Maths - Life should add up properly

Understanding quadratic equations is no use if you can't budget. Mark McCourt aims to make practical maths count

Mark McCourt

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It's a new year, and time for new QCA standards for functional skills in maths to kick in. The standards, an integral part both of the new key stage 3 and 4 national curriculum and of the new diplomas, are a response to widespread anxiety about how maths fits in to the real world.

Everyone's heard stories about students who answer questions on exam papers, but can't calculate how much money they need to earn to get a mortgage, the risk of being struck by lightning, the odds of winning the lottery, whether they are paying the right tax, and so on.

New GCSEs are already piloting functional skills. From 2010, a pass in functional mathematics at level 2 will be a requirement for GCSE mathematics at grade C or above. What does this mean in the classroom?

Functional skills focus on learning mathematical processes, rather than just a set of topics. It's an approach Susan Wall, who teaches at the Minster School in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, has used for some time.

She says: "I try to get students to think, be active and not just apply rules. The difficulty is not the content, but students learning how to tackle a problem, finding what information they need and choosing the maths to solve it."

Susan might get a Year 7 class wrestling with fractions to cut up chocolate bars and biscuits. "It's pretty messy," she says, "but it brings up all sorts of issues, from them thinking 15 must be bigger than 16 because the bottom number is bigger, to the common linguistic error of `a bigger half and a smaller half'. At the same time, they are encouraged to explore equivalent fractions and addition of fractions using their edible pieces, thus enabling them to understand the whole picture of fractions."

Year 11s might choose a car loan by comparing the interest-rates on deals, then justifying their choice in as many different mathematical ways as possible, not forgetting other factors affecting real-life decisions (such as budgets).

Functional maths is about applying real maths. Lest anyone doubt there is a need for it, with able children as well as the less able, Susan Wall likes to use Justin King, chief executive of Sainsbury's, as an example of how mathematical theory differs from reality.

Reporting a percentage growth in sales for a financial "quarter", he points out that it was a four-month quarter (mathematically that's a third of the year).

The National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM), suggests the following:

- Help learners to find and define the task.

- Evaluate information and its relevance to the task.

- Decide what information is required to solve the remainder of the problem.

- Explain their reasoning.

- Draw together skills in many mathematical topics and use these skills to solve a single problem

Mark McCourt is assistant director, secondary at the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics

For more help on functional maths


Lesson plan from a Leeds teacher:

Links to the other articles in the Maths Subject Focus

Primary Maths - How guided maths can be a golden opportunity for pupils to find their voice

Fuel their excitement - Take a class of primary pupils, add practical activities and Formula 1.

Working round the clock - Ensure pupils remember a subject by getting them to set up dates and share information

Money talks - Helping pupils understand money

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Mark McCourt

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