A-level Maths – should I or should I not – will my figures add up?

In my last couple of blog posts, I looked at changes in the Maths curriculum and also highlighted the fact that there has been a significant fall in the number of students who are taking up A-level Maths. The reasons attributed to these are: the harder GCSE Maths, which has made more young people less confident about taking A-level Maths; the decoupling of AS Maths and, finally, the reduction in the number of A-levels that students are allowed to take in their first year of sixth form study.

The changes make it more risky for young people to want to commit to two years of a course without the conviction that they will end up with a decent pass grade at the end of it.

There has been speculation in the media on the issue of fewer students taking up A-level Maths as between 2002 and 2014, Maths had become the most popular A-level. The media interest in this matter has resulted in people becoming more aware about the usefulness and the potential benefit of studying A-level Maths up to A-level. Sadly, this year, there is a significant drop in numbers again.

Is Maths rocket Science?

Yes, yes and yes but perhaps you can do it! One fact that we have to face is that Maths is generally globally perceived as a difficult subject and there is a feeling that achievement in Maths is not as rewarded as it should be. I do not think that it is so helpful to portray Maths as being difficult as this will deter able young people with mathematical ability from studying the subject beyond the age of sixteen. I agree that Maths is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is a terrible shame to give up without even trying as the reward that goes with achievement in Maths can be significant.

I would like to tackle both of the two reasons that have been given for the drop in the number of students taking up A-level Maths and offer practical suggestions to parents and their children who have an interest in this salient matter.

Is the new GCSE Maths so difficult?

First, the perceived difficulty of the new GCSE maths since the introduction of the number grading system. It was reported in the TES – Times Educational Supplement – that fewer students are now doing A-level Maths since the introduction of the new number-graded GCSE Maths – which has more Algebra and Geometry content. Teachers said that more able young people are put off and do not want to commit to studying A-level Maths because they think the highest grade they can achieve in the subject is a Grade 7 (please see my previous blog post for more detail).

Whilst recognising the need for all educators to do all they can to encourage more young people to study Maths up to A-level and beyond, it must also be borne in mind that it is not good for anyone if too many people study the subject and end up with poor grades at A-level or fail the exam altogether. In my teaching career, I’ve experienced both sides of the equation: the young people who are capable of taking up A-level Maths, but decided not to, and the ones who are, perhaps, not mathematically-gifted who take up the subject and end up with a poor A-level grade. I believe a lot more ought to be done to encourage young people to become more interested in Maths and to seriously consider studying the subject at A-level. At the same time, we have to be honest with ourselves and accept that there are some people for whom Maths is not a subject in which they have natural ability. For these people, it is a waste of time asking them to study Maths at A-level and it does no one any good in the end. They will be better off studying other useful subjects that are not mathematical, such as English, History, Biology, foreign languages and perhaps Chemistry or Economics or maybe Languages. What I must say, however, is that there is no point in studying Biology at A-level without studying Chemistry in addition, as Chemistry is required in order to study any Biology-related subject or course at degree level at a reputable university. I would also like to add that Chemistry is a little mathematical, but not to the same degree as Physics. For an Economics degree, there are two possible paths, one mathematical and the other not so much so.

Don’t give up on A-level Maths too easily

Whilst recognising that, perhaps, some people may not be naturally talented when it comes to Maths, it is a terrible shame to give up without even trying. Many girls and boys wrongly believe that they are ‘not good in Maths’, which a very harmful perception to have without trying hard enough. Let me tell you a couple of short stories from my experience about people who were good mathematically, but thought they were not.

The first story is of a young woman who came to study in my Saturday School. She had always believed she was ‘rubbish in Math’ and she was predicted a D/E grade at GCSE, but, in the end, she achieved an A* in Maths. Well, after that achievement I had a discussion with her and suggested that perhaps she could have studied A-level Maths and she replied saying that “Maths is not my strongest subject as I’m better in English and German.” Now, I do not believe that she does not have a natural talent for Maths, as it is unlikely for someone who is just a plodder to achieve an A* in Maths at GCSE. My belief is that, with a lot of hard work, one can achieve an A grade in Maths, but not without a natural talent to go with the hard work; although GCSE Maths is really not that challenging, achieving an A* is highly unlikely unless one has a natural ability for the subject.

The second story is of myself, when I was 13 years old. I had a belief that Maths was hard and that I was not good at it and I never tried enough. At the end of my form 3 (now called Y9), I wanted to change school and I had to work hard to perform well in all my subjects so I could pass the other school’s entrance exam. I was so shocked when I came third in my year group – something which I thought at the time was well beyond my capability. I ended up with a Physics degree later in life, which could not have been possible if I was so awful in Maths.

The third is my son, when he was about three years old and we were trying to teach him to count from one to ten and he was struggling and was getting mixed up. At that time, the easiest conclusion to come to was that he was not bright. Wind the clock forward three or so years when he was in Y1 (about 6 years old), and now he could work out things like the square of 98 in his head within a few seconds and he ended up being one of the very top people in Maths in his year group.

What I will say here is that the easiest thing to do is to give up and giving up without a fight is the worst thing to do. There are so many reasons why some young people never really try hard enough before coming to the conclusion that they can’t do Maths. Reasons vary from a lack of inspirational teacher, peer pressure or lack of encouragement from the environment in which they find themselves. The general perception that it is uncool to be good in the subject or to like Maths is not as prevalent as it used to be, but it is still very much around. Yes, Maths is rocket science, but don’t give up without trying; perhaps you can do it!

The next blog post is the conclusion of this four-part series and I will provide more evidence why A-level Maths is worth its weight in gold.

Part 1: Fewer young people taking A-level Maths – a tragedy or a blessing?

Part 2: The decoupling of AS from the full A-level means that it no longer counts towards A-level

Part 4: Is A-level Maths worth its weight in gold?