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What Lessons Did We Learn From This Year’s Maths GCSEs?

As the dust settles, Jemma Sherwood reflects on last summer's exam season

Jemma Sherwood
by Jemma Sherwood
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It is no understatement to say that the last two years have been more than a little stressful for mathematics teachers.

The new GCSE in mathematics was introduced in 2015, heralded as the qualification that was going to allow our students to finally compete with the best in the world.

Make the exams harder and the students will have to get better. It was never going to be a popular idea, but the change was made nonetheless and we began the most tumultuous era many of us have ever experienced.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an Education Secretary in possession of a short tenure must be in want of a change.

An inevitable consequence of this was that the implementation of the new GCSE felt rushed.

We were faced in 2015 with Year 10 students whom we had been preparing for the old qualification but who now were going to sit the new, and that was a scary prospect when you consider the content changes: out went questionnaires, imperial measures and graph stretches; in came inverse and composite functions, gradients of curves and areas under graphs, geometric progressions, quadratic sequences, Venn diagrams and set theory (on the Higher tier).

Foundation tier now featured trigonometry, quadratic equations, algebraic proportion, tree diagrams, simultaneous equations and vectors. There was a huge amount of pressure to fit it all in.

Under pressure

Pressure – that was a new topic too – is a good word to sum up these last two years. For teachers there has been so much to cover that many of us weren’t sure if we could do the new work justice.

There was little clarity from exam boards at first about what had changed, so it was easy for overwhelmed teachers to “‘miss’ a topic or continue to teach something they didn’t have to.

The students had to become very quickly acclimatised to a new way of working. They could no longer rely on a formula sheet (almost everything must be memorised) and the style of questioning on the new GCSE is markedly different.

I can hear the conversations at Ofqual as they approved each board’s specifications and sample materials: “That’s too straightforward, send it back.” “That’s not ‘problem-solving’ enough, send it back.”

Our senior teams asked us to predict grades, which for many felt like some kind of magical task whereby we had to grasp at numbers from 9 to 1 that were flying around in the air like those bewitched keys in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

One look at the spreadsheet collated by Mel Muldowney from Just Maths, who asked teachers to share the grade boundaries they were using for their Christmas mocks, was enough to see that few people really had a clue how to grade the papers.

And then the summer came. The first sitting of the papers was the most nerve-wracking exam sitting I’ve faced in twelve years, and I know I wasn’t the only one.

I thought we were well-prepared: we had a grading model we’d used throughout Year 11 that felt like it should work, we’d managed to get through all the new content and still have time for exam practice and extended revision, and our distribution of marks across the year group was pretty consistent and encouraging.

But still, even though you know you’ve done all you possibly can, you can’t get rid of the voices in the back of your head that tell you it’s all going to go wrong.

New boundaries

In the end, I was quite pleased with the exams (*ducks for cover*). Let me clarify that: I was pleased that they were exactly what I’d expected, not too different from the specimen and practice papers, as very difficult as I’d imagined they would be. They were just what we’d prepared our students for.

What I’m not particularly pleased with is the existence of an exam where just 18% will get you a “standard pass” (Grade 4) and the top 3.5% of students nationally are awarded a Grade 9 where the boundary was less than 80%.

Much has been said of the low grade boundaries, especially compared with those of the old GCSE, where a grade C would be achieved by a mark somewhere in the mid-30s and an A* somewhere in the high 80s (remember that a Grade 9 is higher than the old A*).

The new boundaries cannot be fairly compared with the old, as the papers are so much more difficult, but the idea of an exam you can pass with less than one-fifth of the marks is disconcerting.

Having said that, this is deliberate, for deliberate reasons. Exam boards have said that students aiming for a grade 4 or 5 should be entered for the Foundation paper, where under the old system many schools entered their D/C borderline candidates for Higher.

The boards are trying to force a change in mentality. The Foundation paper is now harder and students entered for it are no longer denied the joys of quadratics or trigonometry; we are supposed to be entering larger proportions of our cohorts for this tier now, without it being as limiting as the old Foundation tier was.

Assessing the odds

Does the new Foundation tier do a good job? It covers five grades and this year the top grade 5 was attainable with around 65%, so there was still about one-third of the paper that the top candidates couldn’t access.

Time will tell whether or not we are happier to enter more students for this paper.

It’s a huge gamble: are students more likely to get a 5 on this paper? Should we limit more of them to a paper that stops at 5? Do we destroy their confidence making them sit a paper where they can’t access four-fifths of the content?

We will get better at answering these questions with familiarity, we will observe trends and understand where our cohort fits nationally. In the meantime, we must prepare our students as well as we can, starting from Year 7 and aiming high.

What next? 4 ways to move forwards

  1. If you don’t do this already, compare your historical percentage A*-C with your 9-4 from this year, and your historical A*-A with your 9-7. Providing you have consistent historical results these statistics should be similar. You can use this to predict how well your current cohort are going to do
  2. Make sure your curriculum is carefully sequenced from Year 7 to Year 11. Don’t leave anything to chance
  3. Use every opportunity to make students memorise formulae, don’t leave it till Year 11
  4. Use department time to share strategies resources that are working. The changes are stressful, ease the load by sharing wherever you can

Jemma Sherwood is head of mathematics in a secondary school in Worcestershire. She blogs at and is on Twitter as @jemmaths.

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