The British prime minister, Rishi Sunak, lately announced his ambition ‘to move towards all children studying some form of maths to 18’ (Sunak, 2023), prompting questions about what maths this should be (and who should teach it). While I don’t dispute the importance of these questions, I do believe that the debate is currently missing key information about what maths 16- to 18-year-olds already study.
The UK is unusual in that post-16 maths qualifications are optional for most students (Hodgen et al., 2010). However, moves have recently been made to increase the applied maths taught within other subjects in the pre-university curriculum (known as A-levels). In particular, a number of A-level subjects now have a formal requirement for quantitative skills to be assessed. This means that a student who arrives to study sociology at university, having taken A-levels in biology, psychology and sociology, does not have ‘no maths’. In fact, they should have developed quantitative skills in all three of these subjects. The question is, what skills?
To find out what this applied maths might look like, I carried out a curriculum document analysis for 19 A-level subjects, from accounting, biology and business to sociology and statistics. Admittedly, this does not necessarily reflect teachers’ interpretations, or students’ experiences, of quantitative skills at A-level. However, focusing on curriculum documents gave me a perspective on the maths intended to be taught by curriculum designers. I focused on the kinds of maths included in curricula, rather than the amount or difficulty level, using a set of mathematical competences designed by the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (2019) to capture the types of maths that might be used within other subjects (and workplaces):
- measuring with precision
- estimating, calculating, and error spotting
- working with proportion
- using rules and formulae
- processing data
- understanding data and risk
- interpreting and representing with diagrams
- communicating using mathematics
- costing and optimising work processes.
‘In fact, environmental science, geology, biology, physics, electronics, statistics and chemistry curricula all cover a broader range of these mathematical competences than maths A-level.’
A curious finding is that maths A-level does not have a monopoly on these competences. In fact, environmental science, geology, biology, physics, electronics, statistics and chemistry curricula all cover a broader range of these mathematical competences than maths A-level. The most common competences across subjects were processing data and understanding data and risk, which bodes well for students’ statistical literacy in an increasingly data-rich world. On the other hand, costing and optimising work processes had very little curriculum coverage, meaning that A-level students are potentially missing out on developing skills that would be applicable to many workplaces, as well as to the realm of personal finance.
What is abundantly clear from exploring these documents is that the way we talk about post-16 maths needs to change. Maths participation is about more than maths qualifications. For a student taking A-levels in geography, psychology and sociology, it would be hard to argue that they are not taking ‘some maths’. On top of this, it may be highly valuable for students who have chosen A-level maths (as well as those in countries where maths qualifications are compulsory) to also have the chance to apply maths in the real-world contexts provided by other subjects.
So, while Sunak reported that ‘just half of all 16–19-year-olds study any maths at all’, this proportion could be far higher if we take into account those studying maths within other subjects. In fact, I think Sunak could be more ambitious. What if, rather than settling for ‘some maths’, he called for all young people to be given the opportunity to study maths that is interesting and relevant, taught within meaningful contexts, and connected across curriculum subjects? What my research says is that maybe, to some extent, this is happening already.
This blog post is based on the article ‘Mapping mathematical competences across subjects for advanced level qualifications in England’ by Jennifer Norris and Andrew Noyes, published in the Curriculum Journal. The blog post was written with the support of Andrew Noyes.
Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education. (2019). Mathematics for the T level qualifications: A rationale for General Mathematical Competences (GMCs). The Royal Society.
Hodgen, J., Pepper, D., Sturman, L., & Ruddock, G. (2010). Is the UK an outlier? An international comparison of upper secondary mathematics education. Nuffield Foundation.
Sunak, R. (2023). PM speech on building a better future: 4 January 2023. https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pm-speech-on-making-2023-the-first-year-of-a-new-and-better-future-4-january-2023