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The £600 maths bonus

23 November 2017

In this week's Autumn Budget, the Treasury announced an £80 million budget for post-16 maths. It is not clear where the money comes from or how it will fit into the existing funding system but the plan is simple. Government promises to pay schools and colleges £600 for every additional A Level and core maths student they enrol in future. The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, followed up the announcement with a joke and the idea has already captured the imagination of journalists who have covered it as a budget highlight. So is it a good idea and will it work? The case for action on 16 to 18 maths was made in detail very recently by Sir Adrian Smith. Commissioned by Department for Education (DfE), the Smith Post-16 Maths Review makes a compelling argument that we have a problem. According to Sir Adrian, there is strong demand for mathematical and quantitative skills at all levels and consistent under-supply. The gap is widening because of technology yet "England remains unusual among advanced countries in that the study of mathematics is not universal for all students beyond age 16". Almost three quarters of students with A*-C in GCSE maths at age 16 choose not to study it beyond this level. There are some puzzling regional differences (page 53) not to mention more familiar gender ones in the progression. The Smith Review made 18 recommendations, two of which called on DfE to tackle funding obstacles and improve take-up. It has taken Government four months to respond but this week's announcement shows that Ministers were listening. This, at least, is good. The problems, though, are with the mechanics. We have no firm details on DfE plans but we do know something about the existing system and can predict certain issues. The first will be about all those students already taking A Level Maths. At the last count in July 2017, there were 100,000 students, around 20% of whom came from private schools and 80% from the state (DfE funded) sector. It is a two year course and not everyone lasts to the end but there are already around 180,000 students in the system. As it is currently described, the bonus will only be paid where there is an increase in students which will create some feelings of injustice. A level Maths has grown in popularity in recent years and there are more than 1,000 schools and colleges that offer it. At the Association of Colleges (AoC) we estimate that there are 12,000 students in FE colleges and 35,000 in sixth form colleges. Added to those in school sixth forms, this is a substantial number of students whose institutions won't benefit from the policy. The policy as it stands will reward future expansion not past efforts. A more significant problem results from the fluctuating nature of the post-16 education system. The English state A Level market is currently saturated, under funded and in some turmoil because of the switch to two-year qualifications and the pressure for better results. There are more than 1,000 schools and colleges offering A Level Maths but there are changes in response to these pressures and as a result of academy reform. In the next few years there are likely to be some market exits and some consolidation. In these circumstances it would be very odd for DfE to pay out bonuses to one school sixth form simply because it is taking on more students from a neighbour that has decided to focus on pre-16 pupils. A further complication comes from the nature of student choice on our system. While DfE looks at motivating institutional leaders with a £600 bonus, students have a longer term goal. They choose their institution and their subject so that they can move onto their next destination - university and/or their chosen career. It is a time of lots of decisions when students ask schools and colleges for advice. There are already problems in how our system organises information and advice. Do we really want a further complication relating to short term funding incentives? Financial support is also an issue. Some students had older siblings entitled to Education Maintenance Allowances (EMAs). Before 2011, these paid up to £1,000 a year to sixth formers from lower income families. EMAs are now a memory but maths scholarships might not be. It's quite easy to predict that some institutions will pass on a share of the £600 to their students to deal with travel and living costs. Did anyone think about paying the student as well as investing in the teaching? There are other detailed issues which it would be good to discuss. The offer of £80 million extra to develop Level 3 maths in post-16 education is a clear opportunity, particularly as it extends to the new core maths qualification. This is little known outside education and in need of support. There are plenty of obstacles. There is a shortage of funding for 16 to 18 education and an equivalent shortage of maths teachers. Universities are slow to change their admissions requirements so students are reluctant to take the qualification. If the bonus solves this particular take up problem this will be helpful, but I worry about the bigger picture. Partly because I possess two maths A Levels, I was able to get a university place and then jobs that mean I have had 25 year's experience in college leadership roles. I have seen a sufficient number poorly-designed Whitehall-initiated education funding programmes to know the risks. The simpler they are at the start, the worse they can be in the impact. Hopefully it is not late to use the money and the ideas motivating it to put in place something that can work well. The Smith Review explained the strong case for action. The thing we need now is some care with the implementation and a willingness to adjust the plan to balance the interests of students, institutitions, DfE and everyone else. Julian Gravatt is the Deputy Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges There will be a round-up of all current college funding issues at AoC's not-to-be-missed Winter Finance Conference on Monday 11 December 2017 in London. Booking details are here