Have we made maths too hard?

Sunday 29 October, 12:0013:00, Frobisher 1-3Battle for Education

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In 2013, the then education secretary, Michael Gove, argued that GCSE Mathematics was no longer fit for purpose, suffering from grade inflation and a loss of rigour. Cue the new GCSE Mathematics qualification, using the 9-1 grading system, expanded content and a greater focus on conceptual understanding and problem-solving skills. The new curriculum and exam is designed to stretch students and end what some regarded as a ‘recipe learning’ approach to the teaching of mathematics that benefited no one.

With the first set of exams now over, have we got the balance right? It may not be surprising to find students on Twitter complaining that the exam boards ‘must hate us’, but teachers have also raised concerns about how tough the papers were and whether middle-ability pupils have been given a fair chance to demonstrate what they have learnt. Given the greater difficulty of the exam, there are worries that capable students will be deterred from studying post-GCSE maths. At a time when there is a shortage of specialist maths teachers, secondary schools have had to expand the curriculum time devoted to the teaching of maths. Primary schools are also under increasing pressure to do likewise and deliver pupils who are more mathematically capable when they start secondary school.

Moreover, there is no escaping Maths if pupils want to go further in education beyond GCSE. Thanks to the recent government resit policy, many students must retake their English and Maths GCSEs during post-16 education until they pass. However, Ofsted has highlighted the poor results from these compulsory resits: just 29.5 per cent of learners aged 17 or above taking GCSE maths in 2016 achieved a C or above, compared to 35.8 per cent the year before. Outgoing Ofsted head, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has also argued that for many students, an alternative qualification ‘may be a more appropriate means of improving their English and mathematics and ensuring that they are ready for work’. Nonetheless, the Education and Skills Funding Agency announced in April that the resit policy would continue.

In a rush towards greater rigour and mathematical fluency for all, have we lost sight of our ultimate goals and over-estimated the capacity of schools and colleges to deliver? Is it time to take a step back and consider an approach suited to the differing needs and abilities of students? Or should we celebrate greater ambition and keep pushing teachers and students to scale ever-greater heights?