Core maths at The Leigh UTC

Director of Learning of Mathematics, Harroop Sandhu, writes about the new level 3 maths qualification, Core Maths. This article first appeared in the SSAT termly Journal, December 2015, and details the ethos behind the new qualification, as well as experiences of offering Core Maths to Leigh UTC students.  The full article can be downloaded here.

‘Everyone needs to be confident and comfortable using numbers. At present not enough young people leave school or college with the numeracy and maths skills they need for both work and life. England has been falling behind other countries’ maths performance, with only a fifth of pupils in England continuing to study maths at any level after achieving a GCSE – the lowest of 24 developed countries. The UK must do better and provide opportunity for future generations to compete in a global market for highly skilled careers’ (Maths for All, ACME).

Research suggests that employers are particularly concerned about their employees’ ability to spot errors, analyse statistics and even make basic multiplication and arithmetic calculations. What employers need is for their workforce to have the ability to think mathematically and to confidently apply mathematical techniques in a variety of unfamiliar situations.

In addition, one of the reasons why students leave higher education without completing their qualification, or fail, is that they are not well prepared in key skills before they start. HEIs therefore have to identify knowledge and skills gaps, and support students with, for example, remedial courses in mathematics in the first year.

So what is the solution?

It is true to say that not all students are suited to studying A-level maths. In response to this, DFE has launched the core maths qualification with an ambition to fill the needs of both higher education and the workplace. It’s a two year course leading to a level 3 qualification, similar to an AS. It caters for the full range of post-16 students.

Designed to teach pupils how to use and apply maths in real situations, is targeted at students who have gained at least a C grade in maths. The main objectives are:

  • Deepen competence in the selection and use of mathematical methods and techniques.
  • Develop confidence in representing and analysing authentic situations mathematically and in applying mathematics to address related questions and issues.
  • Build skills in mathematical thinking, reasoning and communication. (Core maths qualifications: technical guidance, DFE)

Five exam boards are offering qualifications that meet these criteria:

  • each has a terminal assessment, and one board contains a coursework element
  • 180 guided learning hours are recommended
  • up to 80% of the content is higher level than the 2015 GCSE
  • at least 20% is level 3 content.

Our approach

At Leigh UTC, with our engineering and computer science specialisms and working closely with business partners we are only too aware of the impact on employers of a shortage of potential employees who are confident in applying and communicating maths. This is particularly acute among those in the STEM field. So all our students in year 12 and 13 are required to study maths at level 3. It quickly becomes obvious to students that it is imperative that they study maths at level 3 in order to excel in their specialisms.

In addition to this, students can then use core maths as the maths component of the Tech Bacc This is aimed at ambitious, talented students that want to pursue a technical career, and gives them the opportunity to be stretched through high quality, rigorous qualifications. So it provides a first-class alternative to the more traditional A-level route, ensuring candidates have the technical ability employers want.

Is maths really for all?

We are all only too familiar with the sigh of relief from a proportion of our students when they have finally gained a C grade in GCSE maths, relieved that they now no longer need to worry about continuing with the subject. We have to overcome this. But just as we need to shift students’ mindsets to continue to study maths, we also need to ensure that we as teachers have high aspirations for our students. The task is not impossible, though course content and how it is delivered are critical to success:

  • It is a false assumption that pupils who struggle with traditional maths will find problem solving even harder
  • Even able students struggle to apply their maths in unfamiliar contexts
  • Low-level thinking includes memorisation and carrying out procedures without making connections, which is the way more traditional GCSE maths lesson tend to be delivered.

The main emphasis of core maths is to use maths as a tool to analyse problems and justify decision making. Students are exposed to data and statistics every day – but how often do they (or we) question the validity and assumptions?

The qualifications cover areas such as statistics, financial maths and modelling – for example: learning how to build a financial model to understand an investment; analysing trends in population growth; or calculating ways to improve a process.

Rather than the real life context being the extension, it is at the heart of the learning.

An ‘early developer’

As an early developer Leigh UTC is one of the few centres in the local area delivering the core maths qualification. The whole department teaches core maths as we have some 40 students taking the exam. We have also begun to share expertise with other centres that are either considering delivering it or have started to teach it this year.

The staff delivering core maths are rejuvenated by the fresh approach to the subjects, which has had a positive effect on their teaching in other courses.

This year all year 12s and 13s have enrolled in core maths, and will complete the course in either one or two years. We have allocated five hours a week to the course, though a proportion of this time will be used in completing set work linking to the maths within the specialisms.

The engagement levels have been very high because the maths is strongly linking to the students’ main specialisms and ‘real life’ maths. Recent lessons themed on income tax, the Rugby World Cup and looking at the validity of statistics in the media have all promoted high levels of discussion.

The course has given students confidence and mathematical reasoning enables them to put forward strong arguments within topics that they feel passionate about. We have even had students completing A-level maths intrigued by what fellow students are learning in core maths.

Resources and assessment

We have found the online resources provided by the exam boards and the core maths support website to be well written, and they often provide solutions and teaching strategies. When exploring particular topics, students have been fascinated by the efficiency of transferring their knowledge to spreadsheets.

Because of the number of students taking the course and teachers teaching it, we have also found Google Drive an effective platform to share resources.

As this is a new qualification, assessment materials are limited to specimen papers and there are no published grade boundaries to measure your students against. However, I recommend becoming part of a core maths network, based on your geographical region, to share resources and assessment materials.

Some tips

Make students aware very early on of the relevant mathematical links to the other courses that students are taking.

Do not make it optional for students. Make it compulsory for particular groups of students otherwise retention will be low.

Make all stakeholders aware of the benefits of a level 3 maths course, no matter which career pathway they are taking.

Allocate enough time in the timetable to allow the course to work effectively.

Try and get students that study core maths to share their experiences with others.

Do not teach it like a traditional maths lesson, as students will disengage.

Incorporate ICT as much as possible.

Communicate with other centres about assessments and resources.

When choosing a board, look at the maths content that is already in the other subjects your students are taking, to ensure maximum overlap.

Start teaching core maths with a topic that is not traditionally on the GCSE specification.

If you are struggling to recruit enough maths teachers, it may be useful to know that some centres have successfully utilised teachers from other disciplines, such as science or psychology, to deliver core maths.