Mathematics in Education and Industry – Written evidence (EDU0072)

1.1. MEI is an independent charity. MEI’s mission is to improve maths education. Our work is described on our website. We have restricted our comments to mathematics, our area of expertise and, in particular, how GCSE mathematics could be improved to the benefit of all our young people.

- Concerns about GCSE Mathematics

2.1. GCSE Mathematics is currently assessed solely by examination. There are advantages to assessment by examination, including assurance that the work being assessed is the candidate's own and familiarity for stakeholders, but examinations cannot assess performance over an extended period and the pressure of examinations prevents some students from demonstrating their knowledge and skills.

2.2. The nature of mathematics as a subject is that each level of understanding depends on a secure foundation of earlier study. The current two-tier GCSE Mathematics has low grade boundaries for the lower grades at each tier so students can achieve those grades by picking up odd marks throughout the paper without demonstrating a thorough understanding of anything in particular.

2.3. Students taking mathematics examinations usually know when they cannot do a question so students gaining grades with low grade boundaries has a negative effect on student attitude towards mathematics and ability to use mathematics successfully in later life.

- The importance of mathematics assessment at age 16

3.1. In our current system, students choose what to study post-16, with some of them moving to a different school/college at age 16. In order for students and teachers to decide what mathematics courses students might take post-16, a standard assessment of their understanding up to the age of 16 provides useful information.

3.2. As well as being an important and popular subject in its own right, mathematics is also a support for the study of many other subjects so information from mathematics assessment at age 16 provides useful information for education post-16, including for university entrance.

- Purposes of GCSE Mathematics

4.1. Two important purposes of GCSE Mathematics are outlined below.

4.2. Students should be able to demonstrate that they have mastered the mathematics knowledge, skills and understanding needed to be able to use mathematics successfully in later life. It is important that all young people are given the opportunity to master this content by age 18.

4.3. Students should be able to demonstrate whether they are ready to study AS/A level Mathematics, or other level 3 mathematics qualifications.

4.4. These purposes can be in tension, leading to inappropriate curricula for some young people. GCSE Mathematics is trying to achieve too many purposes.

- A possible way forward

5.1. GCSEs in all subjects must follow general rules for GCSE qualifications as well as the subject-specific rules. Reducing the number of subjects which are assessed at age 16 could allow more appropriate assessment to be designed and developed for mathematics.

5.2. In our Position Paper on Curriculum and Assessment in Mathematics[1], we argued for a new GCSE to be developed in Essential Maths, available at Foundation tier only. This would be taken by students when ready, from the end of KS3 onwards, to allow students to demonstrate that they have mastered the mathematics outlined in paragraph 4.2.

5.3. As outlined by the Prime Minister[2], it should be the norm for students to continue to study mathematics to age 18 with appropriate pathways available to reflect students’ aspirations, allowing them to build on their understanding, and increasing the number of students studying mathematics to level 3.

30 April 2023

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[1] MEI Position Paper, Curriculum and assessment in mathematics in England at KS4 and KS5, 2022

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pm-speech-on-improving-attainment-in-mathematics-17-april-2023