From the Director

Lessons from this summer's maths exam results

How secondary schools can continue to recover from the downward trends caused by the pandemic


Lessons from this summer's maths exam results

As I wrote in a blog post back in October 2020, in the period leading up to the pandemic, news about maths education performance in England was good. The National Reference Test showed a statistically significant improvement in the mathematics performance of Year 11 students, and there was encouraging growth in entries for A level Mathematics, A level Further Mathematics and Core Maths. So, how has this changed following the pandemic disruption?

It’s not possible to learn anything useful from the overall grade profile of this summer’s GCSE and A level examination results. This is because the grade profiles were affected by Ofqual’s strategy to implement a phased return to pre-pandemic grading standards, following the disruption to the examination system caused by the pandemic.

As Dr Jo Saxton, the Chief Regulator, said when this year’s GCSE and A level results were published:

“I felt strongly that it would not have been right to go straight back to pre-pandemic grading in one go but accept that we do need to continue to take steps back to normality. These results overall, coming as they do broadly midway between 2021 and 2019, represent a staging post on that journey.”

However, there are things we can infer from mathematics results from this summer that indicate that pupils’ mathematical learning has been damaged by the pandemic disruption.

  • In this year’s KS2 SATs results, 71% of pupils achieved national expectations in maths, compared to 79% in 2019.
  • The results of the 2022 National Reference Test showed a statistically significant fall when compared to 2020, though there was a slight improvement at grades 4 and 5 compared to 2021.
  • Entry numbers for A level Mathematics and Further Mathematics were both down a little this summer, despite an increase in the total number of A levels taken across all subjects. Both falls are a reversal of pre-pandemic trends. The cohort of students that sat the mathematics A levels this summer was the cohort that was unable to sit GCSE Mathematics in 2020. Students are more likely to choose to study mathematics at A level if they feel confident about their mathematical ability, and we know that young people’s confidence has been damaged by the pandemic. A possible explanation for the decrease in entries this summer is that students may have had their confidence in their ability to succeed in A level Mathematics dented because they could not sit their GCSE Mathematics exams, even if they were awarded high grades. This may have prompted some to decide to choose A level subjects they perceived as ‘easier’.
  • The encouraging growth in Core Maths numbers over the years preceding the pandemic has stalled, but numbers have held up and there is a strong base to build from.

Now that the pandemic has eased and we can anticipate an academic year free of disruption from the pandemic, what should secondary maths departments do to help reverse these understandable but disappointing trends?

In my NCETM Director’s blog post back in September 2020 I wrote:

‘I strongly believe that the key to getting students’ maths education back on track over the new academic year will be working with them sensitively through calm, focused teaching, prioritising the most fundamental maths topics to develop and reinforce key knowledge and ideas. This will increase students’ confidence and ensure new learning can be built on firm mathematical foundations.’

My view remains the same. The NCETM’s secondary professional development resources, and the professional development programmes offered through Maths Hubs, are focused on supporting this approach. Our resources and professional development programmes are developed with support from expert classroom teachers, and all are available free of charge. Maths Hubs’ professional development programmes are recruiting now. Please take advantage of these opportunities, which will help your school to boost your students’ mathematical learning and improve results.

If your department needs to deploy non-specialist maths teachers, I strongly recommend our Specialist Knowledge for Teaching Mathematics (Secondary Non-specialist Teachers) Programme. The programme is explicitly designed to enable non-specialist teachers of secondary school mathematics to develop the knowledge and skills needed to teach maths effectively. The ongoing shortage of specialist secondary mathematics teachers means this programme is very important and we know from previous participants that it is highly regarded:

  • "This programme has deepened my understanding of the representations and given me new strategies that I can use with my students in the classroom" – Emily
  • "It is helping me reflect as a teacher. I don’t have a maths degree and although I can do the maths myself, it is all different from how I was taught before. My department has done a lot of work on teaching for mastery and this is helping me make sense of the work the faculty are doing" – Sam
  • "This is my first year teaching maths, and I hadn’t heard of teaching for mastery before – this programme gives you so many different ways of thinking and approaching problems" – Jessica

All NCETM/Maths Hubs professional development materials and programmes are consistent with the NCETM’s teaching for mastery approach, designed to enable pupils to develop deep, sustainable understanding of mathematics, enjoy learning mathematics and use it with confidence.

Through this carefully structured approach to mathematics teaching, supported by professional development support from the NCETM and Maths Hubs, we can ensure our students meet and surpass pre-pandemic levels of achievement in mathematics.

We certainly have another challenging year ahead for secondary maths teaching. The NCETM and Maths Hubs are here to help.

Related Pages

Maths Hubs