Who gets what from maths qualifications reform?

by Professor Andrew Noyes, University of Nottingham

This blog post looks at some of the perverse effects of recent GCSE and A-level reforms, including their impact on less advantaged students.


The celebrated French sociologist and public intellectual Pierre Bourdieu wrote of…

…the logic of furious competition which dominates the school institution, especially the effect of a final verdict or destiny that the educational system exerts over teenagers. Often with a psychological brutality that nothing can attenuate, the school institution lays down its final judgements and its verdicts, from which there is no appeal, ranking all students in a unique hierarchy of all forms of excellence, nowadays dominated by a single discipline, mathematics.

He was concerned with how education systems reproduce social class differences, and over the last 15 years or so I’ve been investigating these effects, focused on mathematics education.

The Rethinking the Value of A-level Mathematics (REVAMP) project has been investigating who gets what in and from A-level Mathematics. Like it or not, there is compelling evidence that those with A-level Mathematics enjoy economic advantages later in life, compared with those with other A-level subjects. The reasons for this are not clear but one argument points to the ‘signalling’ effect of school maths. In other words, maths qualifications signal to employers that someone has particular skills and/or attributes, whether or not they are directly relevant to the work, and so it acts as a filter for higher-paid jobs.

At a lower level, the same applies to grade C at GCSE: it gives relative advantage in employment. Also, poor numeracy is a stronger predictor of unemployment than poor literacy.

GCSE reforms

There has been serious concern among policy makers that not enough young people are taking A-level Mathematics. In fact, numbers have risen substantially – from 52,788 in 2004 to 88,816 in 2014.

The main reason for this is that more people have been achieving A or A* at GCSE (probably due to grade inflation) and therefore feel confident to embark on Mathematics A-level. Over 80% of students with A* at GCSE then take A-level Mathematics, around 50% of those with A grade do so, and then it drops off quickly.

The concern is that the regrading of GCSEs into 1-9 means a lot of potentially good students, who would have got an A or A* before, will now only get a 7. These students are likely to think they are not good enough to study maths to A-level.

The reformed GCSE to be examined in 2017 is intended to be more demanding. This may impact negatively on attitudes and experiences, and deter many young people. We already know that the higher the hurdle, the more difficult it will be for disadvantaged rather than advantaged students.


All the while, A-level Mathematics remains more popular for boys than girls.

The REVAMP project highlights the differences between boys and girls choosing A-level Mathematics. At GCSE, girls generally outperform boys but not in maths. So, relatively speaking, girls tend to do less well in maths than in their other subjects. Even when this and other factors are taken into account, girls are still less likely to choose A-level Mathematics.

Among people with at least one A-level, girls with A-level Mathematics earn about £5000 more than those without; the same applies to boys. However the difference between boys and girls with A-level maths is much greater (estimated at around £11,000-£15000 at age 34; based on the 1970 British Cohort Study).

Maths and social divisions

An earlier study using the government’s National Pupil Database, made clear the relationship between GCSE Mathematics grades and the IDACI score (Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index). Students in the top IDACI quintile (the most advantaged fifth of the population) were over twice as likely to attain a grade C or above at GCSE Mathematics than those in the bottom quintile (the most disadvantaged fifth). This difference magnifies the higher up the grades you go, so that the most advantaged students are over 5 times as likely to get A/A*. Consequently, it is largely more advantaged students who go on to choose A-level Maths.

To look at it another way, compare this map of a city. One of the images shows the Index of Multiple Deprivation in small geographical regions and the other the proportion of young people achieving a C in GCSE Mathematics in those same areas. The similarities are striking.


Mathematics post-16

Mathematics post-16 is changing too. The decoupling of AS and A level is now compounded with a reformed, harder A-level Mathematics and the introduction of Core Maths.

When AS formed the first year of an A-level course, students tended to choose four or even five subjects in Y12, narrowing to three in Y13. Now that the link has been broken and AS gives no credit towards an A-level, students are increasingly being encouraged to start Y12 with only three subjects. This means that many will not take the risk of embarking on what they see as a very demanding course.

Core Maths follows Michael Gove’s 2011 commitment to “set a new goal for the education system so that within a decade the vast majority of pupils are studying maths right through to the age of 18”, In the coming days Professor Sir Adrian Smith will report plans to increase maths engagement to 18. Whether this is a good idea or not – given the current state of qualifications, funding, staffing and student attitudes – is moot.

It is hoped that Core Maths will precipitate this step change in post-16 maths participation. The Core Maths qualifications need to engage many disaffected learners and be valued and required by employers and higher education; this is no mean feat. Core Maths cannot be directly compared to A-level, which places much emphasis on advanced algebra and calculus and is designed to meet the needs of those progressing to mathematically demanding university programmes such as mathematics and physics.

The vast majority of young people will not continue maths to age 18 while maths remains voluntary, but neither is compulsion likely to work, given student perceptions and opposition to being compelled. This policy vision is fraught with challenges. The question of who bears the ‘psychological brutality’ of the changes, and who profits, needs sustained attention. Success is contingent upon extra funding to provide staffing for maths as a fourth subject, as well as ensuring the availability of well qualified teachers. Yet budgets are being cut and good teachers are leaving the profession.


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