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Maths education in the UK: a change of direction

In my last blog, I considered the educational organisation in countries such as Finland, where the policy is to trust teachers without endless testing of learners or inspections from external organisations, but the chance of England moving swiftly in this direction is unlikely. Although in the long run, and even for economic reasons rather than educational philosophy, I am convinced that the logic of the Finnish model will eventually be implemented, what can be done in the short term that could positively impact the problem of the lack of maths teachers in the UK?

It is worth looking again at international practices and, as highlighted in a Nuffield report, we have a much lower take-up of mathematics in post-16 education than all other countries with a comparable developed economy. Indeed, in some countries maths and statistics is taken by all learners until they reach employment or Higher Education, we on the other hand, have about 20% on AS or A Level courses and another 30% resitting GCSE maths or taking Functional Skills.

This leaves about 50% of the post-16 cohort, most of who are planning to go on to Higher Education, not taking any form of Maths or statistics in the two years preceding entry into university, an apprenticeship or employment. With the advancement of digital technology, most courses at university require students to have both numeric competence and an understanding of using and applying mathematical or statistical analysis in the real world.

We were therefore pleased to see that in 2015 the Department for Education instigated new Core Maths courses aimed at learners in post-16 education who have passed GCSE maths but are not taking AS or A Level maths. This was an innovative proposal, with the aim of these Core Maths courses focused on real problem solving in maths and statistics, rather than a lengthy content syllabus.

Core Maths

The assessment objectives for Core Math are worth looking at to see why this is both innovative and hopefully motivating and useful to learners. The objectives aim to:

  1. Deepen competence in the selection and use of mathematical methods and techniques.
  2. Develop confidence in representing and analysing authentic situations mathematically and in applying maths to address related questions and issues.
  3. Build skills in mathematical thinking, reasoning and communication.

It is recognised that a shortage of maths teachers, discussed in my earlier blogs, can impact whether a school offers Core Maths, but there are many models that can be considered, including the use of teachers from other subjects.

Core Maths courses should not only show learners how maths and statistics is used in the real world but also provide the knowledge and skills for further study or employment.

To ensure courses are fit for purpose, it seemed important to concentrate fully on the application side of the topics, with the aim of providing learners with the skills and knowledge that they will need in all aspects of their life; either study, work or every day.

This is the underlying focus of the new NCFE’s Level 3 Certificate in Mathematics for Everyday Life (Core Maths)qualification.

NCFE’s Core Maths qualification enables post-16 learners to retain, deepen and extend their mathematical and statistical understanding through solving meaningful and relevant problems which will prepare them for university, academic or vocational learning, employment and life.

There are four key themes:
  • Understanding personal finance – including saving, buying, loans and tax
  • Understanding commerce – including resource allocation, transportation and critical path analysis
  • Understanding chance – including risk and gambling issues
  • Understanding data – including central tendency and variation, sampling and correlation.

The focus is on understanding the methods, concepts and application in specific the specific areas of Business and Administration, Engineering and Manufacturing, and Health and Science.

The underpinning mathematical and statistical concepts are the same but the contexts will be focused on these application areas. In this way, learners (and teachers) will be motivated, seeing the relevance on the concepts covered to their areas of interest. The aim is to show learners that maths and statistics have an important role to play in the modern world.

Whilst this approach will hopefully attract a significant number of post-16 learners, how does this help to alleviate the shortage of qualified maths teachers? In the short term, more teachers will be needed to cover these new courses but numerate teachers from other disciplines could play a valuable role here by teaching Core Maths in their areas of expertise. We might also be able to attract qualified teachers back into the profession, if only in a part time role, as these courses are motivational for teachers, as well as their learners.

The real gain comes though from having a much larger cohort of learners in post-16 education who are continuing with mathematical and statistical study; the positivity of these courses can attract more new recruits into the profession of teaching mathematics.

Why Core Maths?

Take a look at our Core Maths infographic

To find out more about how NCFE can support maths provision in your centre, email [email protected]

Author: David Burghes, Professor at Plymouth University and CIMT Director