A-level maths goes modular

Pupils will follow easier advanced courses from the year 2,000. Nicholas Pyke reports. A-level maths will come in an easier, modular form from the year 2000, despite widespread concern at low standards and Government promises on the "gold standard".

The exam boards are under growing pressure as market forces open up the elite qualification to a much broader range of candidates. Boards have privately confirmed that there are no traditional syllabuses - where everything is examined at the end - under preparation for the next millennium.

The move to stage-by-stage modular courses comes despite Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard's pledge that courses with a final exam will continue to be offered.

The Government's commitment to the gold standard is questioned by evidence obtained by The TES that traditional courses have already been made simpler to ensure parity with modular courses which use continuous assessment. A recent analysis from the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority found that last year's undemanding exam was merely a speed test for the brightest candidates.

University admissions tutors have expressed concern, with one describing the move to modular exams as a triumph of "the lowest common denominator".

Sources from the Associated Examining Board and the Schools Mathematics Project have confirmed that maths is likely to be entirely modular by the next century. The giant University of Cambridge board is still consulting on its plans, but modular courses are enormously popular with schools.

Traditional courses will only continue on a technicality: students can take all the modules at the end, said the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority this week.

Last summer was the first time that large numbers of A-level candidates used "modular" courses in English, maths and science. Modular entries accounted for one-fifth of all the 750,000 A-levels taken including half the entries in some science courses.

The modular A-level comes in six chunks, each with its own examination, although the final module accounts for a larger, 30 per cent share of the marks. This style of exam, in which candidates can resit modules that they fail, is particularly popular among weaker candidates and is viewed as an important way of encouraging more students to take mathematics. Last month the Government introduced restrictions: candidates will only be allowed to retake modules once.

Mathematics has been in turmoil as the number of sixth formers choosing the subject drops and the universities claim that standards of mathematical knowledge are declining.

Dr Tony Gardiner from Birmingham University and a member of the London Mathematical Society said: "There are great advantages with the modular structure for the bottom half of the A-level cohort; they get some sense of progress; and they come out with something. In that sense modular A-level is a good thing - but only for people who are not going to do maths, science or engineering at a higher level. A-level maths has become a matter of the lowest common denominator."

Dr Gardiner believes that the candidates at the top end are suffering, and proposes creating a new, more difficult qualification for those who need more. "Admissions tutors can no longer distinguish good mathematicians by saying 'I want two maths As at A-level'. Many double As are rubbish."

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