It’s that time of year again. Very soon, those of us who teach A Level will be faced with a class-full of Year 12 students, fresh from six weeks of lie-ins, trips abroad and Celebrity Big Brother, ready to embark upon their AS in Mathematics. And as we look out at that sea of faces, we can be sure of one thing – in a year’s time, half of them will not be here. Whether it be because they have chosen to drop the subject or (far more likely) they have failed their AS, the sad fact remains that a high proportion of students do not complete their full Maths A Level.

So, why do students find A Level Maths so difficult?

A large part of the answer, I feel, has to do with the calibre of the students. In many sixth-forms and colleges across the country, the entry requirement to study a subject at A Level is to have achieved a grade B at GCSE (although I have heard cases of Cs and even Gs being accepted!). One only needs to look at what a student needs to do to achieve a grade B in Maths GCSE to see the problem. I have seen students scrape 60% (good enough for a grade A in some years) and yet their exam paper suggests that they have failed to grasp the vast majority of the algebra or trigonometry, which are of course the cornerstones of the first two A Level modules. And yet, for financial, political, and many other reasons, colleges and sixth-forms cannot turn away these students, even though all the evidence suggest that they will struggle.

Another aspect is the nature of the GCSE qualification. As well as the low marks required, the exam papers have become predictable and perfectly geared to rote learning. A student does not need to understand the method for estimating the mean from grouped data, it is enough to know that it is on every exam paper, and if you chuck in a mid-point column and divide the correct two numbers, you get five marks. Happy days! A Level is not like this. For the last few years my colleagues and I have wondered what exactly is going on in the life of the Core 3 examiner (the board will remain nameless) to cause them to produce such nasty, unpredictable questions. Students are simply not prepared for this, and naturally come unstuck.

Is the teaching to blame? It may be a broad generalisation, but in many cases A Level does still tend to be taught in a traditional, chalk-and-talk way to students who just six weeks earlier were enjoying the fruits of all the developments of teaching at Key Stages 3 and 4. But with so much content to get through in the A Level syllabus, it is often hard to find time for rich tasks that will deepen understanding.

So, what is the solution? Hopefully the new GCSE will better reward students who are problem solvers and have a deeper understanding of maths, and hence help produce more suitable A Level candidates. Then there are outstanding, freely available resources out there, such as Jonny Griffith’s RISPs, NRICH’s wealth of problems and the classic Standards Units, all of which will challenge students and harden them for the demands of the course. And if all of this fails, let’s just cross our fingers for another impossible question on the exam and the subsequent lowering of grade boundaries.

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