What Makes More Girls Want to Study Maths and Further Maths at AS/A Level?
There are strong reasons for wanting to increase the numbers of girls opting for Maths/Further Maths (FM) at AS/A level. As well as the clear social justice implications (for future career and salary parity), girls tend to be more successful at AS/A level, with consistently lower proportions getting E and U grades, and higher proportions getting A grades (though A*s are awarded more often to boys).
To discover the secrets to attracting more female candidates, four schools and one FE college were studied by a team from UCL IoE (University College London, Institute of Education) on behalf of the FMSP (Further Maths Support Programme). Read the full report.
The schools and college studied were chosen because of their above average proportions of girls choosing to take Maths and FM at AS/A level. None had employed specific initiatives to raise girls’ participation rates, but researchers were keen to see if they could find common factors that were increasing girls’ participation rates.
It is worth noting, first of all, that gender participation is measured as the proportion of girls (or boys) choosing maths out of the entire cohort of students taking one or more A level. The national figure for girls is 20% for Maths and 2.5% for FM (boys are twice as likely as girls to take Maths and three times as likely to take FM). Alternative measures that compare the number of girls taking maths with the number of boys have drawbacks such as appearing successful if the number of boys opting for maths is reduced (a scenario which improves nothing!).
Researchers observed lessons, collected participation data and conducted interviews with teachers and Year 11 and Year 12 girls, in order to understand higher than average female participation rates. No obvious blueprint was evident from the study, but the following themes emerged as common to more than one of the institutions:
- A strong culture of maths in the institution – this was seen as encouraging all students to aspire to study maths, particularly in the schools, where such expectations were evident from as early as Year 8. Some of the institutions were as successful in recruiting above average numbers of boys, meaning that gender imbalance in classes has not necessarily been eradicated.
- A pervasive expectation that those capable of B grade and above in Maths would continue to study the subject, and be successful at AS/A level.
- In some institutions,Year 11 top sets studied A level topics as standard, in class time. In some cases this was part of a L2 Further Maths qualification (though girls reported the qualification as less important than the opportunity to ‘try out’ harder maths). There was a belief that this ‘demystified’ A level Maths and challenged the reputation that it was ‘too hard’.
- Careers input was overwhelmingly positive about the wide applicability of maths and emphasised that studying the subject would keep options open. In some cases this positivity was reinforced by classroom/corridor displays.
- Girls reported it significant to their enjoyment when teachers took the time to explain how abstract mathematics topics can be applied in practical situations. It was significant to their decision-making when teachers talked to them personally about their futures.
- Two institutions offered AS level Further Maths in Year 13 for those students that only discovered a particular love or capability for Maths in Year 12, or who realised the need for FM for their university choice. There was evidence that this was an option welcomed by girls in particular.
- All institutions had evidence of stable Further Maths provision, with a commitment to keep the course timetabled through years with uneconomically small classes.
- Strong female role models were important – all institutions had at least two female maths teachers who taught Year 11 top sets and A level classes, and were cited as influential by staff and students.
- Various in-class practices were reported as being encouraging to girls – in particular, teachers directly asking for contributions from less vocal members of the class and valuing a variety of ways of working. Girls also reported that they valued their teachers being available for individual help (in and out of lessons), and feeling that their teachers knew them and encouraged them personally.
- The schools all offered a Maths A level option that included statistics in Year 12, and they promoted this as beneficial because of its social-science applications. Girls are more likely than boys to consider careers supported by studying statistics, so this school–level offer is understood to match their needs and promote participation.
Evidence suggests that girls tend to be less confident about their mathematical abilities. For example, fewer girls with GCSE grade B or C will opt for AS/A level Maths than boys with those grades. They seem to be more deterred by the reputation that A level Maths is a ‘hard’ subject and more likely to take a ‘safer’ route. The institutions studied seemed to use a variety of strategies to build confidence by giving ‘tasters’ of AS level Maths, by expectations of success, and to avoid shutting down options for mathematical study too early.
The report expressed concern that some of the forthcoming changes to AS/A levels, to performance measures, and to school funding might mitigate against some of the factors found to improve the uptake of Maths and FM amongst girls. They recommend that policy change should be actively monitored for unintended impact on girls’ participation in all forms of Level 3 maths.
We’d love to hear of any successful strategies that you have used in your school/college to increase the numbers of girls studying AS/A level Maths and FM. Please comment below.
AMSP have produced a self-audit for schools to use to audit girls' participation in Level 3 maths.