Thursday, 17 August 2017

A-Level Results Day 2017

A-Level results are out today in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This year's results have shown an increase in the number of A and A* awards given, the first rise in 6 years.

26.6% of entries from boys were awarded these top grades, with 26.1% of girls' entries (overall 26.3%, up 0.5%). This is first time in 17 years that the boys have been ahead at this level of education.

In England, 13 A-Level subjects were reformed this year (with mathematics and the rest to follow). Changes include assessment based entirely on a final exam, eliminating coursework entirely. There was a fall in the top grades awarded in these subjects. Another change means that pupils now have to decide from the outset whether to take AS or a full A-Level because the two qualifications have been decoupled. This has resulted in a number of pupils continuing to their second year, who would previously have stopped after the first year, resulting in a larger number of less able pupils taking the full A-Level. A lack of text books for the new syllabuses and a lack of past papers may be other contributing factors.

For those who didn't make the grades they required for university, there is a very good chance they will be able to take a place through clearing this year. University applications from the UK and European Union countries have fallen compared with last year and there is a demographic dip in the number of 18 year olds.

In Northern Ireland, 30.9% of entries were awarded the top two grades, but girls are still ahead. Indeed they increased the gap to 6.5% with 33.3% of girls and only 26.8% of boys getting the top two grades.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

John Napier (1550–1617)

Napier's "Bones", a set of wooden rods used for muliplication
If you have studied logarithms, you have John Napier to thank for their discovery. He died 400 years ago today.

John Napier was a Scottish landowner, mathematician, physicist, and astronomer, but is probably best known as the discoverer of logarithms.

Before calculators became widespread in the second half of the 20th century, logarithms were widely used to perform multiplication of numbers, particularly large numbers. Logarithms were looked up in "log tables".

Logarithms have many uses and come into many areas of modern maths, and if you have studied beyond GCSE level, you will be very familiar with them. The natural logarithm (log base e) is sometimes called the Napierian logarithm, although Napier didn't explicitly work with base e.

Napier also invented "Napier's bones", which were a set of wooden rods inscribed with digits, and were another tool for performing multiplication. Napier was also one of the earlier mathematicians to make frequent use of the decimal point in his work and helped to popularise this idea.

Napier's birthplace, Merchiston Tower in Edinburgh, is now a part of Edinburgh Napier University, which is named after him.

Napier died in 1617 at his home at Merchiston Castle from the effects of gout, but his revolutionary work on what became a key part of modern mathematics will ensure he is remembered for a long time to come.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

GCSE Results 2016

GCSE results across England, Wales and Northern Ireland this year have suffered a significant fall. This is in marked contrast to last week's A-Level results, which showed a great deal of stability when compared with recent years. GCSE results peaked in 2011 after a long period of "grade inflation", and have been falling year on year ever since.

Of the five million results being released today, the proportion of entries being given A* to C grades has fallen from 69% to 66.9%, an unprecedented fall of 2.1%. The proportion of top A* and A grades was down overall by 0.9% to 13%. Awards of the very top A* grade have also fallen slightly, down from 6.6% to 6.5%.

One reason for the fall in the overall pass rate is that more pupils in England are re-taking GCSE English and maths, following measures by the government to attempt to ensure that all pupils reach a grade C in these subjects. As a result there were re-sits for tens of thousands who did not reach a C grade last year. Among over 16s, GCSE entries were up by 380,000, up roughly 25% on last year.

By subject, there were falls in the pass (A*-C) rate in maths (down 2.3%), English (down a worrying large 5.2%) and in other subjects.

But even without the re-sit figures, there was a fall in the results of 16 year olds, with the proportion getting A* to C falling by 1.3%. It is thought that a move to an alternative qualification, the iGCSE, for many able students, may account for some of the drop.

While the overall results were downwards, in Northern Ireland the proportion of passes increased slightly to 79.1% and top A* grades rose to 9.3%. In Wales, the level of A* to C passes remained at 66.6%, with A* grades rising slightly to 6.1%.

Girls continue to do better than boys at GCSE. The A*-C rate for girls was 71.3% compared with 62.4% for boys, a gap some would describe as worrying, or even unacceptable. The percentage of entries gaining A* grades for girls was 7.9% and 5.0% for boys.

Next year will start to see the phasing in of a radical change to the way that GCSEs are graded. The new GCSE exams will be graded from 1 to 9 (with 9 the highest), rather than the current A* to G.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

A-Level Results Day 2016

Hundreds of thousands of teenagers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are receiving their A-level and AS results today. The A-level results show a stable pattern compared with last year.

Maths remains the nation's most popular choice of subject, as it was last year, and increasing numbers are also opting to take Further Maths at A-Level.

The proportion of top grades (A and A*) is 25.8%, down by 0.1% on last year. The overall pass (grades A*-C) rate of 98.1% remained the same. Northern Ireland remains the region with the biggest proportion of top grades, 29.5%.

Girls fared better than boys, once again, with 79.7% of girls getting a pass grade, compared with 75% for boys. Boys are getting more A* grades (8.5% compared with 7.7% for girls), although this gap between the very top-performing girls and boys has narrowed for the first time in five years. The overall level of A* grades (8.1%) has been falling now for 2 years.

According to Ucas, the universities' admissions service, 424,000 university places have been offered to hopeful students, which is up by 3% on the same time last year. But many places are reportedly still available through clearing, including at leading universities and for highly sought-after courses, such as medicine.

The increase in the number of places still available is mainly due to two factors: a roughly 2% fall in the number of school-leavers and the removal of the cap on the number of places universities in England can offer.

AS levels are being "decoupled" from being part of A-levels - and this year's figures show a 13.7% drop in entries for the AS course. Previously the AS has carried with it the option of continuing on to a full A-Level, but this will now cease to be the case: if you register for an AS, this is the qualification you will get.

Teachers and head teachers' leaders have warned that, although the overall results appear to show stability when compared with recent years, individual schools and pupils are facing some unpredictable outcomes.

The current cap of £9000 for university tuition fees is being removed, so students starting at England's universities in the autumn could face higher fees. Exeter University has been the first to announce that it will increase fees to £9,250 for all current and new students.

With the prospect of increasing fees, school leavers may opt not to go to university at all. Financial services firm PwC says that it has had a 20% increase over two years for new recruits of those leaving school with A-levels.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Government considers compulsory maths lessons up to 18

George Osborne wants to make
maths compulsory to the age of 18.
We already discussed plans outlined in the budget to force all schools to become academies by 2020. Another budget announcement was that the government is considering making all pupils study maths to the age of 18.

The move was welcomed by prominent mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, but critics claim it is “undeliverable” because of a critical shortage of maths teachers.

It was one of several education measures outlined by George Osborne in his budget speech, but teachers point out that there are barely enough qualified teachers to deliver GCSE maths in schools, without the extra burden of a course for all 16 to 18 year olds.

The chancellor said, in his budget speech: “We are going to look at teaching maths to 18 for all pupils. Providing great schooling is the single most important thing we can do to help any child from a disadvantaged background succeed."

Currently schools are facing increasing difficulties trying to fill maths posts. Because of this pressure, 20% of maths lessons are taught by teachers without a maths degree. Teacher leaving rates in this subject area are also above average.

The government has called on Prof Sir Adrian Smith, vice chancellor of London University and former president of the Royal Statistical Society, to assess the feasibility of the idea. Presumably he will take into account chronic teacher shortages as one of the factors that may render the scheme impossible.

At the last General Election, the Labour Party called for English and maths to be studied until the age of 18.

The Labour Party's education spokeswoman, Lucy Powell, supported the new proposal but questioned its current viability and criticised the government for failing to achieve its target for recruiting maths teachers four years in a row.

“There is nothing more important to our global competitiveness than mathematics, which will drive success in digital skills, automation and other important jobs of the future,” she said.

There has long been concern about the maths skills of UK children, who fare poorly in international tests. The latest Pisa tests, from 2013, put England in 26th place for maths, behind countries such as Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Academisation Phase 3 is on its way

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan will preside
over the third phase of academisation,
releasing all schools from  local authority control.
All schools are to be converted to academies by 2020 and then will be asked to join an "Academy Chain". That is the plan of the existing government, announced as a part of the budget on 16 March.

This move will effectively end the involvement of local authorities in school administration. Each academy takes a certain amount of its funding directly from central government. It is also free from the constraints of the National Curriculum and can set its own pay scales for its staff.

The first phase of "academisation" began before 2010. Failing and struggling schools were offered cash incentives to convert to academies. Outside sponsors provided some of the funding and because the schools were no longer constrained by external pay structures, could offer larger salaries to good staff, including to head teachers, to turn the school around.

After 2010, all schools were given the option to convert to academy status. Incentives were still available and a large number of state schools took up the offer. This was then education secretary Michael Gove's idea and they were known as "converter academies".

Phase 3 will see all schools being forced to take up academy status. Many have concerns about these plans, including the Labour Party, teaching staff and the unions. There will undoubtedly be extra demands upon central government and some suggest that the Department for Education is already unable to cope with its workload.

What do you think?
Do you think that academies have more freedom and flexibility to offer a better education to their students?
Do you think that effectively ending the National Curriculum in this way is a good thing?

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Ada Lovelace, born 10 December 1815

Portrait of Ada Lovelace, 1840.
(Picture credit: Wikipedia)
Ada Lovelace was born 200 years ago today, on 10 December 1815. She became a highly respected British mathematician and writer, known mainly for her work on Charles Babbage's early mechanical computer, the Analytical Engine. Her notes on this machine include what is now thought of as the first set of instructions intended to be carried out by a machine, or the first computer program, and she as the first computer programmer.

She was born Augusta Ada Byron and inherited the title Countess of Lovelace later in life. Her father was the poet Lord Byron, but she never knew him, as he left his wife a month after Ada was born. She had her mother Anne Milbanke to thank for setting her up with an interest in mathematics and science, but Ada always remained interested in her father, and loyal to him, despite not knowing him.

Lovelace was still a teenager when her mathematical ability led her into a working relationship and friendship with fellow British mathematician Charles Babbage. In particular she helped in Babbage's work on his Analytical Engine. In 1842 and 1843 she translated an article about the engine from Italian into English. She also supplemented the translation with a very detailed set of notes of her own.

These notes contained what many now consider to be the first computer program, an algorithm designed to be carried out by a machine. Lovelace's notes are important in the early history of computers, although the algorithm was never used because the Analytical Engine was never built. She also had a realisation about the potential of computers to go beyond mere calculating. Others, including Babbage himself, focused only on their numerical capabilities.

Upon her death, Ada was buried next to her father Lord Byron, in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, at her own request.

Ada Lovelace Day is now an annual event in mid-October that aims to "... raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and maths," and to "create new role models for girls and women" in these fields.