In 2016, Mathematics was the fifth most popular A level amongst girls, behind English, Biology, History and Art whilst it was the most popular subject taken by boys. The participation rates at AS level were the same with Mathematics being the most popular subject taken by both boys and girls. The proportion of students taking Mathematics (AS/A level) who are girls is around 40% with the corresponding figure being 30% for Further Mathematics (AS/A level). The Further Mathematics Support Programmes (FMSPW) in England and Wales promotes participation in Advanced level Mathematics to all students who would benefit from taking the qualifications, especially girls. This document summarises the key findings from the recent research in England and Wales, which aim to identify and share good practice in promoting participation in Advanced level Mathematics by girls.
We hope that the guidance provided in this document will be a stimulus for reflection by colleagues in schools and colleges on the issue of girls’ participation. It is hoped that the recommendations listed at the end of the document will help to initiate practical action to increase the proportion of girls who progress to study A levels in Mathematics and Further Mathematics. It is an important time for all stakeholders to consider the role they will play in promoting post-16 mathematics, particularly to girls.
Prior attainment in mathematics was found to be the most significant factor in progressing to A level, but boys were more likely to continue to A level than girls with the same GCSE grade. This disparity becomes much more pronounced for students with A or B grades, suggesting that girls may see good, but not excellent, grades as a barrier to progress.
Students were more likely to choose mathematics if it was their highest grade at GCSE. With girls attaining more A/A* grades across the full range of GCSE subjects, their positioning as ‘all-rounders’ may negatively affect their uptake of A level Mathematics. Enjoyment was more likely to be cited by girls than boys as a reason for STEM related choices.
Girls have been found to have a lower mathematics self-concept than boys of the same ability; this is of concern because research shows the degree of match between task performance and self-concept is linked to intention to continue with mathematics. Students were found to be aware of the stereotypical images of mathematicians, but they still used them. Female students were also sometimes distanced by presentation of images of highly successful, attractive female mathematicians, meaning the images had the reverse effect to that intended. A lack of awareness of the utility of mathematics affected students of both genders.
Advice and encouragement to continue with mathematics from a teacher or family member was found to be important; and this could mediate the effect of lower mathematics self-concept for girls in particular. Research evidence acknowledges the importance of socio-economic factors and the impact of ‘science capital’. Students who had formed an opinion against pursuing mathematics and science in the future by age 10 were highly unlikely to change their minds by the age of 14.
Through analysis of data, teacher and student focus groups and lesson observations, researchers have examined strategies that have contributed to effective change in the take-up of A level Mathematics and Further Mathematics.
Senior leaders: The support of senior leaders is seen as crucial in guiding the development of a clear whole-school culture which promotes participation in post-16 mathematics by girls and supporting an appropriate curriculum within the mathematics department. For example, three of the case study schools prepare students for Level 2 qualification in Additional Mathematics, which offers students an insight into what is involved in A level Mathematics. This is beneficial to girls who report that they feel more confident in progressing to A level having been exposed to more challenging mathematics during Key Stage 4.
Careers advice should start early and illustrate the utility of mathematics across a range of disciplines. At one school, students have researched possible university courses by Year 11 and noted that mathematics was necessary for a range of careers including the armed forces and sports science. At one College, mathematics is valued as a currency that keeps options open and is a gateway to specific careers, including optometry, medicine, food nutrition, youth work, forensic science and physics. Wall displays highlight the importance of mathematics. At a Further Education College, personal careers advice for new and prospective students emphasises pathways in which mathematics is an essential companion or a central subject.
Teachers: The role of mathematics teachers in supporting girls and getting to know them individually is valued by female students. They like teaching strategies that provide opportunities for checking understanding with friends and quiet conversations with the teacher. Teachers in the three mixed schools described the importance of directing questions to girls in class. In several of the schools, the mathematics department’s ‘open door’ policy was seen as crucial in building girls’ confidence.
Influence of family: In the case study girls’ participation is seen to be assisted by strong family appreciation of the value of mathematics and the role of hard work. Family support for the study of mathematics was particularly high in non-white British ethnic groups. Students in the Further Education College were dismissive of negative cultural messages amongst some young people, such as it being ‘smart to dumb down’.
Motivation: The messages about participation in Further Mathematics focused on motivation rather than simply focusing on the cleverest group of students in the year group.
Recommended strategies for promoting greater gender balance in Advanced Level Mathematics
Consider the gender balance in previous A level cohorts. Use the JCQ data to identify the relative participation rate of girls against the national picture, in Wales and the UK and similar schools in Wales if the data is available. Look for trends in progression from Year 11 classes and/or feeder schools.
Identify and support girls in Year 10/11 who show the potential and/or interest in mathematics to progress to post-16 study. Analyse the proportion of girls and boys with an A or A* in GCSE Mathematics who progress to study mathematics to at least AS level.
Introduce more mathematics topics and qualifications alongside GCSE for students expected to get a grade B or above. Girls value the opportunity to evaluate their interest in the topics they might meet at A level and how they might cope with the more demanding material.
Throughout years 7 to 11, develop a schoolwide culture in which girls aspire to study mathematics to A level.
Teachers should embed advice about how mathematics is used in real life contexts into lessons to make students aware of the utility of the subject.
Teachers should provide students, especially female students, with regular positive feedback on their progress and ability. Praise resilience, discussion and careful work, and support female students in developing a more accurate match between task performance and mathematics self-concept. Avoid presenting A level Mathematics as a ‘specialist’ subject – emphasise the general benefits of studying the subject. Present a clear message to staff interviewing and enrolling students to A level courses about the possible barriers that may need to be broken down when recruiting girls to post-16 mathematics courses and provide clear information about the importance of A level Mathematics and Further Mathematics qualifications.
Engage with parents/carers about the importance of promoting a positive message to both boys and girls about progressing to study mathematics post-16.
Provide clear messages to students, and girls in particular, about the wide range of careers and degree courses for which post-16 study of mathematics would be beneficial. Invite current or previous female A level Mathematics students to speak to younger students about the importance of mathematics in their degree course or future employment, both in STEM and non-STEM fields.
The FMSPW are keen to identify opportunities where the mathematics occuring within other subjects can be demonstrated to students. Research indicates that girls are more likely than boys to take A level Mathematics alongside non-STEM A level subjects and so identifying the mathematics that occurs within Business Studies, Psychology, Geography and other fields is important.
Please scroll down to the 'Find ways to encourage girls' section on the AMSP Supporting your students’ transition to advanced maths page.