Access to A level Further Mathematics: it matters and it’s at risk for many

Recently, A level league tables were published alongside secondary league tables. No surprise that independent schools continue to be at the top or that there are big differences in performance in different areas of the country. But it is not just performance that varies considerably – so does access to doing A levels and that is an important issue. In one authority – Knowsley – schools have stopped offering A levels completely. Fortunately there has been a change of heart but still access to A levels depends on where you live.

We have recently undertaken research focused on access to Further Mathematics A level. Further Mathematics has been a success story in recent years. The numbers of students taking A level mathematics have steadily risen but have gone up even more quickly for Further Mathematics. Alongside this, the numbers of schools and colleges offering Further Mathematics has also risen – in 2004 only 40% of the schools offering A level Maths, now it is nearly 70%.

This matters because Further Mathematics can help students gain entry to mathematics and science courses at Oxbridge and other selective Universities. Like the A level performance tables, independent schools dominate the rankings in terms of number of entries for Further Maths. State funded schools with high entries have students with similar socio-economic profiles to the independent schools – households that are relatively affluent and parents with professional backgrounds. Also whilst students from many ethnic minorities are more likely to do A level Mathematics than their peers from white British backgrounds, they were less likely to do Further Mathematics. So more students doing A level Further Maths is good for social mobility.

There are many schools that offer A level Mathematics but who do not offer Further Mathematics. The Further Mathematics Support Programme (FMSP), who commissioned our research, do great work in encouraging such schools to get involved in Further Mathematics. The FMSP offer face to face and on-line Further Mathematics tuition, as well as materials and CPD for teachers. This supports schools to introduce or keep going with Further Mathematics when they would not otherwise be able to do so. Sometimes this can even mean schools offering the course on an individual basis. In fact, the modal entry to A level Further Mathematics is just one  student per establishment. This means that in any school or college offering Further Maths they are more likely to only have one student doing it that any other number. This highlights the subject’s fragility. Our research found that in two out of three schools offering Further Mathematics the subject was insecure – that is there was a risk of access to Further Mathematics being withdrawn.

In 2015 new post 16 funding arrangements were introduced. Schools and colleges get paid on the number of students doing 3 A levels rather than the number of subjects taken. If a student takes a fourth A level, schools and colleges only get a little bit extra money. So there isn’t an incentive to have students take 4 A levels. The problem is that Further Mathematics is often taken as an additional A level. The funding arrangements won’t affect independent schools. It is less of a threat to schools which have large numbers of students taking Further Mathematics already as they get economies of scale. These schools are almost all in wealthier areas. So we could see less privileged students locked out from Further Mathematics and so find it even harder to join wealthier students on prestigious maths and science university courses.

Further Maths is another example where we see the divide growing between schools that have access to more resources and those with less. Although the government funds the work of the Further Mathematics Support Programme, changes to A level funding means that the FMSP’s efforts are undermined. The potential losers are poorer students, those from ethnic minorities, struggling schools and all of us if we have fewer young people with strong maths qualifications.

It looks like the work of the FMSP will be even more important in supporting schools to find ways to continue to offer Further Mathematics as well as A level Mathematics. If you work in a school that offers A level Maths but are not part of their network then why not get in touch? But it’s also important that unintended consequences of changes in funding arrangements are pointed out to government as they monitor changes in patterns of A level entry.

Dr Mark Boylan is a Reader in Education at Sheffield Institute of Education

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