When Maths Doesn’t Add Up

Back in June 2017, students in England flew the brand new 9-1 maths GCSE newspapers for the first time. The change was more than a simple altering of levels from the preceding A* — G to 9 — 1). Many subjects were moved out of AS-level maths to the greater level GCSE syllabus with a similar dropping down of over 15 subjects from Higher level to Foundation level. By way of example, a scarcely numerate student fighting with Foundation level now had to tackle the likes of trigonometry, factorising quadratic expressions, vectors and numerical equations to name but a few.

The push for harder exams was fuelled in no small part from the UK’s weak showing from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tables. These provide education rankings based on international tests obtained by 15-year-olds from maths, science and reading. In 2013, the UK ranked 26th at maths. Education Secretary Michael Gove said that because the 1990s, evaluation performances had been “at best home, at worst falling” and promised reforms.

Despite the fact that the exam boards made resources available for teachers and schools, it became apparent early on that there were difficulties. The Sample Assessment Material made by three of the test boards was shown to be this difficult from the maths operator, Ofqual, in 2015 that every needed to issue fresh, simpler sets. “They don’t differentiate effectively across the full selection of ability. This is due to the evaluations being too difficult,” Ofqual concluded.

Then there wasn’t any confusion in regard to exactly what a pass grade would be. Grade 4 was referred to as a ‘regular pass’ and tier 5, a ‘strong pass’ from the then education secretary, ‘  Justine Greening. Ofsted, the school inspectors, said that colleges would be measured on their amount of GCSE passes at grade 5 or over. So is a grade 4 actually a pass? Schools accept a tier 4 as a pass that enables students to proceed to A-level subjects; universities also said that a tier 4 will be approved as a pass.

When the first group of results came out at August 2017, students needed a mark of just 17 percent to achieve a level 4 pass at Higher level. A 7, which Ofqual tasked with the old-style A tier and most colleges had intended to use as a reference for progression to A-level, was just 51%. To achieve a maths GCSE grade A the preceding year required a mark of 70 percent.

This begs two questions: • Just what measure at a developed nation can 17% ever be okay as a pass mark? • How do students who effectively failed half the questions on the newspapers possibly advancement to A-level?

At the top end, at which a grade 9 was awarded to just three per cent of students, the grade boundary was 79%. Just three per cent of students achieved over 80% in those new examinations — yet both Ofqual and the test boards said they were satisfied with this state of affairs. Really?

From the November 2017 exams, the grade boundaries fell even further: 13% for a greater level grade 4 and 47% for a 7. Given that these could just be sat by those who had obtained the June exam, the reduction in grade borders was hardly surprising.

The Foundation level maths class is designed for those who find maths challenging. But since maths heads of divisions in colleges are under stress to deliver pass grades, it is going to take a very brave person to sit any students for Foundation level when a greater level pass necessitates such a minimal mark and getting a grade 4 at Foundation level needs a mark approaching 50%. The fact that Foundation students will be receiving the vast majority of every assignment, test and exam wrong is a soul-destroying situation yet that’s exactly what will be occurring. The instructional wellbeing of students no longer comes.

How did we get here? The green-eyed envy of PISA achievements by countries in the far east has led to an untenable new schooling system. Back in Japan, teaching maths in primary school demands a maths degree; in the UK, it’s a GCSE pass in maths — and that is the real issue. Maths needs to be taught by specialists in primary schools (rather than the present situation where a single maths specialist serves as an authority on the topic within a school) to bring up the general level of numeracy before transport to secondary school. Reasoning and problem-solving skills, cornerstones of the newest 9 — 1 maths syllabus, also need to be developed.

A 2011 authorities report said that 26.6 per cent of secondary school maths teachers didn’t have a maths degree. While having this type of qualification does not automatically make for a fantastic instructor, it will give the required depth of comprehension. Honing teaching skills could be done through ongoing professional development.

Only for an instant, quickly forward five decades. The student who ‘handed’ maths with 17 percent last June has obtained A-levels in, say, philosophy, sociology and politics, getting good enough grades to go to university. Towards the end of their class, they choose to be a primary school teacher and do a PGCE (at which 99% of those completing the training course pass). Next stop: teaching maths into a primary school class of students. And we believe the situation can’t get any worse? It is really a complete farce.