29 October 2017

Success Stories: Core Maths

There is a case for making maths compulsory until age 18. I find it hard to get on board with this. One of my brightest Year 11 students is currently choosing his A level subjects - he wants to be a barrister so English and History are top of his list. He enjoys maths and he's very good at it, but I certainly don't want to force him to continue to study maths.

However, I am very much in agreement with the principle that everyone should have the opportunity to study mathematics until age 18. Currently almost three quarters of students with a good pass in GCSE mathematics do not continue to study maths after their GCSE exams. This may be because there is no suitable pathway available to them. England is unusual in this respect - we have very low rates of post-16 participation.

In most schools in England, the choice our students face at age 16 is A level maths or no maths at all. Although the Core Maths qualification has now been put in place to cater for those students who pass their GCSE but are unable to take A level, uptake is relatively low. As of June 2017, there were around seven hundred post-16 providers offering Core Maths, which is approaching 30% of the sector. So why isn't every school offering it? Clearly there are funding concerns and staffing pressures at play here. In addition, some schools simply aren't on board with the idea of universal mathematics education post-16.

My school has a relatively healthy uptake of maths at A level. Last year we had 99 students doing AS maths in Year 12, of which 17 got a B at GCSE. Of those students with a B at GCSE, all but one ended up with a D, E or U at AS level (the majority got a U). It was heartbreaking seeing them open their results in August. If only I had been more honest and realistic upfront. The fact is, a student with a B at GCSE is very unlikely to have the underlying knowledge required to succeed at A level. Given lots of time this could be fixed, but we don't have lots of time. Jemma Sherwood explains this very well in her latest post. In light of this, I recently decided that we should raise our entry requirement for A level maths to a Grade 7. I really agonised over this decision, but I feel it is the right thing to do for the students. Part of my justification was that anyone with a Grade 4, 5 or 6 in their maths GCSE would be able to study Core Maths, so at least we wouldn't be excluding them from mathematics. After all, mathematics education should be available to all. This opportunity is particularly important for students who want to study subjects like economics and science, where strong mathematical skills are vital.

Although my request to raise our A level entry requirement to a Grade 7 was accepted, unfortunately my school's leadership team rejected my request to continue to offer Core Maths. They don't see the value in it. I think this is probably a commonly held view. We've run Core Maths for a couple of years with very low uptake (only a couple of students per class) so it's hard to see it as a success. But having gathered inspiration and ideas from Twitter, we were planning to promote it better this year. I do hope that we will get this opportunity in the future.

To support all those teachers who are hoping to implement Core Maths but are facing resistance from leadership, here are three case studies where schools have made Core Maths work well.
1. Maria (@MrsMLL) works at one of the colleges in the North West that piloted the Core Maths Qualification in 2014. Initially the course was highly recommended to students not studying A level maths but studying any A level in science, business, economics, psychology, sport science, computer science and accounting. In 2014 they had 44 students in their Core Maths groups. From 2017, Core Maths is now compulsory for A level science students not studying A level maths. They currently have 55 Core Maths students in Year 12, divided into three groups. Students are told that the main purpose of Core Maths is to support their science studies, and it is increasingly valued by students.
2. Miriam's (@mathsonthebrain) school decided to offer Core Maths because the Sixth Form Leadership Team were looking to provide more alternative pathways for less academic students. When A levels aren't suitable then courses like Core Maths and BTEC Science are recommended. Core Maths is a popular choice, and that popularity partly stems from the fact that maths is well liked in the school. There are lots of students whose favourite subject is maths but they aren't strong enough to do A level, so Core Maths is perfect for them. Miriam's school runs it as a one year course which means they get additional uptake in Year 13 from students who have had to swap courses at the end of Year 12.
3. Chris (@cjshore) works at a large 14-19 comprehensive. With the backing of the college leadership team, in September 2015 they started teaching Core Maths as a qualification to fill the gap between the students who took A level maths and those who retook their GCSE. In the first year 35 students started the course. It was highly recommended to students on mathematically rich courses such as the sciences, geography, economics and psychology. Whilst most students enjoyed the course and reported it helped them with their other studies, there was a high drop out rate during Year 13. Of the 35 students who started the course, only 21 took the final exams. The students who dropped it were those who were struggling with their other A levels or felt that studying Core Maths was not needed for their University offer. Numbers taking up the course at the start of Year 12 remain strong though, with 57 students choosing to take it this year.

I am very grateful to these teachers for their contributions. I have shortened these case studies to keep this blog post to a reasonable length, but I'm sure that each of these teachers would be happy for you to get in touch if you have questions regarding implementation and delivery. There are more case studies here, and of course the Smith Review is full of evidence and recommendations.

To make Core Maths work well, it's vital that school leadership is on board with the idea that all students should have the opportunity to continue to study maths post-16. In addition, it seems that Core Maths has to be actively promoted (or indeed, made compulsory) to students choosing certain courses.

Although we have seen some positive moves from universities in terms of endorsing Core Maths, the Department for Education has a lot of work to do here. To get buy in from schools, and from students themselves, we need the Government to do more, both in terms of funding provision and in terms of promoting the Core Maths qualification at a national level. In the meantime, it's great to hear some success stories. Please add a comment below if you've managed to make Core Maths work well.


  1. Great post! I found this article very interesting from a personal point of you. Back in the day, when I was choosing the equivalent of A levels in Lisbon for my Politics degree at the age of 16,I had no choice but to ditch maths. As I had to follow a Humanities path to get into my choice of degree maths was not available anymore to me and I wasn't prepared to give up what I was naturally good at: languages, history, philosophy. Maths was and still is a subject I had to work hard at but the challenge of it all gave me such pleasure that I was really sad to have to give it up. Little did I know that the maths bug would stay would me and that I would end up becoming a primary school teacher in a different country with a maths specialism? All this to say that I totally agree that children should be given a choice of continuing some kind of Maths (not necessarily A level) even if their chosen path doesn't seem to indicate that they'll need it. Maths is essential for life and learning it, particularly in a practical way, will never be a waste.

    1. Thank you for sharing! A really interesting perspective.

  2. I work at an FE college which doesn't offer A level maths. I would love for us to offer core maths and considering how I would go about making a case for it. This blog will be V handy.

  3. I work at an international school which teaches the IB program instead of A Levels. I teach studies which is the equivalent to core and it is a pleasure to teach. It is compulsory to do some form of maths and studies is difficult enough to challenge but not disengage. I think until the UK sorts out its funding situation, programs like Core Maths just will not get the attention they deserve.

  4. At our FE college we make all our science and Psychology students do extra Maths; 1 hour a week for 1 term for Psychology and 1 hour a week for the whole year for sciences even if they ARE doing A level Maths. That is because some of what they need isn't covered in A level Maths like interpreting straight line graphs, dealing with units for scientific values and hypothesis testing (until this year). I think this is the 3rd year now and it was better accepted when it was made compulsory. Shame they don't give us extra time to teach the extra Maths content in the new A level Maths spec as it was a struggle to cover it adequately before the changes.

  5. I am currently teaching 45 students core maths at a sixth form college. I have found the issue being that a lot of the grade 7 students are not interested in the 'application' of skills, as they have not net them in their science subjects. The grade 4-6 are enjoying it as they are recognising the skills learnt at GCSE are relevant in the real world. I have also noticed that different boards exams are very different in structure. Edexcel have a very holistic style of questions, where skills are very broad in each question, whereas AQA is very structured so you know what sort of skills to employ in each question.
    For next year, I am going to suggest anyone doing BTEC Science, Sports Science or Business, A level psychology, geography or geology and has a grade 4-6 should be doing AQA Mathematical Studies, (which is very like IB Studies), while anyone who is doing A Level Science, or has a grade 7 & is not doing A Level, should do OCR.

  6. I really appreciate all the comments here, thanks everyone.

  7. At my large Sixth Form college we do not offer Core Maths because all students take 3 courses and Core Maths does not fit this model. Years ago this was a similar problem with Use of Maths: When a second year of Use of Maths was offered, making it a viable 2 year course, numbers rocketed. Lots of students studied Business, Accountancy, Social Sciences and Use of Maths. Would a second year of Core Maths make it more attractive to students and college management?

  8. What of the Grade 1-3 students at your school? What happens to them? Just curious.
    In my school, any pupil who does not achieve a 4 or higher on the final tiered exam paper, is advised by the head of the maths department to study functional maths at college instead or think about doing a resit. And pupils who do not even get a three in maths are told honestly that their best option going forward is either to go on to the local further education college in my area where they can have a fresh start and more help with maths or look for a job that does not involve any maths. The head of the math department in my school however prefers to offer Core Maths as a course option to those who have the ability and have achieved at least a 4-6 in their GCSE final exam paper as we know that they will understand the material and attend all the lessons too. Those who do quite badly overall and walk away with a low result despite their best efforts are informed about the other options that are available to them and given a lot more support with their retakes and supported to progress as much as possible. But there is still hope for them. I should mention that this is a state non fee paying mainstream high school with a small number of dyslexic and dyscalculic students who have potential nonetheless.