Institute of Education open lecture on A level reforms

Speech given about the government’s plans to reform A levels, and the plans for mathematics.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP


Thank you very much. I am really pleased to be back at the Institute of Education and to have the opportunity to talk with you about the government’s plans to reform A-levels, and also about our specific plans for mathematics.

English children will not just be competing with each other when they leave school or university but with their peers all over the world. So we need to be well-versed in the most successful methods from abroad. Our pupils should not get away with being plagiarists - but our teachers and politicians should be shameless ones.

So I salute the Institute of Education’s international outlook. The Confucius Centre, for example, is doing great work in training more Mandarin teachers.

LiLanqing, the Vice Premier of China from 1993 to 2003 who led their education reforms, published a book with the title Education For 1.3 Billion - a salutary reminder of the sheer scale we are talking about 1.

He grasped the fact that every country, even if they are among the most powerful, is in a global race. His observation that “We are striving for modernization at the dawn of a knowledge economy and in the midst of intensifying global competition” could have been uttered by me or one of my ministerial colleagues.

We do not do things in quite the same way as LiLanqing, though. He reflects in his memoirs, “I remember during my first few months on the new job in 1993, I called over 20 meetings of one kind or another.”

This was before the age of the BlackBerry!

Of course discussions about the growing educational capacity of China and India have been going on for some time. But they are joined by many more countries who appreciate that education is critical for the future. From Poland, who have reformed their system and improved their rankings, to Australia, who now have a national target to be a top-five country in PISA.

1. The need for reform

I have no idea what the jobs of the future will be - and nor does anyone else. But we do know that they will demand people with even greater powers of thought, innovation and skill. As the middle is squeezed from the hourglass economy, it will no longer be enough to be able to process - instead much more flexibility and greater cognitive skills will be required.

And along with this ability to think, the demand for specialist skills is rising, particularly for quantitative and mathematical skills and for effective communication skills - ideally in more than one language.

a) The ability to think deeply and analyse

Universities and employers tell us that they want highly numerate people with an excellent facility with words and first-rate analytical skills.

Basic levels of comprehension are necessary but not sufficient. The CBI / Pearson education and skills survey found that far more businesses expect to increase the number of jobs requiring higher skills in the next three to five years than expect to reduce them - a positive balance of 61 per cent 2. They were not confident about meeting this need, with a negative balance of 15 per cent 3. The report unsurprisingly made clear that “businesses attach particular value to people with science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills” 4.

Of course it takes us all a while to build up those skills. I remember at my first job at Shell having everything rewritten because I couldn’t put a succinct case.

But it is important that we have courses and qualifications that reward these capabilities. Research that Ipsos Mori undertook for Ofqual in 2012 shows that the modularisation of the A-level has left many students unable to demonstrate deep synoptic understanding and incapable of making connections between topics - skills which are crucial to success in higher education and employment 5. That is why we want a return to open-ended questions and a two-year course with opportunities for reflection.

b) The need for mathematical skills

The demand for mathematics is growing rapidly. It is now the most popular A-level - it has the highest earnings premium at both A-level and degree. Courses in history and biology that would have previously not had any need for quantitative skills now want people who understand statistics and methods.

Maths is for everyone: boys, girls and - I’m afraid - people who don’t like maths - or say they don’t - I can’t believe that’s really true! A facility with maths is a core component of maximising one’s life prospects. If there ever was a time when being bad with numbers didn’t matter, it has long gone.

That is why we want people to achieve at least a core proficiency in it, and to keep studying maths after the age of 16 if they have not yet succeeded.

We will do young people no favours if we allow them to believe that being innumerate is a trivial matter, let alone a source of perverse pride. Core maths is essential for handling one’s own finances, for making all sorts of life decisions, and for progressing in a wide variety of careers.

People who take A-level maths earn on average 10 per cent more than their peers 6.

And the CAYT British Cohort Study, to be published tomorrow, has found that higher attainment at age ten in reading and / or maths has significant benefits in terms of earnings at ages 30, 34 and 38.

No wonder, then, that industry and universities are imploring us to boost the number of people who study mathematics to 18. The House of Lords Select Committee thinks it should be compulsory. And the Nuffield Foundation argues that all students in England should have access to mathematics through appropriate upper secondary pathways.

Social mobility - which the Institute of Education correctly cares about a great deal - provides another imperative. The attainment gap at GCSE between students on free school meals and others is greater than that for English, history and the sciences. Just 46 per cent of FSM students get a good pass, as opposed to 70 per cent of others. Comprehensive school pupils are half as likely to take maths A-level as those at grammar or independent schools.

In 2012, 54 per cent of A-level entries were from girls and 46 per cent from boys - a gap that has remained static for five years. And yet 60 per cent of 2012 A-level maths entrants were male. For further maths it was 70 per cent, and for physics an appalling 79 per cent.

You don’t have to be a fields medallist to appreciate how damning those figures are.

c) The need for written communication and presentation skills

We also know that good written and verbal communication is a prerequisite for success in modern life. It’s no longer just politicians who have to be able to get their point across; communications technology means that everyone has to be able to make their case.

50 per cent of employers say that literacy skills should be a key priority for 14-19 education 7. That is twice the number asking for better vocational qualifications and three times more than those wanting better skills in entrepreneurship. As the UK Commission for Employment and Skills put it, poor communication “is a deal breaker for many employers”.

This goes beyond good basic literacy skills and confidence and fluency in spoken communication, though these are critical. In an economy increasingly based on high-value products and services, the ability to express ideas powerfully and succinctly when writing and speaking, and to make arguments in convincing ways, is at a premium.

A-levels must also be dynamic - the world is changing ever faster. Biology has gone from being about cells and microscopes to molecular methods and bioinformatics. And it is vital that our qualifications that set the standard for the end of school keep up. Over a number of years universities - the bodies that once set up examining boards - are not as core a part of the process of qualification development as they once were.

The best way of ensuring that A-levels keep up is to respond to what universities are looking for. A-levels exist to prepare students for what comes next: either university - as is the case for 80 per cent of A-level students - or the workplace. And at both destinations independent learning and thinking for oneself are of critical importance.

Losing touch with universities has meant that A-levels are not always adequate for those embarking on a degree in our selective universities; many private schools offer their own courses - such as sixth term extension papers and indeed Cambridge’s Pre-U. A-level reform is vital in order that the state sector can catch up.

2. A long road

So qualifications from 16-18 must be broad and deep and high, a seemingly impossible conundrum. Universities want the depth of study, yet from history to languages to technology they want the quantitative and communication skills that will help students analyse, assess and explain.

This is a big task and history is littered with post-16 reforms that tried to achieve this balance and didn’t succeed.

Vertical AS in late 1990s: The Advanced Supplementary (AS) level examination was introduced and examined first in 1989 with the purpose of increasing breadth of study post-16. Between 1991 and 1995 A and AS cores were developed in 19 subjects as two-year ‘vertical’ courses. But few schools offered more than two subjects, so it failed to achieve its main purpose.

Curriculum 2000 was another attempt to create breadth by having an AS staging post where students could try a subject for a year. Curriculum 2000 saw a shift to modular A-levels with a loss of a final assessment that reflected what the student had studied, and the understanding they had built, over two years. It placed unnecessary assessment burdens on students and teachers and led to a dive in, for example, the number of students taking A-level Mathematics and MFLs. We ended up with a system where there were exams at 11, 16, 17 and 18.

The claim that this change widened participation is not true. The biggest increases in A-level participation took place from 1988 to 1993 8.

The 14-19 Diploma: It was a good idea in theory to bring together academic and vocational study with employment placements, but proved impossible to deliver in practice.

3. Overall vision - deeper, broader, higher A-levels -especially in maths and English

We want to learn from the reforms of the past to make incremental change that builds on the credibility A-level has in the system.

The reforms we are making from 16-18 build on the reforms to the national curriculum and GCSES. Until the age of 16 we want the vast majority of students to be studying a common core of subjects - reflected in the new best eight accountability measure.

Our proposals - out for consultation until 1 May - are to publish an average point score measure and value add progress measure covering English and mathematics, three EBacc subjects, and three slots for other EBacc subjects, or any other high value arts, academic,or vocational qualifications. The progress measure would be part of the floor standard.

There will be a particular focus on success in English and maths. This is in line with HPJs, who ensure that students do not close off options too early and have a rounded knowledge of sciences, languages, humanities and the arts. There is a much stronger emphasis on computer science and programming.

In January we added Computer Science to the list of EBacc subjects, and we have reformed the out-of-date ICT curriculum in schools, launching a rigorous and exciting computing curriculum across primary and secondary.

From 16-18 we also think there is a common core of knowledge it is desirable for students to have whether they are studying A-levels or vocational qualifications. We expect specialist study to be increasingly complemented by a maths qualification and further English language through an extended project qualification (EPQ). In addition we want to deepen the reach of A-levels by modifications to the course and assessment structure. We also want to ensure that content and quality assurance keeps pace with the latest research developments by re-establishing closer links to higher education.

a) Deeper

A-levels will become linear again, taken over two years with exams at the end. This will promote a deeper understanding of a subject. Ofqual has - quite rightly - decided to remove January exams.

It can take time for the penny to drop, not least in demanding subjects like physics and maths. Curriculum 2000 was put in place with the best of intentions, but it didn’t work. Many students dropped out of A-levels, particularly maths but also others like physics and computing. We are behind many other countries in our take-up of foreign languages too. This is a real shame - taking a bit longer to click with a subject does not inevitably mean that a student could not go on to excel at it.

Pupils must have time to get to really know and love a discipline in a way that will endure throughout their life. And the best teachers must be allowed to achieve that masterly synthesis of essential facts and inspiration that makes for great lessons.

Although the AS qualification will remain, it will be redeveloped as a stand-alone qualification covering half the content of an A-level. Some pupils - especially those who have not been encouraged to study at home - may not be ready to take an AS exam at the end of Year 12.

Some universities may have to adjust their admissions processes, and whilst universities will naturally want to look at students’ latest academic achievement, admissions offices take into account a range of information.

They look at predicted grades and attainment at GCSEs, as well as students’ personal statements. By reforming GCSEs we will be making these grades a more reliable predictor for university admissions teams.

b) Broader structure - common core maths and EPQ

Through the EPQ students have the opportunity to demonstrate their extended writing skills by producing a comprehensive research report (up to 5000) words on a research question, or a shorter written report to supplement a product they have produced, such as a photography portfolio or a drama performance.

EPQs allow students to develop skills beyond the A-level and help prepare them for university. The EPQ is a flexible qualification - a compulsory part of the level 3 diploma, but also something students can take as an extension of other Level 3 qualifications or as part of modern apprenticeships or other vocational qualifications. It is part of the AQA Bacc too and can even be taken by itself.

But the real flexibility comes in the scope it gives students to design their own project - either alone or as part of a group. It develops and rewards creative and independent thought as well as research and planning. It represents the best of education, in that it is rigorous and demanding as well as adaptable and fun.

Universities speak positively about the EPQ, and recognise it gives applicants the chance to develop research and academic skills that are highly relevant for study at higher education.

We want the vast majority of pupils to study maths to the age of 18, and we believe that this can be achieved in the next ten years.

There has been an increase since the drop-off from Curriculum 2000 - indeed maths A-levels had the greatest increase between 2011 and 2012 9 and maths is now the most popular A-level 10 - but fewer 16- to 18-year-olds study maths in England than in most other OECD countries - a mere 20 per cent.

The Nuffield Foundation found that we are behind any of the 24 countries it measured - and well behind countries as diverse as France, Estonia, Russia, Australia, the USA, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand and China. In Japan 85 per cent of students study the equivalent of A-level maths.

It is unsurprising that England does worse in international tests in maths than in reading and science tests. There is also a bigger gap between the highest and lowest performers in maths than in reading.

A report by King’s College London published in September found that attainment in algebra and ratio had not improved over the last years and in algebra, number and ratio, the proportion of students at the lowest level of attainment had increased significantly 11.

From September, 16-year-olds who failed to achieve a C or better in GCSE maths will need to keep studying for a level 2 qualification in the subject as a condition of funding.

The Department for Education is funding the organisation Mathematics in Education and Industry (MEI) to devise a new course. They will work with Cambridge Professor Tim Gowers, who won the aforementioned fields medal.

The course will focus on the solving of real-life problems using mathematical rules and techniques and will encourage pupils to think about the world in a mathematical way. MEI’s Further Mathematics Support Programme is being expanded too. Many top universities now ask for further mathematics when students apply to study STEM-related subjects, making this all the more critical.

We are also funding Cambridge University’s maths department so that it can create a first-class curriculum for advanced maths, with an emphasis on ideas like complex numbers and trigonometry. And Imperial College is getting money to develop and pilot a one-year course for A-level maths teachers to bolster their knowledge.

International best practice

We have looked to other countries to get ideas about best practice. Those that have a high maths take-up between 16 and 18 typically offer mid-level qualifications. Nuffield’s Towards universal participation in post-16 mathematics 12 found that the availability of advanced maths matters too, and indeed is “crucial to increasing participation”.

New Zealand is a particularly interesting example. 66 per cent of students take advanced maths beyond the age of 16, compared to 22 per cent in Hong Kong and Singapore - and a paltry 13 per cent in the UK.

The increase in participation in New Zealand is thought to be largely attributable to the statistics and modelling course which has fired students’ imaginations and interest. Interestingly, New Zealand treats maths and statistics as related but distinct disciplines.

Statistics and modelling in New Zealand is no walk in the park. Students are expected to employ the statistical enquiry cycle to undertake investigations. This means becoming expert in things like linear regression for bivariate data and additive models for time series data.

When considering situations that involve an element of chance, students must identify and apply appropriate distribution models such as poisson, binomial and normal.

Announcement on UKMT

I am very happy to be able to announce some further funding. The United Kingdom Mathematics Trust will develop mathematics summer schools and mathematical circles for state school pupils. UKMT has already had massive success with its summer schools - giving many young people the inclination and confidence to study the subject at top universities.

Mathematical circles are a newer innovation, where local students follow a similarly demanding and enjoyable but non-residential programme over a shorter timeframe.

The DfE will make £30,000 available for two summer schools and £48,000 for twelve mathematical circles in 2013-14. In 2014-15 we will maintain that funding for summer schools and provide £60,000 so that there can be three additional mathematical circles.

The summer schools will be open to pupils from all sectors, but all Department funding will go to state school pupils. Six of the twelve mathematical circles will be for state school pupils, and again departmental funding will only apply to them.

These may not be the biggest programmes that government funds, but their impact on those who take them is incalculable - even by the best mathematicians.A chance to go on a course like these in their mid-teens can have a profound effect on someone. Several leading professors went to one of UKMT’s Summer Schools.

c) Higher quality assurance by universities

Having set this basic framework, the government wants to give universities a more significant role in the development of A-levels. Focusing on facilitating subjects, the Russell Group will lead the process and offer advice to Ofqual, drawing on other representative groups and universities.


Ultimately, education is about far more than formal qualifications, important though they are. It is about more than the accumulation of knowledge, as vital and sometimes overlooked a building block as that is. Education is about empowerment.

It is about letting a girl believe that she can become a high-performance car mechanic. It is about persuading a teenager at an inner-city comprehensive that he has every right to find a place among the ivory towers of Oxford. It is about giving someone the tools they need to organise their life and recognise the difference between a solid offer and something that’s too good to be true. It is about producing informed citizens who have the confidence and wherewithal to hold their political servants to account.

As Leo, the chief-of-staff in The West Wing, tells President Bartlet, “There’s no such thing as too smart.”

It is unreasonable of our generation to demand that members of the next generation have high ambitions for themselves if we do not have high ambitions for them too. That is the motivation behind our A-level reforms. We want far more people to develop core abilities in a way that is at once demanding, enjoyable, rigorous and inspirational.

I am certain that it’s possible. Thank you.

1 Education For 1.3 Billion, LiLanqing, former Chinese Vice Premier (with responsibility for education), 2004, p.238.

2 CBI: Learning to grow: what employers need from education and skills, Education and skill survey 2012, p7.

3 CBI: Learning to grow: what employers need from education and skills, Education and skill survey 2012, p7.

4 CBI: Learning to grow: what employers need from education and skills, Education and skill survey 2012, p10.

5 http://www.ofqual.gov.uk/files/2012-04-03-fit-for-purpose-a-levels.pdf

6 Reform, Value of mathematics, June 2008, citing Wolf, A (2002), Does education matter? Myths about education and economic growth, pp. 35 and 36.

7 CBI, 2012.CBI, 2012.

8 Reform, A new level, Dale Basset, Thomas Cawston, Laurie Thraves, Elizabeth Truss, June 2009, p. 23.

9 Guardian Data Blog, 16 August 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2012/aug/16/a-level-results-data-gender-region-subject

10 The Joint Council for Qualifications data (provisional A-level data for June 2012) shows the number of students in England sitting exams. The top three are English (83,721, 10.6%), Maths (78,951, 10%), Biology (56,720, 7.2%). But English includes English Literature and English Language, and Maths does not include Further Maths.

11 King’s College London, http://www.kcl.ac.uk/newsevents/news/newsrecords/2012/09-Sept/Pupils-maths-performance-similar-to-1970s.aspx

12 The full title is Towards universal participation in post-16 mathematics: lessons from high-performing countries.

Published 8 March 2013