Many students begin higher education without the mathematical knowledge required to succeed and achieve their potential, and recent reports have demonstrated how students in the UK lag behind their peers in other countries when it comes to participation in mathematics after the age of 16. As a consequence, many are not well-prepared for the demands of their university courses.
For example: a report from the Higher Education Academy, Mathematical Transitions: a Report on the Mathematical and Statistical Needs of Students Undertaking Undergraduate Studies in Various Disciplines, studied the mathematical needs of students in seven disciplines: business and management, chemistry, computing, economics, geography, sociology and psychology. It found that all the disciplines require maths and/or statistics to some extent.
However, many students arrive at university with unrealistic expectations of the mathematical and statistical demands of their subjects and that lack of confidence and anxiety about maths/statistics is a problem for many students, the report said.
With the HEA report highlighting the gaps in the mathematical knowledge of new undergraduates, the recent British Academy Count us In report called for the UK to improve its performance in developing stronger quantitative skills at all levels.
The problem of transition to mathematical study at university is compounded by the fact that many students have not studied maths since GCSE, resulting in a lack of fluency and confidence in using and applying mathematics.
A 2010 Nuffield report, Is the UK an Outlier? An International Comparison of Upper Secondary Mathematics Education, found that in a survey of 24 countries, England, Wales and Northern Ireland had the lowest levels of participation in maths to age 18, with fewer than 20 per cent of 16 to 19-year-olds in England studying the subject.
While the number of students taking A and AS level in maths has grown healthily in recent years, many students still encounter no maths after GCSE. Their understanding, fluency and confidence are inevitably weakened, and they are missing out on the maths that would help them with their studies in higher education.
Core Maths qualifications are designed to help these students, and are aimed at 16 to 18-year-olds who have passed GCSE maths at grade C or above but who are not taking A or AS-level maths.
The idea is to help students retain, deepen and extend their mathematical skills and understanding through the use of meaningful and relevant problems, preparing them for university, but also for employment and life. The government hopes that by 2020, the vast majority of students will continue to study some form of maths as part of their post-16 education.
As the number of students taking Core Maths grows steadily over the next few years, universities will be able to admit students who will have the skills and knowledge that will enable them to achieve their full potential.
At present, many of these students experience a two-year maths gap. This has a knock-on effect for provision of student support in universities and graduate employability. Core Maths will, I believe, help to fill this gap.
Paul Glaister is a professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Reading. He is currently giving institution-wide briefings on Core Maths to all universities. You can contact him here.