Event report – Embedding statistics at A level

Written by Olivia Varley-Winter on . Posted in Features

The development of the UK’s quantitative skills has been widely recognised as a priority for education in the coming years. With the release of their new joint report, the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME) and the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) shared their new findings and made recommendations to address aspects of this agenda.

The report presents findings from an analysis of statistical skills in some recently reformed A levels in England. The Department for Education has specified a proportion of marks for the assessment of quantitative and statistical skills in a number of new A levels. The aim of the project was to investigate whether these reforms will result in the hoped for improvements in the assessment of statistical skills in some A levels1.

The ACME and RSS working group reviewed sample assessment materials, to consider ‘how assessment will work in live papers, and [how] classroom teaching and learning might develop as a result’. The RSS and ACME work built on reports published by SCORE and the Nuffield Foundation in 2012 that found that ‘when no clear mathematical and statistical requirements were set out, learners following the same courses of study had very different learning experiences.’

The report was launched at the Royal Society in an event chaired by Sir John Holman. He opened the event with an anecdote from his experience teaching topics such as thermodynamics. He commented that UK undergraduates much more frequently need to catch up on mathematical elements of their courses, in comparison to international students who sit alongside them. He said that this anecdote highlighted the need for the UK to improve the quantitative skills of its learners throughout their schooling.

Andy Noyes, ACME deputy chair, and Neil Sheldon, vice president for education and statistical literacy at the RSS, were then invited to present details of the report to the invited audience. Andy and Neil highlighted that the report was looking at the recent reforms to A level subjects by analysing specifications and sample assessment material. They stressed the importance of high-quality statistical content and requirements in A level exams, given that high-stakes assessments strongly influence classroom practice.

They also emphasised that students needed to be engaged with realistic data that reflects what would be used in that context outside the exam setting. Statistics should also be ‘embedded’ to ensure that it deepens learners’ knowledge and understanding of their chosen subject. In this way, statistics should enhance the learning of the subject, with statistical literacy being a positive by-product of this.

Neil explained the need for coherence between what is taught in Mathematics (in GCSE Maths, Core Maths qualifications, and AS/A level Mathematics) and the quantitative elements of other subjects. In order to achieve such coherence, the report calls for action on several fronts, from additional guidance from the Department for Education, to research on different question styles and modes of assessment, as well as support for teachers by way of professional development in statistics.

This was followed by a Q&A with the RSS and ACME Working Group, where both the current and ideal assessment and qualification systems were discussed. A second panel was then invited to offer their perspectives and to identify the challenges and opportunities for quantitative skills in the 14-19 landscape.

John MacInnes, associate dean for quantitative methods at the University of Edinburgh, highlighted that there is more data than ever in our world and it should be utilised to engage students. He suggested that a shared agenda for ‘data skills’ might be more readily appreciated compared to ‘quantitative skills’.

George Windsor, from Nesta’s creative and digital economy research team, suggested that local open data – brokered through organisations like the Urban Data School in Milton Keynes - could be a powerful way of engaging school students. He also made the point that teachers should be raising awareness of the careers opportunities available in industry which employ these very skills.

Deirdre Hughes, from UKCES and the Core Maths Support Programme, underlined the need for wider engagement in statistics: even the black cab driver bringing her to the event that day had shared the all too typical view that he was glad to avoid statistics and numbers and encouraged his children to do the same. She shared that from her perspective there is a need to make statistics exciting, and more relevant and meaningful for everyday life.

Marianne Cutler from the Association for Science Education (ASE) highlighted the needs of teachers for training, guidance and reference materials. She noted that the language of quantitative skills can be unfamiliar to teachers, and drew attention to a project that the ASE is undertaking on the language of mathematics in science.

Finally, Steve Brace from the Royal Geographical Society shared his experience that identifying narratives and relevance in the data is the way to attract genuine interest from students. He spoke about his Society’s successful lobbying to ensure that an independent investigation (worth 20% of a student’s final marks) was introduced into the new A Level. This component requires a student to identify their own issue, and then collect and analyse data. It is an essential part of a fully rounded education on quantitative methods in the subject, he said.  Others agreed that learned societies for other subjects could find much that is positive in A level Geography’s fieldwork specification.

Closing the event, John Holman highlighted that the UK has some of the lowest participation in maths education after the age of 16. He noted that this is a real problem as maths and statistics can be compared to learning a language - these are skills that need to be practised continually if they are to stay sharp in the student’s mind. Finally, he reminded the invited audience – which included learned societies and those working on post-16 education and assessment – that the Department for Education, Ofqual and the awarding bodies cannot implement these recommendations on their own.  Subject communities working with their learned societies and professional bodies will need to take on the challenge of promoting quantitative skills to make sure that these skills across subjects are developed and the aims of the recent reforms are fully realised.


A PDF of the full report can be accessed here.


1. Biology, Business, Chemistry, Geography, Psychology and Sociology. The first assessments of these A level qualifications will take place in 2017, with the exception of Geography, which has been deferred until 2018.

Education A-level

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