Teaching statistics and data in schools: A look ahead at 2016

Written by Scott Keir on . Posted in Features

A new year offers the chance to take stock of what’s been, and look ahead at what’s to come, both for our work at the Society, and the wider landscape.

Two big areas for school education in 2016 in England* are the continuing changes to the education system and teacher supply. Here’s how we are planning to contribute.

Influencing curriculum changes

2016 sees the bedding in of many of the revised qualifications for secondary schools in England. Almost all GCSE, AS and A level qualifications have been through a process of reform, with many discontinued or subject to considerable revision. We have influenced this process throughout, championing the need for high-quality statistical education both in mathematics, and also in those subjects that rely on good data skills, such as science, geography, sociology, and economics. We also supported the innovative Core Maths qualifications, which started in September 2015, following a year’s pilot in ‘early adopter’ schools and colleges in 2014. Many subject associations agree with us that we are in A world full of data, and are encouraging the government to ensure that quantitative skills are taught in relevant school subjects.

The reformed qualifications are being reviewed and implemented in phases. We are now monitoring the implementation of those qualifications that have been reformed, and contributing to the consultation processes of those under review. A level and AS level biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, economics, psychology, sociology and selected other subjects, and GCSE Mathematics and English, started in September 2015. A and AS level subjects including geography, and GCSEs in subjects including geography, biology, chemistry, physics, computer science are starting in September this year, and September 2017 sees the first teaching of GCSE Psychology, GCSE / AS / A level Statistics, and AS / A level Mathematics and Further Mathematics, among others.

In July 2015, with the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME), we published Embedding Statistics at A level. This report took an early look at the increased statistical requirements in six of these reformed A levels: biology, business, chemistry, geography, psychology and sociology, including awarding organisations’ specifications and sample assessment materials, where available. It investigated the effectiveness of embedding quantitative skills, particularly statistics, in the qualifications and made a series of recommendations to ensure that the assessment of statistical skills in these subjects is high-quality and authentic. Following a successful launch and a subsequent meeting with senior staff at Ofqual, in 2016 we will continue to work with ACME and our wider stakeholders to take forward the recommendations.

Consultations on AS / A level Mathematics and Further Mathematics are almost complete, with Ofqual currently consulting on technical guidance. Students could choose from a variety of optional modules in the existing A level Mathematics, including statistics; in the new qualification, all content is now compulsory, and includes statistics and mechanics. Importantly for statistics, the new A level and AS level Mathematics requires statistics to be taught through the use of realistic data, helping students apply their knowledge in realistic contexts with the use of ICT. Decision Mathematics modules, which typically contribute to the study of operational research, have been removed from A level Mathematics. We anticipate, and support, its inclusion in A level and AS level Further Mathematics, which maintains a proportion of optional subject content.  We expect many Further Mathematics courses to also offer modules in statistics.

We are awaiting the imminent publication of the consultation decision on GCSE, AS level and A level Statistics. The proposed qualification has been completely redesigned to focus on applied statistics. At A level and AS level, the approach is now centred on engaging “in a practical manner with the statistical enquiry cycle and the research methodologies used in experiments and surveys”. As we laid out in our responses to the Department for Education and Ofqual, our view is that A level Statistics offers a pathway that develops students’ applied statistical and data analysis skills, in preparation for further study in the likes of psychology, finance, and social science degrees focusing on quantitative research.

With that, the reform process should be complete. Education is one of the most policy-active areas in government and our broad interest in statistics and data skills means that our potential remit is wide. We will maintain a watching brief on policy consultations in education issued by government, parliament and teaching bodies, and respond to those where appropriate.

Working with sufficient, high-skilled teachers

Participants at the Scholars Celebratory Event for the Mathematics Teacher Training Scholarships event at the RSS 21 November 2015 To deliver all these reforms, to respond to the increased volume of mathematics teaching in secondary schools, and to make sure that students are inspired and enthused by statistics and data, government needs to ensure that there are sufficient teachers, with sufficient skills. In 2016, we expect teacher supply – ensuring sufficient numbers of teachers available in classrooms – to be a key political issue, especially for subjects with acknowledged shortages, such as mathematics.

We are supporting the Mathematical Teacher Training Scholarship scheme, working in partnership with the London Mathematical Society, the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, MEI and the Mathematical Association and the National STEM Centre. We are working together to encourage applications to teacher training, and to support a cohort of trainee teachers with excellent subject knowledge, passion and confidence. Our new free e-Teacher membership will continue to develop, and our policy work will continue to highlight the need for teacher supply, training, and CPD to build UK’s mathematical and statistical skills.

Ensuring young people benefit from having good statistical skills

There’s no point in improving the curriculum and ensuring there are sufficient skilled teachers, if students have no interest in studying the subject, or in entering a statistical career. In 2015, we published workshop materials for Fellows to work with schools, and held a session at the RSS Conference showcasing Fellows’ work with young people.

In 2016, we will be expanding the careers materials offered on our website, and make it even easier for you to inspire and enthuse young people with statistics, and support the teaching of statistics in schools. Expect to see more publicity in this area over the year.

If you'd like to get involved in any of our statistical education work, please and do visit the relevant page on our main website.


The second two of the three photos in this article were taken at our Scholars Celebratory Event in November 2015 for the Mathematics Teacher Training Scholarships.

*Why just England? Though statistical techniques are universal, education policy and practice varies considerably across the world. Even within the UK, the education systems vary to a greater or lesser extent between the four nations of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Our education policy work has traditionally focused on England, and this article reflects that; we will look this year at options for developing volunteer groups that can support policy input into the devolved nations. In our work supporting education practice and outreach, we will continue to have as broad a reach as possible - our e-teacher membership scheme is open to all teachers worldwide, for example.


Education National curriculum GCSE A-level 'Core Maths' qualification Education Committee

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