Maths A level reform - Maple Group response to ALCAB (10 July 2014)

There are currently 11 colleges in membership of the Maple Group. All are large, high –performing, Ofsted ‘outstanding’, sixth form colleges with large numbers of A level Maths students. In total we have around 27,000 A level students, a large proportion of whom study Maths.

Maths A level reform

Naturally member colleges are anxious about all the current A level reforms, since A level is our ‘core business’. Mathematics is more problematic than most subjects in several ways: the variety of syllabuses available, the discontinuity between GCSE and A level, and the unique position of Further Maths.

Response to proposals

There is a view that the loss of separate Mechanics and Statistics papers will lead to a ‘dumbing down’ of content due to necessary lack of depth in order to fit two separate disciplines within a single A level. For many A level teachers however the greater concern is the ’Pure’ component of the specification. To some extent the view is that the techniques taught and examined in ’Pure’ give the tools for application in other aspects of Mathematics, and indeed in sciences such as Physics, Chemistry and Biology, and thus these tools are the vital issue. Applications can be learnt later.

The likely reduction in Statistics content may well cause ‘domino’ problems to subjects such as Biology, Geology, Psychology and Geography, but in reality the parametric Statistics taught in Maths is of limited relevance to those disciplines that tend to use non-parametric techniques. This may of course change with new specifications now appearing in e.g. Psychology and Biology. It would also be unfortunate if a loss of proper statistical rigour, depth or insight in an applied context within Mathematics courses led to a lessening of the quality of statistical understanding for the future scientists of the UK.

16 year old students approaching A level typically have only a limited idea of the make-up of Mechanics, Decision Maths or Statistics. Changes to syllabuses are unlikely to affect recruitment. Difficulty and the likelihood of obtaining a good grade will have a far greater effect. For example, under the previous major curriculum change in 2000, the difficulty level of A level mathematics was set out of kilter with all other subjects, leading to for instance one of the first Mechanics 1 papers set having a modal mark of zero and a haemorrhaging of students from the subject – only rectified four years later in 2004 having lost thousands of potential mathematicians during that period.

The apparent increase in emphasis on problem-solving in Pure Maths is generally welcomed, but with a degree of wariness. Any such increase needs to be introduced gradually and with much information and training to allow teachers to prepare their students (c.f. the comment above on difficulty).

Mathematics has grown and continues to grow in popularity most sixth form colleges. Many of our members have close to 50% of their students taking Maths. Maths is seen as a useful qualification, with status and kudos. Our problem is that of students wishing to take the course who are not really capable of passing. Some have used Statistics as a supposedly easier option, though this is controversial. Others have turned to ‘Use of Maths’. There is definitely a need for an A level in Maths for those students who do not intend to study Maths in H.E., and are not natural Mathematicians. Such a qualification needs to be greater in depth, size and application than the new Core Maths qualification shortly to be trialled.

Further Maths

This is a problem area. For those intending to study Maths or Maths-heavy subjects at degree level, there has always been a need for an extension course of some sort. Either universities will have to dumb down their degrees and teach the more sophisticated aspects of A level themselves, or Further Maths will have to continue. We are not hearing clear signals about Further Maths from ALCAB, or perhaps even more importantly from the DfE and our funding body. If colleges, and schools, are only to be funded for students taking 3 A levels, Further Maths will die regardless of its syllabus. There is already an issue of a few very small school sixth forms failing to offer Further Maths for financial reasons or because they cannot recruit sufficiently competent teachers. It would be a tragedy to see this spread to large providers such as sixth form colleges.


NH July 2014