There has been much in the news since Thursday concerning the EDEXCEL GCSE mathematics paper 1 which was sat by pupils on Thursday morning. The hashtags #HannahsSweets and #EdexcelMaths are trending on twitter and if you search for them, you will come across a plethora of comment, mainly from disgruntled candidates, who found the exam paper particularly difficult. Indeed there is even an online petition in existence that is calling for EDEXCEL to lower the grade boundary. When I looked just now there was over 10,000 signatures and the Mail (and other national papers) have done pieces on the question paper. There are also some rather humourous comments from pupils who sat the exam.

The questions causing most concern were question 19 a question that begins with working on probability then moves on to solving a quadratic equation:

Personally, whilst this is challenging in that some thought is needed, a far more challenging question was question 23, the penultimate question in the paper, concerning a grain container:

Now without wanting to denigrate or criticise the pupils who are using social media to cry foul, I think we need to take these two questions in the context of the whole paper. These questions, particularly question 23, are designed to stretch pupils who are aiming for an A*. You can’t (and indeed shouldn’t) expect to get an A* grade by just being able to answer ‘standard’ questions – however challenging they may be mathematically. The challenge in both these questions is not in the actual mathematics – provided you understand the AND rule in probability and are able to work out the volume of a cone (formula given in the front of the exam paper) and the volume of a cylinder, you have the mathematics needed to answer both these questions. The real challenge comes from the thinking that leads you to these use these techniques and the particular way you use them. This is where you need to think more deeply about mathematics and make connections to other areas – which is what we would expect an A* mathematician to be able to do.

Clearly a number of pupils came out of the exam angry and frustrated and I can understand why. If you were unable to access these questions, you are going to doubt your ability and exams are high pressure atmospheres at the best of times. However I would say to those reading this who sat the exam and struggled with these questions to put it in context. These two particular questions are worth 8 marks out of a total mark of 100. Provided you were able to do well on the rest of the paper (and I think the rest of the paper was reasonable, particular for a higher level paper) you will gain a very good grade. Also you have another paper to do on Monday (8th June) so concentrate on that now.

What this issue has done is put mathematics in the news which, in my opinion, is a really good thing. It also, I hope, puts paid to the myth that GCSEs are dumbed down versions of the old O levels. However I would also say that these questions are probably a sign of things to come with the new, more ‘challenging’ specification that is soon to be introduced to GCSE mathematics. Of course the work and questions are going to be more challenging, but the government (and therefore OfSTED and hence leadership teams across the length and breadth of the country) will expect results to continue to improve – and if they don’t, don’t worry – we’ll all be converted into academies and be taken over by this plethora of amazing senior leaders that exists – well in Secretary of State Ms Morgan’s head. I wonder if Ms Morgan or her predecessor Mr Gove could access these particular questions?! I had better stop being cynical now!

For those of you interested, I’ve put my own solution to both these questions below: