Mathematics for all?

As part of George Osborne’s budget statement today he made some comments about mathematics education. He said that they would look into teaching mathematics to 18 for all pupils. This has caused a lot of discussion on twitter and the treasury have since clarified that by “looking into teaching mathematics to 18 for all” he actually meant “look to improve a level teaching” – why he didn’t just say that is beyond me….

The bigger debate that seems to have opened is whether mathematics should be taught to all. There seems to be people in both camps on this one, and it’s something I’ve thought about many times.

Some of the arguments for it that I read suggest that for non a level students this would be a great time to learn about the life skills. I would argue that that’s not actually mathematics, it’s more numeracy. And I’ve often thought that they should be taught as distinctly different subjects, with numeracy a core subject and mathematics one that is chosen as an option from KS4 onwards. I sometimes think this would be a great idea, strip back the core curriculum entirely to just numeracy,  literacy and citizenship, leaving a wide range of options and a lot of time in the timetable to build truly bespoke schooling. Students could study academic or vocational qualifications and perhaps we could get both right. However I realise this would be a logistical nightmare, and I worry massively that 14 year olds would be picking things that defined the rest of their life, so the other part of me thinks actually we should be prescribing a broad curriculum giving everyone a fair grounding and allow them to choose at 18 what to specialise in.

But what about in our current situation?

Given the situation we have at pre 16, I started to think about the idea of compulsory maths to 18. Clearly making A level maths compulsory won’t work. I’m told that around 50 % of those who attempt it with a grade B fail in Y12, that’s a massive amount of students we would be setting up to fail, and that’s not counting the A grade students who can’t handle the step up or the C grade students who wouldn’t have a strong enough grounding in algebra to succeed.

What about core maths?

I’ve been teaching this as part of the early adopters programme and I am quite impressed by the qualification. We do the AQA version and I’ve found the specification has enough stuff that fits the “life skills” heading to cover that aim of it while also having some more mathematical elements. The optional papers give the option of creating a course that fits the needs of each student best,  and I’m looking forward to continuing teaching it and seeing it develop.

But should it be compulsory?

Again, I’m torn on this,  I can see that the life skills bits would be good for anyone to learn. On top of that the other bits offer help with a vast range of other subjects and future job roles and help build logical thought, all of which I feel would be a good argument for making it compulsory. But it eats into the time they could be spending working on the things that are really important to them and the qualifications that they directly need to move to the next stage of their lives plan.

One thing I find ill thought out about the qualification is the 2.5 hours a week for 2 years suggestion. The idea was that it was to ease the burden and to spread it out, however I found that students were disengaged around exam time as it was the only subject they weren’t examined in. We also lost a lot of candidates after year 1 as they secured apprenticeships and basically had a years working without any sort of credit. We think going forward that it is better suited as a 1 year 5 hours a week course, perhaps students could do core maths in Y12 followed by EPQ in Y13? This would mean, however that the objective of keeping students in maths education to 18 was no longer being met.

I certainly agree with the compulsory resitting of GCSEs up to 18, although the previous comments around Maths and numeracy are certainly highlighted in this issue too.

As you can probably tell, I have conflicting views on a lot of this, and I’m still trying to.make sense of them. I’d love to hear your views on this. Do you thing all students should have to do maths to 18? Do you think they even need to do it to 16 or should we split maths and numeracy? What are your views on the idea of a stripped bare curriculum where students build their own? Would you have the same 3 core subjects as me, or different ones? Or would you prefer my other idea of a broader curriculum where students are a bit older by the time they need to make those massive decisions? Please let me know in the comments, via social media or email.

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  1. March 17, 2016 at 2:35 pm

    Here in Spain one party wants to put compulsory education until 18 years. I think it’s absurd. We need to teach *basic* mathematics to all, and specialized mathematics to some. It does not take 18 years to teach basic mathematics.

    I think it’s simply to not compute unemployment 😉

  2. MagsMaggie47
    March 17, 2016 at 5:57 pm

    I have worked with 16 to 19 years in FE for the past 20 years, always having a GCSE resit group. For most students there is value in carrying on until they are 18 to get to the magic goal of a grade C, but for some students, those who enter FE with a minimum of an E or below, a full life skills mathematics course with lots of number work and using ICT would be much more beneficial to them. Functional Mathematics was supposed to do this, but cash strapped colleges are running it on a roll on roll off basis and there is little value in the skills acquired. Something else needs to be in place. Funding requirement have currently wiped out all of the things that were in place, only GCSE or Functional Mathematics exists.
    Incidentally my college has made all of its GCSE resit students enter for the Higher sitting this year……??? I would love some comments on this from anyone who works in the FE sector

    • March 17, 2016 at 6:14 pm

      Interesting insights, thanks. The usual rationale behind entering en mass for higher is that you can achieve the C grade easier b6 learning procedures to solve big mark statistics problems, the questions are always the same so you can do it by learning a process, where as the foundation tier has a lot of basic number questions that students can lose marks on. En mass higher entry is possibly a better option for the colleges stats but I’d question whether it was better for the students involved. I agree a better qualification that’s more appropriate would be much better for the lower end of resits.

  3. Ian Cockerham
    May 27, 2016 at 2:38 pm

    Hi. I’ve loved Mathematics for over sixty years. The only Maths I have *had* to do since leaving school has been the result of self-directed or ‘self-imposed’ problems and tasks. I’m of the view that Maths is like Music and Art. It’s all around us and we engage with it or we don’t. Personally I’d make it optional in all schools. I have said to kids for almost thirty years “You’ll need this when you are an adult,” but I was generally wrong. Change from a quid. I can’t think of any maths we *have* to do in everyday life other than this. If we made it optional it’d be done better. Which is counter intuitive but I believe true. Same as language teaching. Five secondary years we spend shepherding children into classrooms where they are taught (translation: not taught) by zealots. Result….the British are rubbish at languages. I think I’ll leave this now…..

    • May 29, 2016 at 12:07 am

      Hi, thanks for the comment. It’s hard to argue with any of that. Great points well made. I think I may be leaning that way.

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