New maths qualifications announced!

In the latest of the current government’s relentless overhaul of our education system, a package of new post-16 maths qualifications have now joined the list. The aim is to encourage more young people to study maths until the age of 18.

New high-quality maths qualifications will allow thousands more pupils to study the subject from age 16 to 18, Education Minister Elizabeth Truss today said.

She said the new core maths qualifications would give young people the numeracy skills they needed to compete for jobs and high earnings, and would ensure future generations were strong in maths – a subject vital to so many careers.

The Department for Education will spend £20 million from 2014 to 2016 on a programme to support schools and colleges to develop teaching for the new courses. To guide exam boards in developing new core maths qualifications, an expert panel convened by the Advisory Committee in Mathematics Education (ACME) has published guidelines today on what the courses should cover.

The new core maths qualifications will suit students who achieve a B or C in GCSE maths – usually around 50% of pupils every year, the vast majority of whom currently drop the subject afterwards. It will also be available for those with an A* and A grade who are not taking A or AS level maths.

The International Baccalaureate Organisation announced today that an online version of its maths studies standard level course is to be developed for students in post-16 education from September 2015. This standard level course is already taught successfully to post-16 students in schools and colleges offering the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma and will be made available more widely.

Core maths courses will include topics like statistics, probability, advanced calculation and modelling, and will develop students’ mathematical thinking and problem-solving skills. The qualifications will also count as the maths element of the new TechBacc, to be introduced from September 2014 to recognise high performance by students in vocational education.

The 16 to 18 core maths package is the latest part in the government’s top-to-bottom overhaul of maths in schools. It includes a rigorous new maths curriculum from age 5, and reformed maths GCSEs and A levels. Last month the government announced that students who reached the end of secondary school without a grade C or better in GCSE maths would have to continue the subject in some way, up to the age of 18 or until they did achieve that qualification. The Department for Education is consulting on bringing in a new measure in the 16 to 19 performance tables which will show what proportion of students at colleges and school sixth forms achieve level 3 maths qualifications – equivalent to AS/A level.

Only a fifth of pupils in England currently carry on studying maths at any level after GCSEs – the lowest rate of 24 developed countries, behind Estonia, France, USA, Spain, Russia and China, according to a 2010 report by the Nuffield Foundation. In Japan, approximately 85% of young people study maths to the equivalent of A level. In Chinese Taipei, South Korea and Hong Kong – examples of high-performing countries – maths is compulsory in ‘upper secondary’ (16 to 19) education.

Most students who do carry on with maths in England to a higher level are A-grade students – 71% of those who got an A* or A in GCSE maths in 2012 studied maths post-16. But almost all other pupils drop the subject after GCSE because of the lack of appropriate maths courses for them to take – only 33% of students who got a B, and just 24% of those with a C, studied any maths post-16, often at a level below GCSE.

The amount of time spent teaching maths in England is also low – we are 39th out of 42 countries, with 116 hours a year spent teaching maths at age 14. This compares with 166 hours a year spent teaching maths in Chinese Taipei, 138 hours in Singapore, 138 hours in Hong Kong and 137 hours in South Korea – some of the highest performing education jurisdictions (TIMSS 2011).

Alongside low participation, international tables show that England’s performance in maths has stagnated at ages 10, 14 and 15, while 30% of businesses in the CBI’s Education and Skills Survey last year reported dissatisfaction with the standard of school and college leavers’ numeracy. Some 68% of employers said they wanted both maths and science promoted more in schools.

Research shows the importance of maths to people’s careers. Those with A level maths earn between 7% and 10% more than similarly skilled workers who do not have the qualification. A study by Deloitte last year showed that the economic return from maths science jobs was £74,000 on average compared to the national mean of £36,000.

Ok so let’s sit back and look at this closely. It is clear from the research that maths is vital to get on in life, with careers increasingly demand adept reasoning and other numerical skills. This means that it can be argued that we need more of our young people going to university and into work with these skills. The research also shows that we are country miles (pun intended) behind some of the best educating jurisdictions on the planet when it comes to both performance and participation in maths. This is potentially hitting our chances of sustained economic growth as our workforce isn’t producing the skills necessary to sustain growth. I welcome the new qualifications as a great way to ensure that we have more young people with the correct skills.

All this isn’t without it’s difficulties though. As is the case with most teachers let alone pupils, maths is seen as a bit of an elephant in the classroom. It’s the subject that everyone has to do regardless of whether they like it or not (which in most cases it’s not). Trying to persuade thousands of pupils and teachers and convince them this is the right approach is going to take a lot more than just ‘Gove says so so you must do it’. There is also an issue of how this is going to sit alongside A levels potentially. Yes it’s very easy to say that pupils have ‘independent study periods’ as my old grammar school told us to call them (but we all know them as free periods, just sayin), but this isn’t true with teachers. Does this mean that more jobs are going to be available for people to apply for? That would sure boost people’s confidence of finding work! But let’s not forget that these new qualifications will mean new training required to teach those qualifications accurately and with high quality.

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