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Does studying maths help A level biology students?

Published: Feb 14, 2022 3 min read

Stephen Lyon

Mathematics Lead

National STEM Learning Centre

Are you a teacher of biology? Would you consider teaching core maths? What about teachers of other subjects? If so, after reading the blog head to Teaching 11-19 Science to continue the discussion, and find out about support which is out there to help new core maths teachers.

What are the most popular A level subjects in your setting?

According to the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), the most popular A level studied across England, Wales and Northern Ireland is mathematics. In 2019, just over 90,000 students took the examination. In second place was biology (with just under 70,000). Chemistry was fourth (just under 60,000) and physics was seventh (just under 40,000).

But historically, despite their popularity, only 35% of students studying A level biology also studied A level mathematics. This leaves roughly 45,000 biology students that don’t study any mathematics. When they reach university - or the world of work - this can be a problem.

But it isn’t just biology students missing out. According to a 2010 report by the Nuffield Foundation, only one in five pupils in England continue studying mathematics after GCSE. This is the lowest rate of 24 developed countries in the report, behind Estonia, France, USA, Spain, Russia and China.

This lack of continuing mathematics study impacts most post-16 subjects. Recently, The Royal Society and the British Academy jointly stated: “We believe that there is an overwhelmingly strong case for increasing the mathematical and quantitative problem-solving skills of young people and that learners should continue some form of mathematics until age 18.”

This is where ‘core maths’ comes in.

Launched in 2016, core maths is an umbrella term for a suite of level 3 courses designed to help develop quantitative and problem-solving skills, and forms a valuable preparation for the skills students will need for many courses, particularly subjects such as psychology, geography, and natural sciences.

In 2021, just over 12,000 students studied core maths. But even if all of these also studied A level biology, it still leaves over 30,000 biology students not studying any mathematics beyond GCSE.

Clearly, there is more room for core maths to grow as a qualification. However, Professor Sir Adrian Smith’s review of post-16 mathematics questioned whether there are enough mathematics teachers to meet future demand. He recommends upskilling of teachers of other subjects to teach core maths.

Could teachers of biology teach core maths? The statistics elements of core maths certainly complement the statistics in A level biology. In fact, biology contexts can be used to cover core maths content. So students studying both A level biology and core maths, given the overlap in content, could see curriculum time freed up in A level biology as a result.