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The importance of studying mathematics post-16

Mathematical and quantitative skills

The Royal Society believes there is a strong case for increasing the mathematical and quantitative skills of young people. This is important not only to satisfy the employment demands of an increasingly technological economy, but more generally to enable them to make sound decisions in life and benefit society. England is unusual among world-leading economies in that the study of mathematics is not universal for all students beyond age 16. At the same time, there is a substantial unmet and increasing demand for mathematically and quantitatively skilled people in the labour market.


A new Royal Society publication concludes that most universities should do more to signal to students the value of mathematics qualifications post-16 as the best preparation for undergraduate studies. This applies to undergraduate courses that have a significant quantitative component as well as others that are often perceived to be less mathematical, as part of a drive to tackle pervasive negative cultural attitudes towards mathematics.

The Society’s position has been informed by research undertaken for it by Careers Research and Development (CRAC), which investigated:

  • how UK universities are currently communicating the importance of quantitative skills to young people; and
  • whether and how this ‘signalling’ could be enhanced and made more effective in future. 

Research findings

This research found that most universities currently attempt little engagement directly with mainstream pre-16 students or their parents/carers to signal directly the value of studying mathematics post-16, with few expressly demanding more advanced (level 3) mathematics qualifications for entry to quantitative undergraduate courses. It also found that although many universities indicate their support for Core Maths, introduced into the post-16 curriculum in 2014 to provide students with the opportunity to develop their mathematical and quantitative skills, they generally cite it as an acceptable alternative qualification to GCSE Mathematics rather than as a route to studying subjects that require the use of mathematics at a higher level. 

Key recommendations

  1. All universities should signal the importance of level 3 mathematics qualifications across a wide range of subjects.
  2. University departments whose undergraduate degree courses do not require level 3 mathematics qualifications should promote the value of Core Maths as a complement to a student’s level 3 choices.
  3. All universities should include signalling the value of level 3 mathematics qualifications within their existing widening participation programmes, activities and accompanying resources.


Further reading

Life Beyond GCSE Mathematics (PDF)