Two hundred and eighty six thousand, five hundred and thirty four

Some thoughts about continuing Maths education in year 12.

  • 57.6% of students who take GCSE Maths get a grade C.
  • Or, 42.4% of students who take GCSE maths fail to get above a grade C.
  • Or to put it another way, this year 286,534 children took GCSE maths and failed to get a grade C.
  • Two hundred and eighty six thousand, five hundred and thirty four.
  • Having a Grade C in maths in no way guarantees that you will be numerate in the sense that “business wants school leavers who are numerate”. The converse applies.
  • The Grade C level in maths is not hard.
  • There, I’ve said it.  My view is fairly straightforward – unless there are specific learning difficulties that prevent it, then there is no real reason why, after 11 years of formal maths learning (somewhere in the region of 1,750 hours) that all students should not be able to achieve this level.
  • I can list many reasons why this does not happen, as I’m sure you can. And most of them are down to individual aspects related to specifc students (often the ingrained generationally embedded ‘I can’t do maths’ attitude). But frankly, I look at that figure of 1,750 hours and compare it to what a student needs to do to get a C and find most of the reasons for falling short of the grade fall short.
  • At the heart of the GCSE maths is the complication of what is the qualification meant to represent. It is trying to do too many things. It cannot at the same time be a determinant of mathematical capability and of numeracy. They are different (though linked) things.
  • Sometimes the hardest thing in any GCSE maths question is working out what maths is required in order to solve the problem. This is the third aspect of the subject, problem solving. So now we have a qualification that is supposed to discriminate numeracy, mathematical capability and problem solving abilities.  Grade C pass may mean the student is an excellent problem solver but is functionally innumerate. In that sense the qualification is useless.
  • Year 11 interventions can help a student get a grade C or make them numerate. But they can’t do both. And at that late stage they certainly can’t turn them into problem solvers. Early intervention is essential if the intervention is going to be formative, that is do something other than just get the exam grade.
  • You can do higher level maths without knowing how to add, subtract, multiply and divide simple numbers. You’ll do it more slowly than someone who can do those things though. Much of school level mathematics is about learning how to do simple mathematical things (apologies for the geeky mathematical language). And the more different types of those things we do the more likely we are to be able to do them again. Simple stuff really. Continual memory retrieval builds that capability. Consider the child who knows their tables by heart and one that doesn’t. Which one is going to get the most practice on any given ‘thing’ in the class? This is the impact that numeracy has on the development of mathematical capability.
  • This is not, by the way, an argument for rote learning. It is a simple statement of the bleeding obvious that the more times you practice something the better you get at it. Why it took Malcolm Gladwell a whole book to say that I don’t know.

Some (polite) suggestions.

  • We need a numeracy qualification we can all agree to; industry, education and (yes) politicians. I mean numeracy, not Functional Skills.
  • The expected pass rate for this qualification should be as close to 100% as we can get.
  • [Stands by to be kicked] There should be a floor level set for the pass rate at GCSE Grade C. A precursor is to agree the (measurable) issues that would prevent students achieving this level. The floor level should be mitigated by these issues. This floor level should be challenging and kick-in fully in five years time.
  • If a student is not heading towards the expected level in Year 8 then perhaps in Year 9 they should do maths for longer, or differently (insert any two years in the this sentence). The same (failing) thing again is not the answer.
  • Politicians. Stop expecting change to occur in your (political) lifetime. This kind of change occurs over a period of, yes, you’ve guessed it, 11 years. Most of you (thank God) don’t get that long.
  • And while you are at it, don’t set quotas on grades.
  • Teachers. Primary and secondary teachers of mathematics, you need to talk to each other. More than you do. Headteachers. You need to make this happen. No-one else can.

When I started my PGCE, after a career outside education, I was advised by my tutor that the best thing I could do was to keep my thoughts to myself for a while. It was good advice. Education is complex. More complex than most who have only ever experienced it as students will ever realise. So mostly, for the past 20 years I have tried to keep my thoughts to myself, and where that has not been possible I have always tried to recognise the difficulties inherent in guiding a multitude of different types of students through the minefield that is school.

On this one subject however I find it very difficult to keep to my usual even-handed (well I think it is) point of view.

Two hundred and eighty six thousand, five hundred and thirty four.

It’s a big number.

It’s way too big.

It needs to be reduced.