Is maths getting harder? How to help struggling pupils achieve better grades

Maths is hard. If you’re a teacher, you probably hear this a lot.  And it seems that during the pandemic it got even harder, as shown by the results of the recent Ofqual analysis of 2021 National Reference Test (NRT) results.

The analysis shows that maths performance has once again decreased within the previous year, and is now closer to 2017 levels, when the NRT first started. Interestingly, this has not been the case for English, the other subject tracked by the NRT, where results seem to be consistent with 2020. But why is that?

Well, for many students, maths is not something that comes intuitively. And when it doesn’t, it takes plenty of focus, energy and effort to “get there” – three things that don’t come easily during a school year marred by disruptions and closures. And while English is something pupils “practice” (although to a lesser extent!) every day just by speaking and writing, maths needs more deliberate application.

Do students need more help with maths than other subjects?

As an online tutoring company that’s worked with over 1000+ schools in the last few years, we know from experience that demand for maths tuition tends to be higher than for any other subject. As shown in our latest impact report, last year we delivered over 184,000 hours of maths – almost as much as English and science combined

This trend has been consistent throughout the years. Even before the pandemic, we delivered more maths lessons than all other subjects put together (31,000 out of 65,000 lessons attended in 2019 were maths!).

These results are not surprising: subject difficulty aside, we know that a good GCSE and A-Level result can be life-changing for many pupils, unlocking many opportunities. In the words of the Make Happen team, who support young people in Essex as part of the Uni Connect Programme, “low maths grades pose a significant barrier to young people who are trying to progress to university or onto an apprenticeship

What maths topics are pupils struggling with? 

While some pupils find succeeding in maths harder than others, there are definitely some topics that are generally rated higher on the list of “biggest maths struggles”.

In 2019, the last year of ‘traditional’ exams before pandemic-related cancellations and the introduction of Teacher Assessed Grades (TAGs), we looked at the most-requested subject areas our maths tutors covered with their GCSE students.

We also released a breakdown of those hot GCSE maths topics, together with step-by-step explanations and some tips from one of our tutors. While this year students will have advanced warning of the topics covered in the assessments, we’d bet they’ll feature some of those in the list.

Read: Top 10 GCSE subjects students struggle with 

When to consider tutoring help

Based on the NRT results, plus the struggles brought by the pandemic, it’s easy to conclude more pupils than ever before can benefit from some additional support to achieve their target grades (not to mention to ease some of that tricky maths-induced anxiety).

While schools tend to wait to look for tuition until they get the chance to assess the learning gaps for their pupils, we know from experience that starting a programme early in the AY brings many benefits. One of the reasons is that even the most impactful tutoring takes time to deliver change: our research shows that pupils make a whole grade of progress after 10 weeks of lessons, on average – about two-and-a-half months.

Time-wise, the first half of the Spring Term is a sweet spot for starting a tutoring programme, as the results of the November and January mocks will have helped teachers identify the learning gaps of Y11 and Y13 pupils who are preparing to face the end-of-the-year exams.

On the other hand, this leaves pupils, refreshed after the winter break, the time they need to take advantage of a full-size tuition programme (which is typically 10-12 weeks for 1:1 tuition, or 15 weeks for 3:1 tuition via the National Tutoring Programme, depending on the type of support the child needs), and make the progress needed to achieve their target grades. 


Want to know more about how MyTutor can help you support your students? Book a call with us.

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