From the Director

Two bits of good maths news

Year 11s getting better than their predecessors while A level and Core Maths remains popular


Two bits of good maths news

This summer, buried beneath challenges of the Covid crisis and the controversy around the grading of GCSE and A level examinations, two items of very good news for maths education went largely unnoticed. The first showed clear evidence that the 2020 cohort of 15/16-year olds were doing better in maths than their predecessors. The second showed the continued and increasing popularity of A level Maths and Core Maths.

  1. The 2020 sitting of the National Reference Test (NRT) for Mathematics, taken in late February/early March, showed a significant improvement in standards at GCSE level compared to the 2017 baseline year, when the new GCSE Mathematics curriculum was first examined.

    The NRT is designed to measure standards over time (the same test is taken by a large sample of Year 11 students each year) and is intended to be used to provide additional information when awarding GCSE grades in Mathematics and English Language, so that they reflect any changes in national standards. It should ensure that if there is a genuine increase in standards more candidates will achieve higher grades.

    If the NRT provides strong evidence that standards are going up or down, Ofqual will ensure the grade distribution changes accordingly. This year’s NRT results, compared with the 2017 baseline, are shown in the table below.

      Estimated percentages of students at each grade
    Grade 4 and above Grade 7 and above
    2017 2020 2017 2020
    English Language 69.9 67.0 16.8 17.5
    Mathematics 70.7 74.0 19.9 24.0


    Ofqual accepted this as sufficient evidence to conclude there had been a national improvement in maths attainment. Had grades been awarded normally, this would have resulted in an adjustment to the GCSE Mathematics grade distribution in 2020 of +1 percentage point at grade 4 and +1.4 percentage points at grade 7, with intermediate grade proportions adjusted accordingly. This means roughly 7,500 additional students would have been awarded a grade 4 or above (a Level 2 pass) and roughly 11,000 additional students would have been awarded a grade 7 or above.

    2020 is the first year that the NRT has shown sufficient improvement to convince Ofqual that standards have increased. So far, the NRT has not identified a significant change in English Language standards.

    Teachers of maths at both primary and secondary level have contributed to this improvement in the national standard of maths education and should be proud of this achievement. What a shame that this excellent news was overtaken by the unprecedented events of this year.

    These links will give you more detail about the NRT:

  2. Participation in Level 3 mathematics rose, despite the cohort size falling by 2%, with A level Mathematics entries up 2.5%, A level Further Mathematics up 3% and Core Maths up by over 30%. MEI’s results day media release has more detailed analysis.

    This is especially welcome news for the mathematics A levels because, following the introduction of the new, more demanding, GCSE Mathematics in 2017, there had been concern that some students might be put off choosing to study maths post-16. Indeed, last summer’s A level cohort, which was drawn from the summer 2017 GCSE cohort, showed the first fall in entries in both A level Mathematics and A level Further Mathematics for many years. This summer’s figures suggest that was just a temporary glitch.

    The news on Core Maths is also hugely encouraging, with another increase in entries of over 30%. Core Maths qualifications are proving their value and universities are now beginning to encourage them strongly, with the universities of Bath, Sheffield and York all offering preferential entry requirements across a range of degree programmes for students with Core Maths qualifications. This recognises the value of Core Maths in supporting students’ studies across a range of subjects at A level and beyond.

I would argue that maths education has never been more important than it is now. Despite the current challenges, we should take heart from these two excellent, but largely overlooked, items of news from academic year 2019/20. They show that maths teachers across our schools and colleges are succeeding in raising young people’s attainment in maths, so helping them to meet the challenges of the future.