Skip to content ↓

Acceleration in maths – content or cognition?

Published on 29/01/14

One of the most difficult problems facing a mathematics teacher is what to do with the most talented students. The common solution is to enter them for GCSE early, possibly for some form of Additional Maths as well, and then get them started on the A level modules.

This often results in students being left to their own devices at the back of the class for three years, and being entered for numerous exams twice a year (at least before the removal of January modules).


We recently had the privilege of accompanying a group of 20 exceptional secondary school mathematicians to the annual UK-Hungary mathematics camp, one of the training camps preparing students for mathematics competitions leading up to the International Mathematical Olympiad. Talking to the students revealed that most of them share the above experience. Although they always found mathematics easy, they did not enjoys numerous examinations and qualifications, wishing instead to be given more time to explore the subject in greater depth.

Here at the Stephen Perse Foundation Maths Department, we strongly believe that acceleration is not the best way to develop young people’s engagement with mathematics. No one is entered for GCSE early, nor are they taught any A level modules before joining our sixth form. Instead, our curriculum allows the students enough time to enrich their experience through a variety of activities.

Besides the usual staple of nRich problems and Maths Challenges, we are always on the lookout for new activities which develop mathematical thinking. Year 7 and 8 curriculum now includes mathematical comprehension and open-ended problem solving, embedded in regular lessons. This year pupils from across the Foundation took part in the inaugural Beaver Computing Competition which encourages the type of reasoning required in computer science. We also had several teams entered in the National Cipher Challenge , a code-breaking contest which runs over several months and requires internet research and team work.

At the Senior School, Year 7 and 8 are busy playing strategy games in their Maths Club, and they are also invited to submit solutions to the weekly Challenge Problem. Following rules, planning ahead, evaluating and adapting your strategy are all skills required of a successful mathematician. Similar approach underpins our StepIn Maths Masterclasses, an outreach program in which our Sixth Form students engage local primary school children in games and puzzles.

Meanwhile, Year 11 join Maths Extension at the Sixth Form, this term for some Linguistics puzzles. Although the content is not mathematical, these problems require systematic analysis, discovering rules, formulating conjectures and testing hypotheses. Students are encouraged to work in teams and critique each other’s ideas. In the Summer Term, Further Mathematicians will spend several lessons in the library researching a mathematical problem of their choice, before presenting their findings to the class. The IB students, of course, do this as a part of their Internal Assessment.

There is more to mathematics than solving equations. It is about thinking critically, about finding connections, researching ideas and communicating your reasoning. These skills are not tested in traditional examinations, but are crucial for young people to develop. Our curriculum ensures that your students leave school with valuable life skills, as well as valuable set of exam results.