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Maths battles in the A-level marketplace

It seems we have a paradoxical situation that only mathematicians could have dreamt up. Numbers taking A-level maths have dropped from around 90,000 in the late 1980s to about 62,000 at present, standards have fallen, and yet the proportion gaining grades A and B has gone up.

Few mathematics teachers would disagree with the five proposals put forward by the authors of Tackling the Mathematics Problem (TES, November 3) - I certainly support each one. However, I believe that to improve quality and quantity in A-level mathematics, we need to look at several other issues.

Victoria Neumark, interviewing students in a further maths class, writes: ". . . highly able students do not seem put off maths by its perceived difficulty. " Therein lies the heart of the problem. The slightly less able, the grade B higher tier student for example, the student who may well go on to study science or engineering and who needs to be reasonably competent at maths, will almost certainly decide that greater success can be gained elsewhere. What might have been A-levels in maths, physics and chemistry becomes chemistry, biology and geology because the decision to avoid maths means that physics becomes less desirable as well.

The present generation receives far more of its knowledge and information through visual media than previous generations, but mathematics is not as visually attractive as media studies, sports sciences, or even law.

Students are also more aware of their own potential - projects like the A-level Information System at Newcastle have made teachers and students think more carefully about what might reasonably be achieved from a certain GCSE base.

The use of action planning and other achievement indicators reinforces this and has with good reason turned some students away.

So where do we go? I believe that modular syllabuses have helped to solve several of the problems outlined above, but it is probable that their impact has not yet fully registered in higher education.

In my own college, we had 75 students pass A-level maths in the last year before modular. In summer 1995, 113 were successful and we have at present 185 studying A-level maths in our Year 1. This is the result of better results, better retention and a lot of marketing to break down the perceived prejudices.

This story could, I'm sure, be repeated by many colleagues who have gone down the modular route.

Not all is right, however, and the points made by the working party are still valid, but it is important to acknowledge that this change has made the prospects brighter. Further changes will be needed, though, to build this increase into a framework for improved quality and to meet the challenges of new technology.

We have a privileged position up to Year 11 in schools, but we are in the market from GCSEs onwards. We need an attractive stall, selling a commodity that students will value.

As my own principal keeps reminding us - survival is not compulsory!

PHIL TAYLOR Head of school of mathematics Runshaw College Leyland

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