CfEM blog: What do this year’s GCSE maths result tell us?

Blog by Eddie Playfair, Senior Policy Manager at Association of Colleges (AoC) for the Centres for Excellence in Maths (CfEM) programme.

Nearly 25,000 16 to 18-year-old resit students have improved their GCSE maths performance to grade 4 or above this year. This is a 2% increase in numbers from last year.

Virtually every one of those students has already taken GCSE maths and was aiming to improve their grade, in some cases from a very low base. We should recognise all the hard work that goes into preparing students for these resits and the pressure it puts on students and colleges alike. Given the context, this represents a substantial achievement for each of those students and a real cause for celebration.

For the second year running, Ofqual has provided a breakdown on results day for 16-18-year olds which separates them out from the wider GCSE statistics. This includes all providers in England and we know that over 90% of these students were studying in colleges.


GCSE maths 16-18 2018 2019 change
Students entered 134,050 143,159 +9,109 (+6.8%)
9-4 pass rate 18.2% 17.4% -0.8%
Students achieving 9-4 24,397 24,909 +512 (+2.1%)


So what do these results tell us?

Although the overall 9-4 pass rate remains depressingly low, we need to see them in the wider context and there are several factors to consider:

This is a ‘tough gig’ and it’s never going to be easy. Colleges are working with a cohort of students who have not yet achieved grade 4 despite years of maths classes and all the interventions and coaching which secondary schools provide.

Students retaking from a prior grade 3 have a higher chance of getting a grade 4 than those who start from a grade 2 or below. But this cohort does not have a uniform grade 3 profile. Many of these candidates have low prior achievement, both in maths and at GCSE overall. Large numbers of students with grade 2 or below are entered for the GCSE resit, and their chances of achieving a grade 4 on their second attempt are much lower than for grade 3 students. Nevertheless, these students often do improve their grade and value the progress they are making.

Even students starting with a grade 3 are often quite marginal performers and, given their previous achievement, this cohort’s ‘centre of gravity’ is skewed towards the grade 4 boundary. This makes their pass rate very sensitive to small changes in that boundary. Small adjustments can mean thousands of students ending up on the wrong side of the all-important grade threshold.

What about the progress measures?

Based on these results, we can’t tell what the progress measures will show for 2019. This is because the measure values progress rather than simply the achievement of a grade 4, they include functional skills and they are an end of programme measure based on a different cut of the cohort.

More data needed…

All of this suggests that we need better measures to understand how well our students are doing in maths. If we want to see through the fog of different student profiles and different colleges’ entry policies we need to be able to assess student’s progress against their prior achievement in maths as well as overall.

We also need to look at each age cohort separately to chart how their achievements are clocking up year by year. There’s no doubt that raising the proportion of young people who achieve at grade 4 in maths is a challenge but rather than being a tale of low pass rates we should be able to describe it as a progressive and cumulative journey towards increased success for each year group

The data in this piece was published by Ofqual on 22 August 2019. The Department for Education’s L2/3 attainment SFR table details the percentage of students achieving a level 2 in Maths by 19, who had not achieved this at 16, on a year-by-year basis. 

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