Making maths targets add up


A little-known post-16 qualification could boost A-level and BTEC students’ numeracy skills and help meet ambitious government targets, according to new research.

Core Maths was introduced six years ago to improve critical thinking and problem-solving related to real-life experiences.

Although uptake has been limited, it could now be a much-needed resource as students return to their studies after a six-month break, according to a new report by the University of Leeds.

Lead author Dr Matt Homer, from Leeds’s School of Education, said: “Core Maths is a great way for students to ease back into mathematical thinking after a long absence from the classroom.

“Students enrolling on subjects which have mathematical or quantitative aspects to them, such as Psychology, Business Studies, Geography or Applied Science, would benefit greatly from studying Core Maths alongside their A-levels or BTECs.

“Enrolling on this additional course of study would also give students the tools necessary to understand statistics that affect everyday life, from managing mortgages, tax and loans, to scrutinising facts and figures about the current coronavirus pandemic or the furore around the Ofqual algorithm abandoned recently.”

Core Maths was introduced in 2014, with the first exams taken in 2016. Initially, just 2,930 took the qualification; that number has risen slowly but steadily, with 11,791 entrants this year (2020).

The qualification, taken as a one-year or a two-year course alongside other qualifications like A-levels and BTECs, was established as part of government policy to substantially increase post-16 mathematics participation in England.

It was introduced as part of wide-ranging curriculum and assessment reforms overseen by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government of 2010-2015.

Core Maths is a very important curriculum innovation which could have a significant impact with the right support from HE and government .


Globally, participation in post-16 mathematics in England remains much lower than in many other economically developed countries. Although there were 85,000 maths A-level students in England in 2019, over 200,000 other learners with good GCSE maths passes dropped the subject completely. This has many negative implications for individuals, society and the wider economy.

According to the Leeds study, The early take-up of Core Maths: successes and challenges, educational institutions who had offered Core Maths (CM) reported positive responses from those who had either studied or taught the subject.

“Core Maths is well liked and highly valued by teachers and most students who have experience of it,” said the report.

“The real-world, applied nature of the mathematics in Core Maths, and the financial topics in particular, are greatly appreciated by staff and students.”

The three-year study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, included analysis of national data, interviews with staff and students at 13 educational institutions across the UK, and an online survey.

Despite recognition that maths skills and confidence are important for study, work and everyday life, attempts to increase the numbers of post-16 students continuing with maths on a national scale are hitting a number of barriers, and growth, though steady, is relatively slow.

Although aimed at all post-16 students, the ability of schools to offer Core Maths has been limited by funding issues, staff availability and a perceived lack of support from the government and higher education, said the report.

As a result, currently, post-16 colleges with much larger student numbers than school sixth forms were potentially better positioned financially to offer the qualification.

Recommendations in the report include raising the profile and awareness of the benefits of Core Maths among stakeholders such as schools, colleges and universities, as well as making the qualification free to adult learners.

The report also calls for a resolution to long-term funding issues, more support from Ofsted, and improvements in maths teacher recruitment and retention to support increased Core Maths take-up.

Co-author Dr Rachel Mathieson said: “England has, in comparison with other developed countries, very low post-16 maths participation rates and very poor levels of numeracy in the adult population. 

“The government has repeatedly indicated a desire to increase maths participation and, as a result, to upskill the population.

“Meanwhile, the Higher Education sector and employers have complained for years about the lack of mathematical skill and competence in undergraduates and graduates.

“Core Maths is a very important curriculum innovation which could have a significant impact with the right support from HE and government.

“Our findings are important for anyone with an interest in this, from the government, employers and higher education and school and college leaders, to maths teachers, parents and students themselves.”

Further information

The paper, The early take-up of Core Maths:successes and challenges, is available online. 

In total, the researchers interviewed 121 students and 53 members of school staff

Top image by Pexels

For further details, contact University of Leeds press officer Ian Rosser via