On August 15 2024, over 107,400 young people in the UK nervously scanned their results, looking for their grade in A-level mathematics. It is the first time more than 100,000 people have taken any A-level subject in a single year.

Maths has been the top A-level choice for a while, but in 2024 it’s up by 11%. There are a few reasons why this might be, and part of it may be down to students’ greater confidence in their own abilities.

Yet there are actually fewer students studying for any maths qualification after GCSE than a few years ago. So it’s possible that even more young people would like to study maths.

One reason for the increase in maths A-levels is there are simply more 18 year olds in the population – so more people in general are taking A-levels. We are approaching the mid-point of a projected 25% increase of 18 year olds in the UK between 2020 and 2030.

However, the subjects with the biggest percentage increases since 2023 are further mathematics, physics, computing and mathematics. On the other hand, sociology, drama and geography saw the largest decreases.

Even the second most popular A-level, psychology, saw a 2% decline. This suggests that a divergence in subject types is taking place, in favour of highly mathematical subjects.

This is likely to be partly down to increasing recognition by teachers and parents that studying mathematics at higher levels leads to long-term financial reward.

This goes alongside an ever-increasing acknowledgement by the government, industry and education leaders of the usefulness of mathematics and its skills in the modern world, and the opportunities that this brings. Both factors are undoubtedly encouraging young people to continue studying maths after their GCSEs.

However, 2024 has seen a renewed uptick in the number of people taking maths. Between 2015 and 2023 the number of A-level mathematics entries flatlined, always above 90,000 but never breaking the 100,000 barrier until now. The reason behind this year’s sudden jump might lie two years ago.

Most of the people who received their A-level results this summer will have taken GCSE maths in 2022. This was the first year of “normal” exams after the pandemic, but with grades still adjusted to be higher than before COVID-19 following the generous teacher-assessed grades of 2020 and 2021. This means that in 2022, a high percentage of students, around 20%, gained GCSE grade seven or higher, compared to around 15% before the pandemic.

So either the GCSE cohort of 2022 is much more intelligent than previous cohorts, or some students who obtained a grade seven that year would have got a grade six in more normal times. This is important because many sixth forms and colleges only accept students onto A-level maths if they achieve grade seven or above at GCSE – unlike most other subjects where a grade six or five is sufficient.

This suggests that achieving higher grades in their exams two years ago gave more students the confidence to attempt “difficult” A-level subjects such as maths. The number of students getting A or A* in A-level maths this year is slightly up compared to before the pandemic – suggesting that many of these students successfully made the jump.

Interestingly, the inflated teacher-assessed grades of 2020 and 2021 didn’t lead to an increase in A-level maths. This is perhaps because media coverage meant both teachers and students recognised these grades were proxies for “normal” exam grades.

## Decline in post-16 maths

However, a look at students’ subject choices from before the major curriculum changes that took place between 2015 and 2018 suggests that, in fact, fewer young people are studying maths after passing their GCSEs.

Before these reforms, A-levels were split into AS and A-level qualifications, with exams at the end of each year. Students might, for instance, take four AS levels, and continue three of these subjects on to A-level.

Since the reforms, A-levels are taught over two years. While AS levels still exist, they no longer count towards an A-level qualification.

The number of AS and A-level mathematics entries for the five years prior to the curriculum change for maths, which took place in 2017, can be seen in the table below. The entries for 2023 and 2024 – the post-COVID assessment years – are also included.

Entries for AS mathematics numbered between 150,000 and 165,000 in the years leading up to the subject’s redevelopment. Around 90,000 of these students went on to study A-level maths the subsequent year. While more students are now taking a full A-level in maths than did so before the change in curriculum, the high numbers of young people who took maths for one year after their GCSEs has been lost.

The AS numbers from before 2017 show there is an untapped appetite for maths after the age of 16. In 2024 there have also been record entries for A-level further mathematics (taken by 18,082 students) and the “core maths” qualification (12,810).

However, even combining these with the numbers of students taking A-level and AS level mathematics, the number of individuals studying at least one of these qualifications is still lower than the number taking AS maths before 2017. The number taking AS further maths this year (5,927) is also much lower than it was before 2017.

Core maths is aimed at students with GCSE grade 5 or above who don’t want to do a full A-level in maths, but recognise that greater mathematical training will support their other A-level subjects. But uptake has been low: only 7% of students who didn’t take maths A-level took core maths instead.

For 2024-25, the government is offering sixth forms and colleges £900 for every student they sign up to core maths.

We should celebrate the increase in popularity for A-level mathematics. But there may be many more students who would like to study the subject after their GCSEs, but can’t find a qualification that works for them.