Alex Jacques-Williams, head of mathematics at Xaverian 6th form College in Manchester, explains why he, as a teacher, supports the continuation of A level statistics as a valuable pathway for many of his students
We live in an age in which statistical literacy is becoming increasingly vital. There is an intrinsic social demand for more individuals with the skills and knowledge to make sense of ‘big data’, to fill the many new careers and jobs being created around statistical analysis.
A complementary qualification
There is also a growing demand in other disciplines; the newly reformed specifications for A level Biology, Psychology and Geography have a significantly higher statistical content than before. The majority of this content is not contained within the new A level Maths or Core Maths specifications. Given that Biology and Psychology are among the most popular A levels, it seems to be common sense to provide a mathematical qualification – in the form of A level Statistics – that is useful for students embarking on studies in these fields.
This is certainly something we promoted at our recent Open Day, which occurred before the sad news of the withdrawal of this useful qualification. It seems ludicrous that we might be in the situation where more mathematics (by volume) is being taught across science, social science and economics lessons than in mathematics lessons. That other subject specialists will be delivering mathematical content that we could not even cover on our own syllabi feels wrongheaded.
An alternative to A level maths
The changes to the new A level Maths. have clearly been driven by an understandable desire from university maths, engineering and physics departments to see students prepared for their courses with a strong mathematical and problem solving foundation. However, the majority of A level Maths students do not pursue these courses.
For large numbers of students, the A level Mathematics is too demanding. Already we have a punitive pass rate of around 75% national for AS Mathematics. Given that almost all of these candidates have at least a B at GCSE Maths, this is an alarming statistic in its own right. It is a choice, we as an educational establishment, have been happy to see maintained despite no other subject having such a high bar, even when many have cohorts with lower prior attainment. We can sustain this at present since the AS provides a pressure valve. Those students who have neither the abstract reasoning skills nor the technical rigor to attain the marks of a narrow assessment system would normally take four AS courses and drop maths after the first year to progress with their other three courses to A2 level.
The switch to linearity puts the gatekeepers of the course (the schools and colleges who deliver A levels) in a dilemma; do we allow these students on a two-year course in which they have a high chance of failing, or do we deny them access to the course altogether? It is not a dilemma many of us wish to face.
For many of these students, an A level in Statistics is far more attractive and appropriate – and will allow us to keep more students engaged in mathematics post 16. The assessment, which is less focused on consistent technical application of algebra and instead grounded in context, would give them a good chance of succeeding. Their mathematical reasoning and understanding would be rewarded and they could continue to prosper and explore careers in mathematically related fields.
Given the removal of other alternate paths (such as AS level Use of Maths), A level Statistics is the best alternative for students who have not fully mastered the algebraic skills required at A level, or who do not wish to pursue a career in maths, computing, physics or engineering. Removing it will potentially push us nearer to an unintended scenario in which exam boards have to choose between lowering standards or failing a significant number of students. Or centres having to choose between restricting access to students or setting them up to fail.
It may have previously been a declining option, but in the new linear A level world, the time for A level Statistics may have come. The disappearance of both the AS modular course and Use of Maths A level means that there is a significant body of students who will not be enrolling on a Maths qualification post 16 unless A level Statistics is available.
I can demonstrate, even from the relatively small sample of centres I have so far been in contact with, that there is demand. I have pledges that would already almost double last years number of entries and I have still not contacted all the centres in the region.
More and more university course providers in science and social science subjects bemoan a lack of statistical competency of their students, often having to provide extra classes to support their statistical skills. These needs could be met at A level with Statistics.
There is some irony that we are removing choice at the same time that the government is engaged in an enquiry as to the feasibility of compulsory Maths study post 16. Might an A level in Statistics at least offer something useful and appealing to many students who would not otherwise choose a post 16 Maths qualification?
NB: The content of this article was drawn from a letter written to the chair of the AQA exam board and signed by head teachers and head of mathematics of 25 schools around the country.
The views expressed are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of The Royal Statistical Society.