The increase in the number of inadequately prepared and often thoroughly unsuitable candidates taking ‘A’ level mathematics, physics and chemistry can be attributed largely to the replacement of ‘O’ level with the lower quality G.C.S.E.

The rigour and difficulty of the ‘O’ level examination permitted only the best students to obtain a grade A, usually in those subjects in which they were gifted. They therefore had a more realistic indication of their academic potential in a subject and could thus make a more informed choice of ‘A’ levels. The ‘O’ level was therefore a reliable diagnostic indicator and served to root out those students who were insufficiently skilled to pursue a particular subject at ‘A’ level.

However, the G.C.S.E.s, with their reduced syllabus content and simplified question style, have removed this screening process. Grades A at G.C.S.E. became so common that a new grade, the A*, had to be introduced in a desperate attempt to restore credibility to the obviously easier examinations. An increasing number of students was sitting a larger array of G.C.S.E.s and obtaining a higher percentage of As and A*s.

On paper these students appear academically gifted in virtually all subjects. In fact they have covered fewer topics and in lesser depth compared with ‘O’ level, but now have the confidence and qualifications to embark upon almost any ‘A’ level course of their choosing.

An immediate consequence of this increase in the proportion of lower quality, ill-prepared, ‘A’ level candidates is the ‘modification’ of the ‘A’ level science and mathematics examinations. The syllabuses have been modularized and reduced in both content and difficulty, and many questions now often resemble easier versions of those which were once encountered at ‘O’ level. Therefore students are inundated with many shorter, easier examinations which encourage them to rôte-learn and not actually think about mathematics, physics or chemistry. The lack of time available for the contemplation of, and reflection upon, the more difficult concepts reduces students’ understanding of their subjects and does not encourage the main quality that is essential for success in science and mathematics – the ability to reason.

Another, but less obvious, consequence is a change in the function of ‘A’ level mathematics. It used to provide an adequate foundation in the subject for those students who wished to proceed to degrees in chemistry, economics, engineering or physics (at the universities which accepted single mathematics for physics entry) or, when taken with further mathematics as a second mathematics A-level, usually accompanied by physics as the third subject, provided the requisite mathematical education for those students proceeding to degrees in mathematics, physics or engineering.

Now it often serves merely to complete the selection of 4 subjects in this new, all-inclusive examination system. Thus students today often select a most curious combination of subjects, for example:

(1) Psychology, English, German and Mathematics,

(2) Chemistry, Biology, French and Spanish.

In the former, if the students are gifted in English literature, they seldom possess any great natural ability in mathematics, so the mathematics syllabuses have been changed to accommodate the predominately arts students. This has resulted in a reduction in the number of topics, the depth to which these topics are taught and the level of mathematical rigour that they require.

In the latter case, the student is studying chemistry in the absence of mathematics or physics, so areas of chemistry which demand a level of mathematical competence much higher than that provided by G.C.S.E. mathematics, have been removed. In fact, the mathematical requirements for Curriculum 2000 chemistry at ‘A’ level are comparable to those which were once expected for chemistry at ‘O’ level.

Luckily, the majority of sixth formers drop their weakest subject at the end of the lower sixth and proceed to complete 3 subjects to ‘A’ level. The weakest mathematics candidates therefore do not often continue with the subject. However, the syllabus alterations that were necessary to assist these candidates obviously undermine the foundation of those able students wishing to pursue mathematics or chemistry at university.  

It is painful to see present day, upper sixth, ‘A’ level science students (aged 18 years) struggling with equations as trivial as x2 = 9, being unable to add 16 to 24 without using a calculator or staring in complete bewilderment when required to find ⅔ of 6. In fact some students did not even realise that ⅔ of a number means divide the number by 3 and multiply by 2, because they had always used the automatic fraction facility on their calculators.

What is more shocking is that these science students have obtained grades A and A* in G.C.S.E. science (double award) and mathematics. One might wonder how students with such high grades could exhibit such mathematical ineptitude. Undoubtedly the far less demanding nature of the G.C.S.E. examinations is largely responsible, but a significant contribution to the cause of this modern-day phenomenon was revealed in 2001 by Jeffrey Robinson 1, the Chief Mathematics Adviser for Cambridge G.C.S.E. mathematics. He revealed that throughout the nineties the examination boards had systematically lowered their grade thresholds to obtain a greater proportion of higher grades. He disclosed that a student obtaining only 18% in a Cambridge G.C.S.E. mathematics examination could achieve a grade C.

Therefore students who would have previously failed ‘O’ levels in mathematics, physics and chemistry are now able to study these subjects at ‘A’ level. The ‘A’ level physical sciences have therefore had to change so that the new breed of virtually innumerate scientist can cope.

This is insulting to those who passed the old ‘O’ and ‘A’ level examinations. Current students are made fools of by these new, inferior ‘A’ levels because they are given syllabuses of lower quality and questions that are often easier than ‘O’ level, but are reassured over and over by politicians that standards are improving annually. 

The consequences of such a dramatic lowering of ‘A’ level standards in the sciences and mathematics are serious and some are outlined below:-

These problems can only worsen if the government refuses to acknowledge them and continues to pursue its blinkered obsession with sending 50% of the population to university. They saw that 5% of the population received a university education and went on to enter the best, highest paid professions. How much better, they reasoned, if we multiply by 10 and 50% of the population receive a university education, then 50% can go on to enter the best and highest paid professions. Do they need to multiply by ten again before they realise the illogicality of their argument?

The author is a private tutor.  

/Campaign for Real Education, June 2004.


Chairman: Chris McGovern.  Tel: 01435 830109 or 07757 715145.  Email:
Vice Chairmen: Jennifer Chew OBE, Jacqui Davies, Katie Ivens
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