Teenagers who are written off as maths failures must be offered another route, says education charity, as it draws up proposals for a new numeracy benchmark for all young people

train tracks divergingGCSE maths exams are deliberately designed to fail a third of all young people, according to the education charity National Numeracy. 

The charity wants to see a new benchmark – a numeracy equivalent of the driving test - which sets out the essentials of practical maths that teenagers will need for adult life and the workplace. Unlike GCSE, this would be something that all young people would be expected to achieve as part of their maths education and that could be embedded within the existing curriculum and exam pathway.

National Numeracy believes that GCSE maths is primarily designed as a preparation for A level, but is less successful at defining the skills that everyone needs for everyday life. Significantly, GCSE is also an exam that works largely through a process of ‘norm-referencing’ (or more accurately ‘cohort-referencing’), whereby candidates are compared with each other rather than with absolute criteria. Grade boundaries are set so that around two-thirds of young people get at least a C grade (or grade 4 under the new marking system introduced from this year) – the standard generally recognised by employers and required for access to more advanced education. 

This approach has ensured consistent results over recent years, but only through effectively acting as a form of rationing. One third of the cohort has to fall below the grade C/4 threshold in order to maintain that consistency. And only a small proportion of those who re-sit the exam after 16 succeed; a few climb out of the bottom third, but the arithmetic of the current system means of course that not everyone can do so. 

Cohort-referencing affects all GCSE subjects but it is particularly acute in maths, where so many young people fall behind in secondary school, where low skills are widespread across the adult population and where a lack of confidence and negative attitudes abound.  

The proposals for a new numeracy benchmark are being developed by National Numeracy from their ‘Essentials of Numeracy’ that inform the National Numeracy Challenge for adults. The charity believes that everyone needs a level of numeracy skills appropriate to their age and circumstances and that the ‘Essentials’ can be versioned accordingly. 

The proposals will set out the sort of authentic maths problems that students should be able to solve (such as deciding whether or not to buy a travel season ticket) and identify the essential skills and mathematical thinking needed, thus establishing the missing link between the basics of maths that should have been learnt at primary school and the practical problems of adult life. 

Young people could be assessed at 14 (or later if they were not ready then). For most, this would represent a progression towards a GCSE in maths at 16, but for many it might be their only validation – a positive alternative to no qualification at all. The proposals will also identify how much overlap there is between current curriculum content leading to GCSE and that in the proposed new Essentials.

Mike Ellicock, chief executive of National Numeracy, said: “Under the current system, too many young people are ending their formal education with no maths qualification whatsoever – and convinced that they are useless at maths.  At a time of mounting concern about workplace productivity, it’s crucial we offer everyone –  including the bottom third of each year group – an opportunity to master the essentials of numeracy.”

The work of National Numeracy in developing the Essentials at 14 is supported by funding from Cambridge Mathematics. 


Read the blog by our trustee, Wendy Jones, on The Huffington Post