Big Fat Maths!

The new GCSEs are set to come into force from September 2015; with the first set of examinations due in the summer of 2017. The massively expanded syllabus has been dubbed ‘Big Fat Maths’!

This is the biggest shake-up in the secondary education system since the introduction of the GCSEs back in 1988. GCSEs replaced the old ‘O’ level examination system because it was thought not to cater for the less able pupils. In the early days of GCSEs a significant number of subjects included a high degree of coursework. This proved to be contentious as there was potentially no control over how much parental or teacher input was allowed. Year on year more and more pupils were passing GCSE with higher grades; thus leading to critics saying that exam papers were getting easier and subject matter was being ‘dumbed down’.

Our standings in the international league table (Pisa rankings) have stagnated[i], with the UK failing to make the top 20 in maths, reading and science. The new GCSE curriculum is intended by those in Whitehall to help rectify this.

Having tutored maths over a 20 year period I have seen a dramatic difference in the standard and type of question that is asked on exam papers. And looking back to the old O-level papers the material was definitely even more demanding (I remember having to practice these as past papers in school when I was part of the ‘guinea pig’ cohort that sat the first ever GCSE maths). Here is an example of an ‘O’ level question taken from University of London Schools Examination Board from 1988.

MST equation

Matrices is not an intrinsically difficult topic; but I use this to illustrate how the maths curriculum has evolved over the last 30 years. Matrices isn’t currently covered in any standard GCSE syllabus[ii]. It is not even taught at A-level – the first time a student would normally encompass matrices now is if they do Further Mathematics at A-level… (Something usually reserved for the super gifted.)

While the trend over the last few decades has been a reduction in difficulty of topics covered, the new GCSE reverses this and significantly expands the syllabus. New topics such as differentiation, integration and kinematics are set to enter the new GCSEs. Teachers have dubbed the new course “big fat maths” because there is greater difficulty, and so much more content[iii]. Some schools have estimated they will need an extra hour each week to teach it.

The extra material that teachers will have to cover is likely to exacerbate one problem which I frequently come across – many school students find that just as they are beginning to get to grips with one topic the class has to move on to the next one. This is where I really appreciate being able to work on a 1:1 basis as a private tutor, where I’m able to focus in on the areas where my students most need help and devote the time needed to help them consolidate their learning. From this perspective I am looking forward to the challenge of helping my GCSE students tackle ‘big fat maths’!

[i] bbc.co.uk/news/education

[ii] Matrices is included in the ‘Additional Maths GCSE’ syllabus, however only a very small number of students sit this exam.

[iii] bbc.co.uk/news/education