When maths doesn’t add up

In June 2017, students in England sat the new 9-1 maths GCSE papers for the first time. The change was more than a simple altering of grades from the previous A* – G to 9 – 1. Many topics were moved from AS-level maths into the Higher level GCSE syllabus with a similar dropping down of over 15 topics from Higher level to Foundation level. For example, a barely numerate student struggling with Foundation level now had to tackle the likes of trigonometry, factorising quadratic expressions, vectors and simultaneous equations to name but a few.

The drive for harder exams was fuelled in no small part by the UK’s poor showing in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tables. These provide education rankings based on international tests taken by 15-year-olds in maths, reading and science. In 2013, the UK ranked 26th in maths. Education Secretary Michael Gove said that since the 1990s, test performances had been “at best stagnant, at worst declining” and promised reforms.

Even though the exam boards made resources available for teachers and schools, it became clear early on that there were problems. The Sample Assessment Material created by three of the exam boards was found to be so difficult by the maths regulator, Ofqual, in 2015 that each had to issue new, easier sets. “They fail to differentiate effectively across the full range of ability. This is due to the assessments being too difficult,” Ofqual concluded.

Then there was the confusion as to what a pass grade would be. Grade 4 was referred to as a ‘standard pass’ and grade 5, a ‘strong pass’ by the then education secretary, Justine Greening. Ofsted, the school inspectors, stated that schools would be measured on their number of GCSE passes at grade 5 or above. So is a grade 4 really a pass? Schools accept a grade 4 as a pass that allows students to move on to A-level subjects; universities also stated that a grade 4 will be accepted as a pass.

When the first set of results came out in August 2017, students needed a mark of just 17% to achieve a grade 4 pass at Higher level. A grade 7, which Ofqual aligned with an old-style A grade and most schools had intended to use as a benchmark for progression to A-level, was just 51%. To achieve a maths GCSE grade A the previous year required a mark of 70%.

This begs two questions: • In what measure in a developed country can 17% ever be acceptable as a pass mark? • How can students who effectively failed half the questions on the papers possibly progress to A-level?

At the top end, where a grade 9 was given to just three per cent of students, the grade boundary was 79%. Only three per cent of students achieved over 80% in these new exams – yet both Ofqual and the exam boards stated they were satisfied with this state of affairs. Really?

In the November 2017 exams, the grade boundaries fell even further: 13% for a Higher level grade 4 and 47% for a grade 7. Given that these could only be sat by those who had taken the June exam, the decrease in grade boundaries was hardly surprising.

The Foundation level maths course is intended for those who find maths challenging. But given that maths heads of departments in schools are under pressure to deliver pass grades, it is going to take a very brave person to sit any students for Foundation level when a Higher level pass requires such a low mark and obtaining a grade 4 at Foundation level requires a mark approaching 50%. The fact that Foundation students will be getting the vast majority of each homework, test and exam wrong is a soul-destroying situation yet that is what will be happening. The educational wellbeing of students no longer comes first.

How did we get here? The green-eyed envy of PISA achievements by countries in the far east has led to an untenable new education system. In Japan, teaching maths in primary school requires a maths degree; in the UK, it’s a GCSE pass in maths – and that’s the real problem. Maths needs to be taught by specialists in primary schools (rather than the current situation where a single maths specialist acts as an authority on the subject within a school) to bring up the general level of numeracy before transfer to secondary school. Reasoning and problem-solving skills, cornerstones of the new 9 – 1 maths syllabus, also need to be developed.

A 2011 government report stated that 26.6 per cent of secondary school maths teachers did not have a maths degree. While having such a qualification doesn’t necessarily make for a good teacher, it does give the required depth of knowledge. Honing teaching skills can be done through continued professional development.

Just for a moment, fast forward five years. The student who ‘passed’ maths with 17% last June has taken A-levels in, say, philosophy, sociology and politics, obtaining good enough grades to go to university. Towards the end of their course, they decide to become a primary school teacher and do a PGCE (where 99% of those completing the course pass). Next stop: teaching maths to a primary school class of students. And we think the situation can’t get any worse? It really is an absolute farce.


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