After school lesson" - so numbers have dropped. It is excellent preparation for A-Level maths covering lots of old Core 1 and Core 2 topics.

    1. Wouldn't the time be better spent ensuring excellent skills at GCSE rather than starting A-level content early?

  3. Agreed - the depth IS there in the spec, but schools just don't have time to address it properly and so the distribution of marks/grades in the exams has ended up being such that algebra skills carry less weight than they should at Higher Tier.