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Trends in A-Level Maths are encouraging—but there is no room for complacency

Gender imbalance in the subject persists

By Charlie Stripp  

©Julian Stratenschulte/DPA/PA Images

Despite perpetual concerns about the state of education, the sustained growth in uptake of the mathematics A levels is real cause for optimism. Over 92,000 students in England took A-level Maths this summer, meaning that the subject keeps its place as the most popular A-level. Ten years ago the entry was only just over 52,000 and Maths trailed in fourth place among A-level subjects. For (the harder) Further Maths, the increases are even more dramatic. Ten years ago fewer than 6,000 students took A level Further Maths; now the figure is over 15,000.

The results are good, too. The pass rate in Maths was 97 per cent this summer, with 47 per cent getting A or A*. For Further Maths the equivalent figures were even more impressive at 98 per cent and 56 per cent.

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Mathematics is unique in having two A-levels. A-level Further Maths is dependent upon A-level Maths and is intended for students who hope to follow particularly mathematical courses at university. Many of the most prestigious university courses in STEM subjects require or strongly recommend that prospective undergraduates take both of these. Much of the credit for the remarkable increases in Further Maths entries should go to the government-funded Further Mathematics Support Programme (FMSP). Since 2005 the programme has promoted the study of the subject to young people and provided expert support to enable state schools to offer qualifications in it to their students. Since the programme started the proportion of state-funded sixth forms that offer the subject has risen from below 40 per cent to over 65 per cent.

But we mustn’t be complacent. All these numbers need to increase still further to help our young people to succeed in their careers and to support the competitiveness of our economy.

So, what entry numbers should we be aiming for? This is a hard question to answer. The Advisory Committee for Mathematics Education, hosted by the Royal Society, has done some work on this, as reported in its 2011 “Mathematical Needs” report, which considered the mathematical needs of higher education and employment. The ACME report did not make specific recommendations about entry numbers for the maths A levels, but it did suggest that around 300,000 young people each year would benefit considerably from studying maths beyond GCSE level. That would mean that half of every cohort that sweeps through the school system every year study the subject.  New “Core Maths” qualifications have just been introduced to meet the needs of many of those students who currently pass GCSE maths but for whom AS/A level Maths is not suitable. Up to now these students, around 250,000 each year, have just dropped maths altogether post-16, in stark contrast to many of our economic competitors, which have far higher uptake of maths post-16. Core Maths qualifications were taken for the first time this summer, with an entry of just under 3,000. We must hope this will grow considerably over the coming years.

But even if Core Maths takes root, we need to continue to try to increase A-level maths take-up. And one way to help achieve that would be to address the persistent gender imbalance.

Roughly 60 per cent of A-level Maths entrants are boys. For Further Maths it is roughly 70 per cent. Levelling-up girls’ participation proportions to that of the boys’ would increase entries by around 20 per cent, or around 110,000, and Further Maths entries by around 40 per cent—to over 20,000.

If we are to meet the government’s aspiration that “the vast majority of pupils should study maths (of some sort) through to age 18” entries for the mathematics A levels, and for Core Maths, must increase very significantly. This will require us to recruit many more maths teachers, and develop new ways to use learning technology to make teaching more efficient. Adrian Smith is currently leading a government review to assess the “case and feasibility” for all students to study maths to age 18. His review due to report by the end of this year. The trends are in the right direction, but we need a far greater teaching capacity if we are to meet our aspirations. Not meeting them could have serious implications for the individual success of our young people and for the future economic success of our country.

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