This summer we will see the first awards of the new A level maths qualifications. These were available for schools to teach from September 2017, so they would not normally be available to enter after only one year. When we consulted on the rules for these new qualifications, schools and colleges told us that they had previously entered very able students (often those also studying further maths) at the end of year 12. We therefore agreed to make this qualification available at the end of the first year of teaching.
We knew that this would very likely mean a small entry of very able students, and that the approach to awarding would need to take that into account, to be fair to these students. To help us in this, we wanted to know whether we could expect a similar number of students to enter, or whether schools and colleges have changed their approach for the reformed qualifications. Would the schools who previously entered year 12 students be doing the same thing this year, or something different?
To get a sense of what schools and colleges were doing, we sent a survey via the maths subject associations to over 2,000 schools/colleges taking A level maths. We asked how many students were being entered at the end of year 12, the reasons for entering or not entering in 2017, and the reasons for any change in their approach.
We had responses from 500 schools/colleges. That’s about a quarter of all those we contacted. We can’t assume that the other 75% would have responded in a similar way, so we are being cautious in drawing any conclusions. But nevertheless, it is really useful to get a sense of what schools and colleges are planning. Here are some headlines:
Are schools and colleges entering year 12 students for A level maths this year?
20% of schools/colleges told us that they entered year 12 students in 2017 and planned to enter them in 2018, while 28% told us that they had entered year 12 students in 2017 but did not plan to enter them in 2018. 5% had not entered year 12 students in 2017 but were planning to do it in 2018. (The remaining 46% did not enter year 12 students in 2017 and were not planning to enter in 2018.)
Why have some changed their approach?
The most common reasons given for not entering year 12 students this year were changes in the way teaching was structured over the two year course, changes in their school’s exam entry policy (in particular no year 12 entry), and uncertainty over the first exams.
A few schools/colleges cited concerns that only very able students would be entered and so their students would be disadvantaged. I’d like to reassure you that this will not be the case.
We know that the students who take maths at the end of year 12 tend to be those who are also taking further maths, and so the grade profile of these students is skewed towards the top grades, much more so than for the overall A level maths cohort.
When the exam boards set the standards in the summer, they will be aware of that. In the new A levels we have previously said that exam boards will carry forward standards from the previous qualification so that, if the cohort remains broadly the same, we would expect national results to be broadly similar.
Clearly, A level maths this summer is an example of where the cohort will not be broadly the same, as most students will still be taking the previous version of the qualification. So we have been discussing with exam boards the best way to make sure that this summer’s small cohort of new A level maths students is not unfairly disadvantaged by being the first to sit these new qualifications. Predictions that will be used to guide the awards will be based not on 18-year-old students (as for other A levels this summer) but on 17-year-old students. That way we are comparing like with like, to make sure we are fair to this year’s cohort. And, just like in other reformed subjects, senior examiners will scrutinise student work at the predicted grade boundaries. But the changes are likely to mean that the results for the new A level maths qualifications look very different to those for the legacy A level maths qualifications, reflecting the different ability profiles of the two cohorts.
That leads me to another word of caution in interpreting results in the summer. If, as we expect, the students entering the new A level maths qualifications are the very able students, then we might not see very many students achieving the lower grades. That might mean that exam boards don’t get much feedback on how well the papers perform for less able students. I would always urge caution in making assumptions about future grade boundaries from one set of papers, but I would urge even more caution in this case, as a result of the unusual cohort this summer.
So thank you to all those who responded to our survey. It’s given us a sense of the likely changes in schools, and the reasons for those changes. It has informed our discussions with the exam boards over how we set standards in these new qualifications, and it provides helpful context for those involved in the awards this summer. All that will help us make sure we are fair to this year’s students.