Maths GCSE and the ‘sad case’ of ‘ministerially-driven curriculum change’

The strain of getting vocational learners over the GCSE English and maths finish line is behind much strain in the FE and skills sector, as recognised not least in Ofsted’s annual report. But behind the policy is a view of GCSEs and the workplace that needs rethinking says Mark Flinn.

Last month, FE Week stated that 130,979 17+ learners were entered for GCSE maths in summer 2015, an increase of 57 per cent over the previous year [see English and maths supplement available on]. Many will herald this as good news. But is GCSE maths fit for purpose as a qualification for vocational learners in the 21st Century?

What we used to refer to as “numeracy” has been replaced in ministerial terminology by “maths”. But when we look closely at the GCSE maths subject content and assessment objectives for 2015 and beyond, as published by the Department for Education in 2013, we find much content unrelated to the needs of vocational learners in the modern world.

Where, for example, in the modern workplace (or elsewhere) are we ever required to use or apply the factorisation of quadratic expressions, quadratic equations, simultaneous equations, linear inequalities, sequences, Pythagoras’ Theorem, the surface area of a sphere or pyramid, simple proofs in Euclidian geometry, the sine rule or the cosine rule?

Why has the attainment of a grade C pass at GCSE become the ‘gold standard’ to which all, irrespective of future career plans, must aspire? Not on the basis of any research evidence, and not on the basis of a proven link between subject content and vocational needs

In the days of computer-based design systems, what is the relevance of using “the standard ruler and compass constructions to….bisect a given angle”? In what vocational context is a knowledge of “Fibonacci type sequences and quadratic sequences” useful? Where might we “Derive the properties of regular polygons” or “identify and interpret gradients and intercepts of linear functions graphically and algebraically”? When is the “multiplication of vectors by a scalar” going to be useful in the workplace?

This is not to deny that elements of the GCSE subject content are important for all learners: working with number, fractions, percentages and decimals, measures, graphs, ratio and proportion, mensuration, calculation, graphs, probability and statistics all have a fundamental place. But the totality of the GCSE subject content has not been designed to provide a foundation in numeracy — the understanding and application of numbers.

Rather, its purpose is to provide an important and (largely) necessary foundation for the further study of maths and its applications in the sciences and technology at advanced level and beyond. Pythagoras, trigonometry and quadratic equations are of great importance in the further study and application of mathematics but are largely irrelevant to the needs of most vocational learners.

Many learners will wish, of course, to strive towards a grade C (or better) pass at GCSE in order to qualify for a future professional study. But most of the learners who are struggling to move from a grade D to a grade C in maths are unlikely to progress to advanced level and beyond. For many of them, a grade D pass represents a hard-won and creditable achievement which may not, even with the best of efforts, be improved upon. Yet the new requirement imposed on these learners, and the FE sector, is forcing those learners through irrelevant learning hoops, when that time and teacher resources could usefully be employed in reinforcing their core numeracy skills. No-one denies the importance of developing core numeracy skills, but can anyone demonstrate that GCSE maths, as currently specified, is fit for this purpose?

So why has the attainment of a grade C pass at GCSE become the ‘gold standard’ to which all, irrespective of future career plans, must aspire? Not on the basis of any research evidence, and not on the basis of a proven link between subject content and vocational needs. As with other examples of ministerially-driven curriculum change, it seems to have been driven by personal experience and prejudice. It is sad that educational policy is made in this way.


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  1. Hear, hear! Hence the criticism (not always justified, to be fair) that Ministers turn to evidence only when they have exhausted all other possibilities.

    On a detail, Merchant Navy officers use three-dimensional trigonometry when navigating (eg plotting a course). And many struggle with the maths as they learn the skill.

  2. Sarah Richardson

    Whole heartedly agree! Leaving school in 1988 I only managed a Grade E in Maths yet attained 4 other grades C and above. Now looking at a career change my first step is to back track to school to get that dreaded Maths pass! Why can’t the experience I’ve gained in the public sector and the multitude of courses and certificates since then be taken into account rather than getting hung up on a Maths grade borne from studying a subject I’m unlikely to use to the full ever again. Instead of projecting myself into a full time role I will need to take time out to study for Maths.

  3. Thanks for an interesting article. Of course, the challenge of helping 17+ year old students at FE is part of the even wider need of adults in the population at large. There are a good number of adults who recognise they never quite ‘got’ maths and for a variety of reasons would like support. These reasons will often but not always be of a vocational nature. In CitizenMaths ( (funded by the Ufi Trust), we are developing a free online course, which places emphasis on how mathematics can have power in people’s everyday and working lives to ‘get stuff done’. We hope that many thousands of adults will benefit from an approach that seeks to engage them actively in a number of powerful ideas in situations which are meaningful and familiar. We do believe that our approach is quite distinct from that offered in GCSE mathematics and is based on research.

  4. Caroline Wilson

    What is desperately needed is a maths qualification for 16+ learners with a much stronger focus on those core topics. The reduced content could be made up with a greater emphasis on problem solving.

  5. A very incisive piece. A lot hangs on the review and reworking of Functional Skills but that doesn’t help students stuck near the C/D boundary as Mark Flinn makes clear. Nor, by the way, does it do anything for16-year-olds given no option to GCSE maths first time round. At National Numeracy we have argued for an alternative/additional GCSE at 16 – practical/functional/core maths (call it what you will) that prepares young people for real-life maths and sits alongside the current GCSE maths that prepares people for more advanced maths & science study.

  6. I agree totally with this article. Students are being made to resent maths all over again! They probably had a bad experience with it at school, where they had a structured curriculum to follow,2 or 3 days a week, over 5 years. If they didn’t get to grips with it then, it is unlikely that they will thrive doing it at FE, with much less teaching time involved.
    Even the most die hard haters of maths may be able to put their minds to it if they can see the relevance of it in their vocational sector. This, it seems to me, is the problem. There is no relevance!
    Why is everyone required to achieve this gold standard of a C or level 2 Functional Skills? Anyone who has learning difficulties, or just struggles with English and maths is repeatedly being bashed over the head by it being a requirement of apprenticeships! If they are vocationally competent,then in my opinion, they should be allowed to study a level of English and maths that is suitable for the individual!
    Let’s celebrate the strengths of individuals, instead of their weaknesses, as it is only when someone is self motivated that they will truly learn!

  7. Indeed! Despite common belief, many young people put effort into getting the best grade they can (not discounting the fact they are young people and are, like so many of us, prone to procrastination). When will we stop reinforcing negativity around a subject individuals haven’t enjoyed nor excel at by constantly saying “but you are still not good enough so you will do it until you are or you are 19 years old (whichever comes first)” when in actual fact, they are at an acceptable knowledge and skill level in number that will enable them to function positively in the economic climate.