The Smith Review is good. But what about alternatives at level 2?

Amanda Kelly discusses the implications of the Smith Review.

31 July 2017 / Be the first to comment

By Amanda Kelly, Maths & English Industry Manager - City & Guilds

Sir Adrian Smith's recently-published review hit many nails on the head, Amanda Kelly writes. But a range of alternatives to GCSE and A-level maths must be available if young people are going to succeed

The final report from Professor Sir Adrian Smith’s review of 16-18 mathematics was slipped out by the Department for Education just as MPs headed off for their summer break. But you could be forgiven for missing it: the document was published to little fanfare as politicians swiftly cleared the decks ahead of recess.

Even though many of our heads are also in holiday mode, we should all make time to read the professor’s very welcome and long-overdue findings. Among his conclusions was that government, employers, schools and colleges should share in the responsibility for encouraging and supporting young people to choose mathematics post-16, particularly in low take-up areas ­– something I certainly applaud. If we want a nation of people with the right skills for industry we need to work together to provide that.

Sir Adrian had been asked to consider the low percentage of England’s students continuing mathematics at post-16. In answering this question, he rightfully focused on boosting the delivery and uptake of core maths qualifications and not just ensuring all pupils achieve at GCSE or A level. These qualifications allow learners to build on the skills accomplished at GCSE and apply them in various practical and workplace relevant situations. He called for all schools and colleges to be able to offer these at level 3 – an important starting point for progress in this area and one we hope to see taken up.

Core maths

Core maths must be embedded within the education system as other maths qualifications are. It must be seen as a worthwhile alternative – crucial for developing applied numeracy skills in young people, as well as being a viable stepping stone to HE or higher technical courses, and indeed the jobs market. We know that employers and universities are familiar with AS and A-level maths, but, as Sir Adrian rightly said, awareness of the “core maths brand” is lacking. This must change if young people are to start to consider this course as a viable option. In particular, strides must be made for universities and employers to understand what core maths is and the kind of understanding young people who study it will gain.

Sir Adrian also suggested that the DfE should consider a funding incentive for programmes that include core maths, which would be a good step as it’s clear we need providers and teachers to get on board. As long as core maths remains perceived by learners as an optional extra rather than as an absolutely integral aspect of level 3 provision, we won’t achieve the widespread uptake we need.

There was also a laudable call to upskill teaching staff in FE colleges so as to be able to deliver maths more effectively. Sir Adrian really hit the nail on the head with the points I’ve mentioned so far. However, when we get round to looking for alternatives to level 2, we would have liked to see Sir Adrian go further than he does.

GCSE resits

Tes ran a piece earlier this month on the burden of GCSE resits, and nowhere is that more evident than when we are talking about maths. Currently, 30 per cent of learners still leave school without having achieved a level 2 in maths. We spend far too much time debating the type of qualification; but if we truly want to boost mathematical skills and strengthen numeracy, let’s create a range of options at different stages rather than setting young people up to repeatedly fail.

This controversial policy of GCSE resits for anyone with a grade D or below in maths and English still needs rethinking. Although the ambition to get everyone up to scratch makes sense, the current approach is counterproductive. Already, 230,000 college students were resitting either maths or English this summer – and that figure is expected to rise significantly when the GCSE results come out in August. But at present, students are not given the option to complete an alternative course that they might be better suited to and that would allow them to succeed.

As Sir Adrian points out, the need to resit maths probably reflects “problems at earlier stages”, while many will have lost their confidence and lack motivation. He is spot on to argue for “fresh consideration of alternative curricula and qualifications” rather than the inevitable reliance on GCSE maths as the only legitimate option.

Sir Adrian’s review makes for important reading for anyone invested in strengthening the future workforce and developing people’s mathematics and numeracy skills. I also hope it starts a conversation around how we recognise maths achievement as a journey more broadly, via tools like open badging or credentialing, rather than something that simply ends in a pass or a fail. Learning the right maths at the right times is vital to enabling individuals to progress in their education and careers – so it’s fundamental that we get this right.

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