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The new core maths qualifications: A welcome opportunity, but what is their place in the curriculum?

Rachel Mathieson, University of Leeds Matt Homer, University of Leeds

We are approaching the end of a three-year project, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, investigating the successes and challenges of core maths (CM), a set of post-16 qualifications introduced in England in 2014. This curriculum innovation was described by Professor Paul Glaister, then chair of the UK’s Joint Mathematical Council, as the most significant development in 16–19 mathematics education in a generation.

Our recent article, ‘“Core Maths chooses you; you don’t choose Core Maths.” The positioning of a new mathematics course within the post-16 curriculum in England’ (Mathieson, Homer, Tasara, & Banner, 2020), considers whether CM addresses the government’s policy aims of increasing and broadening post-16 mathematics participation (for background, see Homer, Mathieson, Banner, & Tasara, 2017). Our data shows positive responses to CM from teachers, managers and students, who welcome the opportunity for more students to develop their mathematical skills beyond GCSE. The relevance of mathematics that can be applied to real-world contexts, especially financial mathematics, is particularly well received.

‘Our data shows positive responses to [Core Maths] from teachers, managers and students, who welcome the opportunity for more students to develop their mathematical skills beyond GCSE. The relevance of mathematics that can be applied to real-world contexts, especially financial mathematics, is particularly well received.’

However, we note, from a social justice perspective, that policy implementation can have unintended consequences for students’ opportunities for progression, arising from the positioning of CM within an institution’s curriculum offer, especially in relation to the well-established and well-regarded mathematics A-level, and within students’ individual study programmes. A-level mathematics enjoys a special status, derived from a combination of desirability and exclusiveness. Students denied access to, or excluding themselves from, A-level mathematics cannot benefit from the qualification, or from concomitant signalling and opportunities such as admittance to high-status universities and well-paid jobs. Access to A-level mathematics is restricted to the highest achievers (Rigby, 2017) and has, if anything, become more restrictive following recent curriculum reforms (Ofqual, 2018). Students without the requisite GCSE grade to access A-level mathematics may, participants report, ‘end up on’ CM as a ‘default negative’. Students and teachers perceive that CM, a shorter course than an A-level, has less exchange value and status than A-level mathematics. We note the use of hierarchical metaphors such as ‘dropping down’ from A-level to CM. Students who cannot, or do not, access A-level mathematics may prioritise the need for three A-level grades (or equivalent) to apply to higher education (HE), and may take a different, full two-year course in another subject rather than CM, despite wishing to continue studying mathematics.

The illusion of choice is encapsulated in the participant quotation which inspired our title. Instead of access and participation, the experience of many students is restriction and exclusion (Dilnot, 2016). Behind the rhetoric of choice lies a hierarchy based on cultural capital and differential access (Bourdieu, 1984), manifest in practices which negatively affect the most disadvantaged students (Pring, 2018; Reay, 2012), in segregation, selection, and a long-acknowledged academic/vocational stratification of school structures and qualifications (Bowles & Gintis, 1976). There is a danger of CM falling victim to the wider dichotomy between academic and vocational pathways, with CM seen as the poor relation to A-level mathematics. This would be a shame, since our broader study highlights the benefits of studying CM.


This blog is based on the article ‘“Core Maths chooses you; you don’t choose Core Maths”. The positioning of a new mathematics course within the post-16 curriculum in England’ by Rachel Mathieson, Matt Homer, Innocent Tasara and Indira Banner, published in the Curriculum Journal. It is free-to-access for a limited period, courtesy of our publisher, Wiley.


References

Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bowles, S., & Gintis, H. (1976). Schooling in capitalist America: Educational reform and the contradictions of economic life. Abingdon: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Dilnot, C. (2016). How does the choice of A-level subjects vary with students’ socio-economic status in English state schools? British Educational Research Journal, 42(6), 1081–1106. https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3250

Homer, M., Mathieson, R., Banner, I., & Tasara, I. (2017). The early take-up of core maths: Emerging findings. Proceedings of the British Society for Research into Learning Mathematics, 37(2).

Mathieson, R., Homer, M., Tasara, I., & Banner, I. (2020). ‘Core Maths chooses you; you don’t choose Core Maths’. The positioning of a new mathematics course within the post-16 curriculum in England. Advance online publication. Curriculum Journal. https://doi.org/10.1002/curj.30

Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation [Ofqual]. (2018). AS and A level decoupling: Implications for the maintenance of AS standards. Coventry. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/722590/7_-_AS_Decoupling_Report_-_PROOFED.pdf

Pring, R. (2018). Philosophical debates on curriculum, inequalities and social justice. Oxford Review of Education, 44(1), 6–18. https://doi.org/10.1080/03054985.2018.1409963

Reay, D. (2012). What would a socially just education system look like?: Saving the minnows from the pike. Journal of Education Policy, 27(5), 587–599. https://doi.org/10.1080/02680939.2012.710015

Rigby, C. (2017). Exploring students’ perceptions and experiences of the transition between GCSE and AS Level mathematics. Research Papers in Education, 32(4), 501–517. https://doi.org/10.1080/02671522.2017.1318806