Heading for an innumerate generation?

Last week, I was offered the chance to speak at a Westminster Education Forum conference in London about Maths, with the new Maths A Level set to be introduced in September 2016.

I was keen to discuss this topic as one of the biggest issues currently vexing Heads up and down the country, with the upcoming changes to A Levels, is what we tell our current L5s as they begin to plan their education for the Sixth Form. Maths is not affected this year, but will be the year after.

What will be the impact of the proposed A Level changes on Maths in particular? Dramatic, I predict – and as a scientist I am greatly saddened. Over the last ten years, since AS was introduced, we have seen an increase in uptake of Maths A Level. Maths has become more appealing than it was previously – nearly twice as many youngsters have chosen to take it.

AS levels were introduced in Curriculum 2000 with the aspiration to broaden students’ sixth form studies and it appears that this worthy outcome is now going to be largely swept away in the maintained sector. This is simply due to reduced funding for sixth forms and ever increasing demands of other courses which have to be offered. I predict that the increase in students over the last few years taking up AS Maths will decrease. AS Maths was seen as a less scary option for some who were not sure that the full A Level would either be their forte or indeed necessary for their chosen degree course. So the possibility of an increasingly numerate generation lies in the balance.

Finally I was asked to address the question as to the causes of low uptake of Maths A Level amongst girls and the steps that can be taken to tackle the issue. I am not sure that as Headmistress at Headington I was best placed to comment, because our largest Sixth Form subject is Maths! However, on listening to the debate at the conference, it reinforced that to have good mathematicians you needed to instil youngsters with confidence, resilience and the ability to take risks. No wonder then that so many of our girls are well suited to Maths!

In girls’ schools, girls do Maths – and not only Maths but Physics and other Sciences. Future female engineers and scientists are being educated in girls’ schools and this is nothing to do with the state independent divide – the same is true in our sister grammar schools. I know that when Professor Ann Dowling, Head of the Engineering Department at Cambridge, speaks to us at Prize Giving this Friday, she will be addressing the converted.

Girls seem to feel threatened by taking STEM subjects in co-ed schools. There are stats that support this claim, including those published by the Institute of Physics. However, the issue of gender choices in STEM subjects is something that we see in the UK and the US in co-ed environments, but is not so prevalent in the rest of Europe or the world.

There must be something that we are doing when educating our students together that reinforces this bias against Maths. I believe it is cultural and at the heart of UK society and, until we address this or move to total single sex schooling, it is going to be hard to resolve.

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