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A new maths GCSE curriculum for post-16 resit students

Throughout 2019, MEI worked in consultation with key stakeholders to develop a new curriculum in maths for post-16 GCSE students with a greater emphasis on applying maths in realistic contexts. This project included a small-scale study to assess the suitability of the curriculum as a basis for an alternative to the existing GCSE Mathematics.

The project aimed to address the recommendation of the Smith review that “In view of the low GCSE resit success rates and new GCSE requirements, the Department for Education should review its 16-18 resit policy with the aim that a greater proportion of students without a grade C or equivalent attain appropriate mathematical understanding by age 18. Specifically, there should be fresh consideration of appropriate curricula and qualifications for these students and the extent to which current policy incentivises these to be offered”.

Our report, published in January 2020, outlines a curriculum for a new qualification that focuses on the maths needed for everyday life and work, which also has sufficient rigour to meet the requirements of a GCSE qualification. It recommends that such a post-16 maths GCSE qualification should be developed and that it should have the same status as GCSE Mathematics at the same grade. It should also include a paper that can be taken early as a stepping-stone.

The proposed new post-16 maths GCSE would be available at Foundation tier only (grades 1-5). This is appropriate for the majority of resit students as over 90% of resit GCSE Mathematics entries are for the Foundation tier. Those resit students likely to benefit from taking the Higher tier (grades 4-9) are well served by resitting the standard GCSE Mathematics.

The development of this new curriculum was the start of a process to improve the learning experience for GCSE Mathematics resit students and outcomes for the wider population by improving knowledge of, and attitudes towards, maths. It will require the Government to act upon the report’s recommendations and amend the requirements for resit GCSEs to allow this new post-16 maths GCSE. The DfE could then work with Ofqual to develop detailed content and regulatory requirements for the proposed new post-16 maths GCSE, opening the way for awarding bodies to develop the qualification.

Project Outputs


Educational policy in England requires full-time students aged 16–18 who have not achieved grade 4 or higher in GCSE Mathematics to continue studying maths, with those who achieve grade 3 in GCSE Mathematics at age 16 required to continue to study towards GCSE Mathematics post-16. This often results in young people lacking confidence in maths and the prospect of ‘more of the same’, combined with low expectations of success, can be very de-motivating. As a result, many young people do not achieve their full potential and can be left with a lasting sense of failure and a reinforced negative attitude towards maths. This may prevent them from engaging with learning and using maths in the future.

The resit success rate is also very low. Over 180,000 people resat GCSE Mathematics in the summer of 2019 (the year in which the exams were last taken), but only 22.3% achieved the target of at least a grade 4 (a Level 2 pass grade). Provisional results published on 16 January 2020, indicated a pass rate of 26.5% for the 53,270 people who resat GCSE Mathematics in November 2019. The pass rate for the November session is usually higher than for the summer session because those who came closest to passing it at age 16 tend to resit it at the earliest opportunity.

GCSE Mathematics, which is designed for 14-16 year olds, attempts to do two things: prepare students for further academic study of maths, and develop the knowledge and skills to apply maths to practical problems encountered in the workplace and other aspects of life. Most resit students need to focus on the latter.

Further Information

The Nuffield Foundation is an independent charitable trust with a mission to advance social well-being. It funds research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare, and Justice. It also funds student programmes that provide opportunities for young people to develop skills in quantitative and scientific methods. The Nuffield Foundation is the founder and co-funder of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and the Ada Lovelace Institute. The Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation. More information is available at

Further information about the project is available in this MEI public statement.

Please get in touch if you would like more information.

Funded by the Nuffield Foundation