Background and context

The education system in England

Although this blog is restricted to reporting on the collection of reports described, an outline understanding of the educational context in England may help the reader make sense of the messages. This section begins with an explanation of this context, clarifies some terminology and then goes on to look in detail at the collection of reports.

When the reports were written, before the beginning of the 2013/2014 academic year, school was compulsory in the UK between the ages of 5 and 16. Since Autumn 2013, formal education has been made compulsory until the age of 17 and from 2015 school will be compulsory until the age of 18.

School in the UK is divided into two key phases: primary and secondary. At the end of primary school, students usually take a set of tests in English, mathematics and science, known as the Key Stage 2 tests. At the end of secondary school, most students take examinations, called GCSEs, in a number of subjects. Although most GCSEs are taken at the end of school, it is possible for students to take one or more GCSEs earlier. English, mathematics and science are compulsory. A grade ‘C’ or above in these examinations is considered as a ‘level 2’ pass, while lower grades (D, E, F and G) are ‘level 1’ passes. Schools are ranked by the percentage of pupils achieving five GCSEs grades A* to C, including English and maths so it is important not only to individual students to achieve a grade C, but also to the schools. There is some criticism that schools ‘play the system’ by, for example, concentrating resources on students who are likely to achieve a D grade but, with extra help, may achieve a C grade. A second common practice has been to enter students early for a GCSE in mathematics, and if they achieve a C grade the student ‘banks’ it and frequently does no further mathematics pre-16. From 2016, however, schools will be measured on overall results in eight GCSE subjects, with extra weighting for specific subjects, such as English and mathematics which will have double weighting.

Schools are subject to periodic inspections by a body called the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, known as Ofsted.

Students in post-compulsory (until 2013/14 called ‘post-16’) education commonly take A-levels or vocational courses and it is not compulsory to take mathematics (or any other subject).

The majority of pupils attend non-selective government-funded schools that cater for young people in the local area. The governance and funding of schools is complex; state-funded schools have historically been under the control of local authorities, have had to follow a national curriculum and employ qualified teachers. There are now increasing numbers of ‘academies’ and ‘free schools’ which are not subject to the same legal requirements as other state schools. For example, they are not obliged to follow the national curriculum, although it is likely that the influence of assessment regimes and national school inspections mean that in practice most schools are likely follow courses which are closely aligned to the national curriculum.

Other reports

Reports on mathematics education written prior to the beginning of this project, and one report about education more generally, provide further important contextual background.

The so-called ‘Cockcroft Report’: Mathematics Counts, Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Teaching of Mathematics in Schools (Cockcroft, 1982) was published in 1982. This report explained that the mathematical learning of students in schools was ‘not satisfactory’ (p. 243) recommending that

computational skills should be related to practical situations and applied to problems. Mathematics teaching for pupils of all ages should include exposition, discussion, appropriate practical work, problem solving, investigation, consolidation and practice, as well as mental and oral work. Assessment should be both diagnostic and supportive, and teaching should be based on a scheme of work which is appraised and revised regularly. (p. 243)

It also suggested that many teachers of mathematics were not well qualified and that the teaching force needed to be improved. The report identified that examinations were not fit for purpose proposing that examinations should provide opportunities for students to ‘demonstrate what they know and should not undermine the confidence of those who attempt them’ ( p. 244).

Cockcroft then identified six agencies with responsibility for improving mathematics education (in line with the recommendations within the report: teachers, local authorities, examination boards, institutions that provide teacher education (‘training’) and the funders of a) curriculum development and b) educational research, suggesting that all these agencies need to contribute if progress was to be made. It goes on to warn, however, that change will not be sustained unless there is support from the general public and, in particular, parents.

More recently, a review into the supply of people with science, technology, engineering and mathematical skills was commissioned by the Government. The review, SET for Success: The supply of people with science, technology, engineering and mathematical skills (Roberts, 2002) concluded that there was a mismatch between the supply and demand of young people with skills in the identified areas, and warned that the shortages of these young people would become serious unless action was taken to address the situation. The report suggested that young people had negative attitudes towards science and engineering and that their knowledge of career opportunities opening up as a result of studying science and engineering subject was poor.

It seems that the Government then identified specific concerns about mathematics and commissioned a report (Smith, 2004)

To make recommendations on changes to the curriculum, qualifications and pedagogy for those aged 14 and over in schools, colleges and higher education institutions to enable those students to acquire the mathematical knowledge and skills necessary to meet the requirements of employers and of further and higher education. (p. 2).

The ‘Smith report’ addresses importance of mathematics and the need for more young people with skills in mathematics. It reviews the appropriateness of available pathways for mathematical learning for students aged 14 to 19, recommending actions to improve provision. It identifies a shortage of suitably qualified teachers of mathematics and suggests ways in which to provide support for the teaching a learning of mathematics, including setting up support infrastructures (such as the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM)).

In 2008, a report a report known as the ‘Williams Report’ (Williams, 2008), relating to the teaching of mathematics of young children (to the age of 11) was published by the Department for Education (at that time known as the Department for Children, Schools and Families). The report judged that the curriculum was mostly well balanced but that there needed to be more using and applying mathematics (e.g. problem solving, investigations), classroom mathematical discussion and, for very young children, mark-making. It reports that negative attitudes towards mathematics in parents and families influence young children but that teachers have the most profound influence.  The focus of the report is therefore the teacher and overall the report’s recommendations relate to the recruitment and development of teachers. A key recommendation was that there should be one ‘Mathematics Specialist’ in each primary school. (In response the Mathematics Specialist Teacher (MaST) programme was set up and is evaluated in one of the reports in the collection (Walker, Straw, Sainsbury, & Clarke, 2013)).

Whereas the three reports above relate specifically to mathematics education, but are outside the time frame for this study, the next report (Wolf, 2011) falls within the timeframe but has a wider scope than mathematics education. It is included because it could be seen as having a major influence on developments within mathematics education for 14 to 19 year olds.

In terms of mathematics, this report identifies low levels of achievement at GCSE and suggests that this is problematic for young people because they are overall the most valuable vocational skills; not only are they needed for access to a range of courses but also have an influence on career choices and progression within careers. Further, employers use qualifications in these areas in their selection processes.

The report, drawing on one of the reports in this study (Hodgen, Marks, & Pepper, 2013) points out that the UK (England) is the only country which does not require young people in post-16 education to study mathematics and their home language (English) and recommends that:

Students who are under 19 and do not have GCSE A*-C in English and/or maths should be required, as part of their programme, to pursue a course which either leads directly to these qualifications, or which provide significant progress towards future GCSE entry and success. (p. 119)

The report suggests that, in addition to qualifications, teaching is crucially important, and argues that teaching quality needs to be improved, particularly for mathematics. It recommends that the Department for Education should increase its level of support for teachers of mathematics, and in particular for teachers of students who are over 16.


Cockcroft, W. (1982). Mathematics counts. Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Teaching of Mathematics in Schools. London: HMSO.

Hodgen, J., Marks, R., & Pepper, D. (2013). Towards universal participation in post-16 mathematics: lessons from high-performing countries. London.

Roberts, G. (2002). SET for success The supply of people with science , technology , engineering and mathematics skills. London.

Smith, A. (2004). Making Mathematics Count. London.

Walker, M., Straw, S., Sainsbury, M., & Clarke, C. (2013). Evaluation of the Mathematics Specialist Teacher (MaST) programme Research report. London.

Williams, P. (2008). Review of Mathematics Teaching in Early Years Settings and Primary Schools. London.

Wolf, A. (2011). Review of Vocational Education – The Wolf Report. London.


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