Ministers have attempted to woo middle-class parents with initiatives targeting the brightest children, but these schemes could undermine high-flyers' grasp of the basics, argues a new report (Acceleration or Enrichment? Serving the needs of the top 10 per cent in school mathematics).
The report also criticises the Government's Excellence in Cities scheme which had aimed to get 500 primary pupils to sit maths GCSE next summer. This pilot scheme has been slow to start, mainly because the staff and administration were not in place. Only 300 10 and 11-year-olds are expected to start GCSE courses this autumn.
Hothousing may backfire and put many of the most able mathematicians off choosing degrees or careers using maths, the report by the UK Mathematics Foundation warned.
Dr Tony Gardiner, of Birmingham University, accused ministers of using children and schools as guinea-pigs in a "political gimickry" experiment.
However, the initiative was defended by Peter Frost of the National Primary Trust running the primary GCSE scheme, whch is funded by the Department for Education and Employment. "Our programmes are not about getting children to jump through the hoops needed to pass an exam. They are about enrichment as well as acceleration. It gives us evidence of a gifted child's potential and provides the brightest 5 per cent of pupils with the opportunity to have a lot of fun doing maths."
But Dr Gardiner, reader in mathematics and mathematics education at Birmingham University, said: "Accelerating pupils ahead of their peers generally delivers short-term results at the expense of long-term success.
"As parents, we may think we understand the difference bet-ween short-term and long-term success; yet which of us could fail to be secretly flattered if told that our child had been identified as gifted?
"The current policy is seriously flawed and risks damaging a whole generation of able youngsters."
Pupils who take A-level maths before the sixth form are unlikely to continue studying it from age 16 to 18. Instead, they are often encouraged to broaden their studies, making it less likely that they will study for a maths degree even though they have a talent for the subject, the report said.
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