Fewer than 3,500 pupils sat Further Mathematics GCSE in 2013. The qualification is aimed, as one of the exam boards puts it, at ‘students who have high ability in, or are motivated by mathematics’. These talented pupils may be few and far between – but there are surely many more of them than 3,500? Incidentally, the last ‘additional’ maths pupils sat in 2014, and a new ‘further’ maths exam is being phased in. Clearly, whether it’s ‘additional’ or ‘further’, this extra level of maths is not offered widely in schools.
It’s not necessary to have the GCSE to go on to study mathematics A level, or even further mathematics A level. Nearly 21,000 pupils took further maths AS level in 2013, and 13,800 made it through to the full further maths A level. But the government is determined to get more pupils into science and maths post-16, especially girls. Education Minister Nick Gibb believes the government/industry ‘Your Life’ campaign will: ‘show students that maths and science are skills with the highest earnings potential and the broadest career opportunities. Encouraging more young people to study these subjects is part of our long-term economic plan to build a more prosperous future for Britain.’
However, figures released by the Department for Education (DfE) in July 2014 show that hundreds of schools are failing to enter any pupils at all for science and maths A levels. Specifically in maths, 79 institutions entered no pupils for maths A-level in 2012-13 and a further 892 entered no pupils for further maths. It also depends where you live: youngsters in London, the East Midlands and south-west England are more likely to take these exams, showing a weakness in provision in many regions. There is also a shortage of provision in Scotland and Wales.
The government’s aims are all very well if there are the teachers to teach the subjects. An undoubted factor in the lack of provision, both at further maths GCSE level and at A level, is the shortage of specialist, qualified maths teachers.
A report in August 2013 by Oxford Brookes University predicted that the shortfall in applicants for specialist maths and science places on teaching training courses would create a situation where 100,000 school pupils could soon be taught maths and science by teachers without any specialist training in these subjects. The DfE has tried to remedy this situation in maths by offering extra incentives for qualified university graduates to take up the challenge of maths teaching. Just this May, the Chancellor George Osborne announced another, this time employer-sponsored scheme, to tempt maths and physics PhD students to move straight into teaching with a £40,000 starting salary.
Meanwhile, the UK’s national academy of science, the Royal Society, issued a report in June recommending that all pupils should study maths and science until the age of 18 as part of a broad-based, baccalaureate-style qualification. The report looked at education provision from reception through to sixth form. Sir Martin Taylor, chair of the Royal Society committee which produced the report, said: ‘We know the analytical and problem-solving skills acquired by studying mathematics and science are greatly prized by many employers. What we need now is a stable education system that is properly designed to meet this need.’ One of the report’s strongest recommendations is that all primary schools have access to at least one specialist teacher in science and mathematics, and for all post-primary science and mathematics lessons to be taught by qualified subject specialists. This again points at the need for more teachers to come into the profession. Perhaps only then will the majority of maths enthusiasts at whom the further maths GCSE is aimed be able to get their teeth into their favourite subject before they reach the sixth form?