The Smith Review: an opportunity to improve maths and stats skills

Written by Scott Keir on . Posted in Features

A new report on the future of mathematics education in England has just been published. Scott Keir, RSS head of education and statistical literacy, explains the background to the review and the role the RSS has played so far, as well as what we see as the next steps.

The government has just published a review of mathematics education for post-16 students in England by past president of the Royal Statistical Society, Professor Sir Adrian Smith.

What is the Smith Review?

In the March 2016 budget, the then Chancellor George Osborne, announced that he would 'ask Professor Sir Adrian Smith to review the case for how to improve the study of maths from 16 to 18 […], including looking at the case and feasibility for more or all students continuing to study maths to 18, in the longer-term.'

In his report, Adrian Smith describes the motivation as 'prompted by two related issues: first, the increasing importance of mathematical and quantitative skills to the future workforce; and secondly, by comparison with competitor economies, the low percentage of students in England continuing mathematics post-16.'


How has the RSS been involved?

The Royal Statistical Society responded to the review by contributing to several consultation meetings, by submitting a formal response (PDF), and by ensuring the Review team were aware of our work on A level and AS level Statistics.

The key points we highlighted were:

  • Statistical and data skills are important for everyone to develop - for future studies, everyday lives, engagement in democracy, and future careers.
  • A range of qualification pathways are needed from 16-18 to meet a variety of needs. As we discuss in our Data Manifesto, for England, these include Functional Skills, Core Maths, A level and AS level Mathematics and Further Mathematics, and A level and AS level Statistics. We suggested that the policy of compulsory GCSE Mathematics resits for some students should be reconsidered.
  • Providing key teaching resources for Core Maths would help grow participation. We suggested that partnership with universities could also be helpful.
  • AS level Mathematics is valuable as a qualification in its own right, particularly for those students less confident of undertaking a full qualification in A level Mathematics.
  • AS and A level Statistics is ideal preparation for further study in a range of quantitative subjects.
  • Continued investment in national support programmes for teachers of mathematics is needed, including the Further Mathematics Support Programme, and support for Core Maths courses and other level 3 qualifications.
  • Students need to be encouraged to develop their core skills in mathematics, including through up-to-date resources on careers and higher-level study that values mathematics, and clear signalling from universities and employers of the value of mathematical qualifications including AS Level Mathematics and Core Maths.
  • Ensuring that there are sufficient teachers, with sufficient skills, must be a key government priority.


What does Adrian Smith recommend?

Sir Adrian sets out a range of proposals in his report to support 'an ambition for 16-18 mathematics to become universal in 10 years.' He considers ‘mathematics’ as mathematical and quantitative skills, including numeracy, statistics and data analysis and is 'guided by the principle that all students should study the mathematics they need for the future.'

He begins by considering the case for mathematics and the case for improving 16-18 mathematics. He notes the strong demand for mathematical and quantitative skills and that this is likely to increase, that 'digitisation and data will be central to many future skills requirements', that England’s record on post-16 mathematical skills is poorer than that of other developed economies, and that a large proportion of English 19 year olds studying at UK universities do not have a mathematics qualification beyond GCSE. He also highlights inequalities in uptake of mathematical subjects in terms of geography, gender, and ethnicity.

He then considers the range of mathematics pathways and options, participation and achievement, capacity to deliver, and policy and system Issues, and makes 18 recommendations to address these areas. These include recommendations to:

  • Ensure a range of qualification pathways are available, including Functional Skills, Core Maths, A level and AS level Mathematics and Further Mathematics, and A level and AS level Statistics. Of A level Statistics, Sir Adrian says 'this qualification is an essential part of the mix and is likely to be important in the future'.
  • Boost Core Maths, which 'plugs a critical gap for students who are progressing to higher education and into higher technical study with a quantitative element', by increasing the availability, strengthening the brand, and supporting teachers.
  • Improve the funding provision and funding models to remove disincentives for mathematics provision, especially, and most urgently, for AS and A level Further Mathematics, and Core Maths.
  • Ensure technical routes include appropriate mathematical skills, by the Institute for Apprenticeships and the Royal Society Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education working together.
  • Review the 16-18 resit policy for GCSE Mathematics, including fresh consideration of appropriate curricula and qualifications, and policy incentives.
  • Support teachers in delivering mathematical qualifications, including funding professional development for Core Maths, AS/A level Mathematics and Further Mathematics, technical education routes. Fund interventions in local areas with low level 3 mathematics participation.
  • Increase students’ awareness of the importance of mathematical skills to a wide range of future careers and studies, with improved careers provision, better signalling from universities of the value of level 3 mathematics qualifications for undergraduate courses with a significant quantitative element.
  • Develop the evidence base on post-16 mathematical education, specifically on the FE workforce that teaches mathematics and quantitative skills, on effective pedagogy in teaching GCSE mathematics at FE, on the role and effectiveness of technology in the teaching of 16-18 mathematics, and on the cultural and other root causes of negative attitudes to mathematics.
  • Commission a study into data science’s implications for education and training.


How has the government responded?

The government published the review with a letter from Nick Gibb, Minister for School Standards. Mr Gibb welcomes the report, pledges that his department will 'set out our plans across the range of your recommendations in due course', and sets out some immediate responses, including:

  • Announcement of a new £16 million Level 3 Maths Support Programme to build on the momentum created by the Further Mathematics and Core Maths Support Programmes. The Core Maths programme was due to end this Summer, so this is a particularly welcome move. The successful bidder will be required to provide professional development, support and resources for teachers to teach AS/A level Mathematics, Further Mathematics and Core Maths, ensure that students in all 16-19 state funded schools and colleges can access AS/A level Further Mathematics provision, and increase student demand for level 3 mathematics qualifications, particularly among girls.
  • Confirmation that the current policy for GCSE resits will stay in place in 2017/18, with a promise to 'monitor and review the current policy to assess whether it is having the desired impact'.
  • Agreement that the Institute for Apprenticeships should work with the Royal Society Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education to ensure technical routes include appropriate mathematical skills.
  • Commitment to increase significantly the provision of 16-18 mathematics education over coming years.
  • Confirmation that the department is working with institutions such as the Royal Society and British Academy to encourage universities and employers to signal the value of level 3 mathematics qualifications.
  • Publishing a careers strategy later this year.

Recommendations on funding, institutional incentives and disincentives, activities to improve the evidence base, and the study on data science are not addressed in the above. We expect these to be addressed in the plans that the government will set out later.


What happens next?

The publication of the Smith Review has been widely welcomed by bodies including the Academy of Social Sciences, the British Academy, the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, the London Mathematical Society, the Royal Society and ourselves. We issued a press release (pdf) with quotes from our president David Spiegelhalter and our vice president for education and statistical literacy, Neil Sheldon.

We’ve written to Nick Gibb to confirm our support for Sir Adrian’s recommendations, and to welcome the government’s initial response.

We highlighted the Royal Society’s concern about the recruitment, retention, and training of our teachers, and the Academy of Social Science’s comment on the value of AS level Mathematics and the proposed changes to the funding model for schools.

We asked the minister for a timetable of when the remainder of the plans will be published, and for a date for confirming whether changes to GCSE resits will be made for future cohorts.

We also offered our assistance in developing the thinking for the study into the long-term implications of data science on future skills needs, highlighting our existing activity including a conference with the Royal Society on the skills needs of data analytics, and the launch of our Data Science Section.

Sir Adrian’s 2004 report for Government into post-14 mathematics, led to several significant improvements in mathematics education in England. There are high expectations in and beyond the mathematical education community that this report will also result in improvements in post-16 education.

We’ll be looking at our own work in the Society, and working with our learned societies and other organisations, to help ensure that this is the case.



Article written with assistance from Fabian De Geer, Royal Statistical Society. 


London Mathematical Society Council for Mathematical Sciences Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (IMA)

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