Lack of Core Maths provision fails students, says the Royal Society

13 December 2023

Only around 7% of A-level students not taking A-level maths are taking the alternative Core Maths qualification, according to analysis from the Royal Society. This leaves around 150,000 A-level students a year with little or no maths education after the age of 16.

Almost ten years since the introduction of Core Maths, the Royal Society has looked at the regional picture of provision to investigate why student take-up remains so low. Data from 2022 shows that less than a third of state-funded schools and colleges offer the subject, while almost 10% of local education authorities in England have no schools or colleges with Core Maths entries, making access to Core Maths a post-code lottery. 

The Royal Society has commissioned an interactive map showing the take-up of Core Maths by local authority for the 2021/22 academic year.

Core Maths focuses on understanding mathematics and data in their broadest sense, in the real world, equipping students with the mathematical, statistics and data skills needed for their post-16 studies in most subjects, for personal development, financial awareness, further study in a wide range of programmes, and employment. Core Maths is designed to meet the substantial unmet demand from UK employers for quantitatively skilled people – including in arts, humanities, sciences and social sciences – and teaches skills at a higher level than can be gained through qualifications normally taken at age 16. 

Sir Adrian Smith, President of the Royal Society, says: “In a world where data is everywhere and statistics underpin an increasing number of jobs, young people will require analytical skills more than ever before – but we’re letting a huge proportion of them enter the workplace without sufficient maths, stats and data skills. The Prime Minister is committed to ensuring all young people study some form of maths to 18 – Core Maths can be a way of delivering that but at the moment, provision is just not there.”

In the 2021-22 academic year only 11,683 students across 740 schools and colleges sat the Core Maths exam – an estimated 7% of the potential numbers. More than half of these schools and colleges entered ten candidates or fewer and geographically, provision is unevenly spread. This comes despite recommendations in a 2017 report for the Department for Education to ensure schools and colleges offer Core Maths to all (see Smith report (PDF)).

Smith said: “There is a huge proportion of students that are more than capable of studying Core Maths and there is no reason why they should not be encouraged to do so. We just need to make sure they have access to it. A comprehensive plan to support the significantly greater take up of Core Maths qualifications would be an important stepping stone towards achieving a goal of maths for all to 18.”

According to Alasdair Staines, Course Leader for Core and GCSE Mathematics at The Sixth Form Bolton, awareness of the Core Maths remains low, relying mostly on word of mouth between students and siblings. However, uptake at the college has risen year on year with now over 220 students taking Core Maths. In a survey conducted by the college, 98% pupils rated their experience as positive, calling it: “challenging”, “enjoyable”, “helpful”, “practical”, “relevant” and “rewarding”. Grades have also risen, with 50% A-B from 2022-23 from a cohort of grade 4-9 GCSE maths students. 

Financial and personal development skills were rated highly in the surveys, and teachers highlighted the finance aspect as a major draw, from applying for and paying off student loans, to understanding their pay packets.

Staines added: “What we do find is a lot of our students haven’t had the most positive experience of maths in secondary schools, which is one of the reasons they decided not to do A-level maths. They don't necessarily see the relevance of what they're doing mathematically in GCSE and how it links into other things. That's why, when we get them into Core Maths, we start with the finance straight away so they can start seeing the relevance.”

Smith said: “Maths skills are not solely the preserve of mathematicians – just like the ability to read and write, these are essential, foundational skills that every young person should be equipped with if they are to leave the education system as well-rounded, active members of society. Core Maths is a viable and ready-made offer that can be rolled out across schools and colleges at a relatively low cost, but with invaluable gains.”

The Royal Society has previously called on universities to incentivise prospective undergraduates to take Core Maths by including it in entry requirements, and for greater promotion of the value of Core Maths to employers (see 2022 statement (PDF)). While the general view of Core Maths among universities is positive, formal acceptance of the qualifications as part of entry requirements remains inconsistent. This lack of formal support and awareness is exacerbated by the fact that Core Maths results are not reported by JCQ (Joint Qualifications Council) alongside A-levels.

The need to raise awareness of Core Maths and provide necessary support, comes ahead of the Royal Society’s upcoming Mathematical Futures Programme report. This will propose a new approach to mathematical education that encompasses a fusion of mathematics, statistics, data science and computer science. It will explore mathematical skills required by every citizen to thrive in society and offers pathways for the UK to develop mathematical and data education. A discussion paper (PDF) setting out the Society’s vision was published in September 2023.