Progressing from GCSE Maths – what next?

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A-level Maths By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: Maths » A-level Maths
Last updated: 14/09/2017
Tags: a-level maths, a-level statistics, core maths, statistics


You’re in Year 11 and your GCSE Maths is all going swimmingly – a few bits of it are tricky, but mostly it’s fine. This year’s work is mostly repeating stuff that you’ve done before, but with more emphasis on the harder bits, solving problems and working through exam questions. You should easily get a Grade 6, hopefully a 7 or maybe even an 8, then of course you’ll be able to carry on and do A-level... but what’s the best option?

The new A-levels in Maths
As you are probably aware, the new A-level Maths specification is being taught across England and Wales from September 2017. Where previously there were some differences between the specifications set by the different exam boards, and some options in what Applied Maths modules you could take, all are working to exactly the same specification (set by Ofqual) from 2017... though there will still be some differences in how the different boards set out their questions and require answers to be presented. Unlike the new GCSE, the new A-level isn’t supposed to be any harder than it was before, but, as at GCSE, there’s a greater emphasis on problem solving – which will probably mean that the questions offer less "scaffolding" than you’ll find in past papers from the old specifications.

The old modular structure is being done away with; no longer will you do three modules and three exams in each year, with all of them counting toward the overall qualification. Instead there’s just a linear 2-year course to A-level, and a separate AS-level qualification. The two are designed to be co-taught so that there is the option of taking the AS-level at the end of the first year, but it doesn’t count towards the A-level as it did with the old specification. Because of the way 16-19 education is funded, you might find that institutions are reluctant to allow you to do just the AS-level and will require you to sign up for the full A-level.

For a while it looked as if none of the exam boards were going to develop a new Statistics A-level to replace the old (AQA) one, but Edexcel took up the baton in January 2017 and their new qualification was approved in August 2017. The A-level in Use of Maths – which focused on real-world applications of maths – is definitely being discontinued and will no longer be available after the current cohort of students has gone through. You could, however, consider a Core Maths qualification, which has some similarities. Each exam board has a different version of this qualification (AQA’s is called Level 3 Certificate in Mathematical Studies, Edexcel’s is Mathematics in Context, and OCR/MEI offers two options: Level 3 Certificate in Quantitative Reasoning and Level 3 Certificate in Quantitative Problem Solving) but each is equivalent to an AS level in terms of UCAS points. Again, though, funding issues may mean that the number of institutions offering Core Maths is limited.

Should you do A-level Maths?
Before you finalise the decision to do Maths at A-level, think about which aspects of the subject you enjoy the most. Most of A-level Maths is Pure Maths, which involves a huge amount of algebra, so if rearranging formulae and solving equations is your thing then that will stand you in very good stead. The algebra is very closely intertwined with graph work, so you’ll pick up on the work you’ve done on different graph shapes and go into greater depth with that.  There’s also a lot of trigonometry involved; SOHCAHTOA is just the tip of the iceberg. If you’re aiming for high grades then you’ve probably looked at the sine, cosine and tangent curves; that’s where the trig content of A-level starts from.

On the other hand, if you prefer the Data Handling aspects and are hoping to get that high grade at GCSE without having to do too much algebra then you really should think long and hard about whether A-level Maths is for you; you might enjoy the Statistics content but that’s only about a sixth of it. The A-level in Statistics would probably be a better choice for you. Other A-level subjects such as Psychology, Biology, Business Studies and Economics also involve a significant amount of statistical work, so a Statistics A-level would combine well with those.

If your favourite bit of GCSE Maths is shape, space and measure then you might be disappointed at how little of that there is in A-level Maths! You will meet circles and triangles every now and then, but there’s not much on polygons and three-dimensional shapes.

Another option to consider is Core Maths. As with the outgoing Use of Maths, the emphasis here is on real-world applications of maths. The level of maths skills involved is far less demanding than at A-level, with about 80% of the content being at Higher GCSE level, though the remaining 20% does go beyond that.

If you’re really keen and want to do twice as much maths as any other subject then there’s the option of taking Further Maths as well as Maths at A-level. This will usually have to be taken as a fourth A-level and will have higher entry requirements than the single A-level in Maths.

Finally, if you do still decide to go on to study Maths at A-level, be ready to hit the ground running! You might have coasted through Year 11 and not given maths a thought between leaving the GCSE exam room in June and going back to school or college in September, but you will be expected to recall the relevant content, and within a couple of weeks you’ll be moving on to work that’s beyond GCSE level.

The work that you do in the first few weeks of the A-level will form the foundation for the rest of the course, so if you’re struggling at this stage then you can’t afford to stick your head in the sand. You need to either put in the necessary work to get up to speed – in post-16 education you need to take responsibility for your own learning, and it’s usually recommended that you spend about the same amount of time on independent study as you spend in the classroom – or investigate other subject options before it’s too late to change courses.

In summary:

  • If you love algebra and trigonometry then you should enjoy A-level Maths
  • If you REALLY love maths then you could do Further Maths too
  • If you avoid algebra wherever possible then consider other options such as Statistics, Core Maths, Biology, Psychology
  • Be ready to hit the ground running and do plenty of independent study if you do opt for A-level Maths!

Lynne Davis A-level Maths Tutor (Birmingham)

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When you have the right support, Maths is easier than you think. I can help you to develop your confidence and skills in order to get the results you need.

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