Thoughts on the A-Level Reforms

As usual Jo Morgan (@mathsjem) has beaten me to it with a great post setting out some of her thoughts concerning the A-Level reforms for Mathematics.

Here are some of my thoughts in a less ordered structure than Jo’s.

  • Teaching Structure and Specialisms Jo has outlined a good structure for teaching the content for the standard A-Level that allows people to teach according to their current specialisms. In theory, this would enable a smoother transition to the new A-Level, however, my concern is that this approach risks diluting the idea that maths is an interconnected subject (something that I think is an issue at the moment). To me, an ideal structure would blend the applied content in with the pure content, for example vectors could be introduced in conjunction with mechanics. I appreciate that this could cause issues with staffing though.
  • Teacher CPD There will be a high demand for CPD for current A-Level teachers, and I think this will be especially true for teachers of Further Maths. I am sure the FMSP and MEI will have various things on offer, but due to the scope of the changes and the difficulties of releasing staff for cover I think much CPD will have to be delivered in school, maybe through events led by your local MathsHub.
  • Student Calibre In her post Jo highlighted a concern about students not being able to “drop” the subject after an AS year. This is a very real concern for me! To some extent this may be mitigated by the increased demands of the new GCSE, but currently you can get an A at GCSE and not succeed at A-Level. We perhaps need to come up with more rigorous entry criteria (especially for Further Maths) and monitor students closely in the first few weeks of Year 12. Of course, this may affect student numbers which moves me on to my next thought.
  • Student Numbers Recently the numbers for A-Level Mathematics and A-Level Further Mathematics have risen (the work of the FMSP has been instrumental in this in my opinion), the A-Level reforms present a very real threat to this trend. Mathematics is already seen as a “hard” and “demanding” A-Level, and with the removal of many of the topics and modules that are perceived to be easier this perception will probably increase. The changes to the funding formula are likely to make students taking 4 A-Levels seem less attractive to Sixth Forms and Colleges (financially they don’t gain much from it) and this is bound to impact the numbers for Further Mathematics.
  • Decision Maths As the 100 prescribed content for A-Level includes only Pure, Statistics and Mechanics those A-Level teachers who currently only teach D1 and D2 will either have to up-skill or stop teaching A-Level. There is some scope for decision maths to be included in Further Mathematics specifications, but it is quite clear that the current content of D1 and D2 is not valued by higher education, so I suspect that if any of this content makes it on to specifications it will be mainly stuff that is currently examined in the second Decision module at A-Level. There is some scope for Decision maths teachers to move over and teach Core Mathematics instead as there is some decision content in the optional papers.
  • What will MEI do? At the moment MEI offer a radically different (and more innovative) offer for A-Level and A-Level Further Mathematics, with modules such as “Numerical Methods” and their “Further Pure with Technology”. I am looking forward to seeing their approach to the reforms.
  • Text Books I suspect that many schools will spend a significant mount of money changing the textbooks they use to match their choice of new specification. I’m not keen on many of the current textbooks, so it will be interesting to see what publishers come up with, or whether they just re-jig their current offering. To me this seems an ideal time for an exam board neutral text book thought from the ground up to be a guide to advanced level maths as opposed to a “test performance” factory. Once specifications and SAMs are released I am hoping to put together something along these lines that anyone is welcome to use, though whether I will have time to produce a full textbook remains to be seen. I also like the possibility of a digital textbook including virtual manipulatives, demonstrations and videos (for example of concepts in mechanics) but this would be a massive undertaking!
  • Problem Solving Seeing how exam boards approach the requirement for more problem solving in assessment is perhaps the most interesting thing about the A-Level reforms. To have a genuine problem solving question in an exam I think will be hard to achieve (and if they manage it possibly not a “fair” examination question) and will make the marking significantly more involved. The use of comparative judgement technology could perhaps be used to mark this style of questions. Basically I am very curious about this.
  • Large Data Sets The meaning of this still hasn’t really been clarified by Ofqual. Will we have some kind of pre-release? Will students need access to statistics packages for examinations? There is a lot of uncertainty over this.
  • Readiness to Teach It seems unlikely that exam boards will all get accredited with their first submission to Ofqual and so there is the possibility that accredited specifications may not be out until the beginning of 2017. This doesn’t leave much time for schools to make decisions about which to go with.
  • Performance Measures With the proportion of A-Level students continuing with maths becoming a performance measure will we be pressured to accept more students on to A-Level course regardless of ability? Will many schools implement a compulsory AS Maths or Core Maths decision?

I will add to my above thoughts if an when I think of other things to say.

I am looking forward to discussing the A-Level reforms with the other attendees of Stuart’s (@sxpmaths) “Maths in the Sticks” event next month. Preparing for the reforms will also be key content at the “East Midlands KS5 Mathematics Conference 2016” that I am co-organising. Thank you for mentioning this Jo, I hope many people can spare the day to attend during the summer break!

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