Thursday, 21 August 2014

GCSE Results Day: Maths Results Rise

GCSE students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have been receiving their results today. The results show that 68.8% of entries scored A*-C, up from 68.1% last summer, although there was a marked fall in English GCSE grades.

Students sitting their GCSE Maths exam.
Photo: Wikipedia.
There have been warnings of volatility in this set of results following an overhaul of the exam system. The most significant impact on this year's results has been the big fall in students taking their GCSEs a year early. Schools have been discouraged from such multiple entries following changes in the way school league tables are compiled.

Fewer fourth years taking maths GCSE meant there was a sharp improvement in maths results: the percentage achieving A* to C grades rose by 4.8 percentage points to 62.4%.

The overall pass rate was 98.5%, down 0.3 percentage points. 6.7% of entries were awarded an A* grade.

Girls are still doing better than boys at GCSE, with 73.1% of girls' entries achieving A* to C compared with 64.3% for boys.

In England, but not in Wales or Northern Ireland, this is the first year of results following moves towards exams at the end of two years, rather than including coursework and modular units. The results for GCSE English seem to have been most affected by this change, with the number of A*-C grades down 1.9% to 61.7%.

In Wales and Northern Ireland, these changes were not introduced and the three regional sets of GCSE exams are now beginning to diverge in various ways, including the subjects being taken by students.

While the government are defending the changes being made, Chris Keates of the NASUWT teaching union said this year's students had to "cope with a raft of rushed through and ill-conceived changes to the qualifications system and so today's results are especially commendable".

The National Union of Teachers' leader Christine Blower said that the headline figures "mask underlying issues which will only become clear over time".

Have you had your GCSE results today, or are you teaching GCSEs? How did your school fare following changes to the structure of GCSEs this year? Let us know at .

Thursday, 14 August 2014

A-level maths now most popular subject

Pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland receive their A-level results today and they appear to have fallen slightly this year.

The Joint Council for Qualifications, issuing the results, said there has been a slight fall in A* and A grades and the overall pass rate is down for the first time in over 30 years. The percentage gaining the very highest A* grade has risen from 7.6% to 8.2%. 8.5% of boys' grades were A*, with girls' grades at 7.9%.

A-Level results this year are "broadly stable".

For the third successive year overall A* and A grades have fallen slightly (this year down from 26.3% to 26%), but exam officials are saying A-level results are broadly "stable".

For school leavers planning to go to university, there are suggestions this could be an unusually good year to apply. There are a record number of university places on offer this year - over 500,000 for the first time, which is a rise of over 30,000. Students may still get places even if they have missed their grades. The Ucas admissions service says initial figures show a 2% increase in students getting their first choice place.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan says the government is "lifting the cap on aspiration". Universities Minister Greg Clark says the increase in the number of places is an "important source of social mobility".

There is a trend for more students to take so-called "facilitating subjects" at A-level, such as maths and physics, which can help university applications. Maths is now the most popular subject, overtaking English this year for the first time.

It is the first set of results following the Government's scrapping of January A-Level sittings. However, the fewer opportunities to take modules does not seem to have affected students' overall performance too badly.

Regarding other proposed changes, Labour's shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt said he would reverse the government's plan to remove the link between AS and A-levels. This de-coupling of the two exams would limit young people's "opportunity to realise their full potential", said Mr Hunt.

Would you like to share your results story with us? Comment on this article, or email

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Michael Gove Out

So Michael Gove is no longer our Secretary of State for Education. He presided over a time of headlong change in our education system. Some would describe him as a visionary; others, such as the teaching unions, would probably say he attempted too much too quickly, and that would be the polite version.

Nicky Morgan is the new Secretary of State
at the Department for Education.
Photo credit: Wikipedia.

As education secretary, Michael Gove was a deeply controversial figure. He brought in free schools, rewrote the National Curriculum and rapidly increased the number of academies in England, so that now around 50% of schools in England have academy status. For academies and free schools he brought in legislation allowing these institutions to employ unqualified teaching staff. He also presided over the dramatic rise in the maximum level a university can charge in tuition fees from £3000 to £9000.

His supporters would say Michael Gove took on an education system unwilling to change. He brought forward difficult but necessary changes despite fierce opposition. His critics would say that he is a deeply divisive figure, a zealot bent on his own view of what an education system should look like, stuck in the past and out of touch with the modern realities of teaching.

It is true he got himself into many arguments: he fell out with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, with Ofsted Chief Inspector Michael Wilshaw, with his own Conservative colleague, Home Secretary Theresa May over the alleged plot by Islamic extremists to seize control of certain schools in Birmingham.

Did Prime Minister David Cameron think his personal friend Gove was a liability as the general election approaches next year? He has been replaced by Nicky Morgan and time will tell whether her tenure makes for more harmonious relationships with teaching bodies, Ofsted and other interested parties. She takes over at the Department for Education at a time of change, but will not be blamed for the series of reforms that she will have to preside over. We wish her well.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Happy 40th Birthday HP-65

First pocket programmable calculator
First pocket programmable calculator (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Two years ago we celebrated the fortieth birthday of the HP-35, the first mass-produced, pocket-sized, scientific calculator.

Today marks the fortieth birthday of its younger sibling, the HP-65, released on 17 January 1974. This was the world's first programmable calculator.

The first programmable calculators were introduced in the mid-1960s by Mathatronics and Casio, but these machines were very heavy and expensive.

So the miniaturisation involved in the HP-65 was a breakthrough. Bill Hewlett is supposed to have insisted that the calculator should fit in his shirt pocket and this was partly achieved with the tapered body.

The HP-65 had a capacity of 100 instructions, and could store and retrieve programs with a built-in magnetic card reader. The magnetic program cards were fed in at the thick end of the calculator under the LED display.

Examples for programs provided with the calculator included algorithms for hundreds of applications, including the solutions of differential equations, stock price estimation and statistical functions.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Pisa Results: UK Could Do Better

test documents for the Programme for Internati...
The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test on a school table in Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The UK is ranked 26th out of 65 countries in maths, in the results of the 2012 Pisa tests (Programme for International Student Assessment), which were published today.

The tests in maths, English and science were taken by 500,000 15-year old students around the world. The top 7 places are filled by far eastern countries and cities. Shanghai came top of the league table (Chinese cities are entered individually, rather than the country as a whole). The highest place gained by a European country is 8th place, for Lichtenstein. The US came even further down the league table than the UK, coming 36th in maths. Wales was the poorest performing region of the UK.

Many educationalists have criticised the league table. Prof Alan Smithers from the University of Buckingham pointed out that in many Asian countries, pupils are coached specifically for these tests.

However, Christine Blower, leader of the National Union of Teachers, said the results showed that countries with successful education systems "pay teachers well, respect the profession and encourage collaboration between teachers and schools".

Naturally, Education Secretary Michael Gove blamed the last Labour government for the UK's poor performance. For Labour, Tristram Hunt said that the coalition government's policies were taking the UK towards a poorer education system, not a better one.

What do you think about the results of the Pisa tests? Is the UK lagging behind in these key subject areas? Are the Pisa tests an accurate measure of performance?

You can take the Pisa test here.

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Thursday, 7 November 2013

Alfred Russel Wallace 1823-1913

Wallace argued that the "drab" peahe...
Alfred Russel Wallace
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Alfred Russel Wallace died 100 years ago today, on 7 November, 1913.

Wallace was primarily a naturalist, but he had a curious mind and was drawn to many academic disciplines, especially controversial new ideas. In particular, Wallace was most renowned for formulating, independently of Charles Darwin, of the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Wallace was beset by financial troubles throughout his life. He did not have a wealthy family and he made some unfortunate investment decisions. In addition, he failed to secure any long-lasting salaried position and had to finance himself through the publications he produced.

Wallace's financial difficulties were further compounded by an incident involving a wager, relating to the curvature of the Earth, one of his many forays into the field of mathematics.

John Hampden, a member of the Flat Earth Society, placed an advertisement in a magazine, challenging anybody to prove that there was curvature on the surface of any body of water. He claimed that he would offer a prize of £500 to anybody who could do so. Alfred Russel Wallace, who was short of money at the time, took up the challenge.

His experiment took place along the Old Bedford River in England and it involved setting up two objects at the same height above the surface of the water. At a third point he set up a telescope. The view of the river through the telescope confirmed that the level of the water appeared to dip the further the object was from the telescope, thus confirming the curvature of the Earth.

The referee for the wager judged that Wallace had won, but Hampden refused to accept the fact. He accused Wallace of cheating, published defamatory articles and sued Wallace for return of the money. The legal cases cost Wallace a great deal of money and a huge amount of time and effort.

When he died, aged 90, The New York Times described him as "the last of the giants belonging to that wonderful group of intellectuals that included, among others, Darwin, Huxley, Spencer, Lyell, and Owen, whose daring investigations revolutionised and evolutionised the thought of the century."

Saturday, 2 November 2013

GCSEs Set For 2015 Revamp

Glenys Stacey from Ofqual
(Image from TES)
This week Ofqual have released more details about the new curricula for maths and English, when the GCSEs are revamped for first teaching in the year 2015 at the insistence of Education Secretary Michael Gove. Other subjects will be given the same treatment the following year. These will be the biggest changes to GCSE since their inception in the late 1980s. Pupils now in their second year will be the first to take the new GCSE.

Glenys Stacey from Ofqual pointed out that the most important changes in the new GCSE will be the new content in each subject. In addition to this:

- There will be only one exam, which will take place at the end of the two years of study;
- Grades will be awarded from 1 to 9 (with 9 the highest). With one more grade available than in the current system, this allows for more differentiation at the top end.
- There will be less coursework in most subjects (and probably none in maths);
- There will be a complete end to modular GCSEs.

Stacey says that the new GCSE will allow pupils to gain a real confidence and competence in each subject. She also expressed confidence that these would be the last big changes to the GCSE for a significant number of years, giving more certainty and stability to the exam system for both schools and pupils.

In the maths GCSE, pupils will be expected to memorise many more formulae, such as the quadratic formula, the sine and cosine rules. Until now, these have been provided on the formula sheet.

These changes only apply to the set of GCSEs offered by the English exam boards. The exam boards in Wales and Northern Ireland are not obliged to follow suit. If the GCSE in these parts of the UK remain as they stand, the divergence from England will become significant, with the qualifications having little in common but the name.

Are you a teacher or a pupil? What do you think of the proposed changes to the maths GCSE? Let us know by email or comment on this post.

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