Bright 14-year-olds will do academic maths while less able pupils will take a practical "maths for the citizen" course under far-reaching proposals for the ailing subject.
The plans, part of a major Government inquiry into the future of maths, were presented to Education Secretary Charles Clarke last month and will be finalised in the autumn. They are the latest attempt to revamp the subject in the light of plummeting student interest and continuing teacher shortages.
An interim report seen by The TES shows the "mathematics for the citizen" course in basic numeracy would aim to give teenagers sufficient expertise to cope with numbers in everyday life. There would be a separate course for 14 to 16-year-olds interested in taking the subject further academically.
Brighter students would also do the basic numeracy course. The report proposes making it easy for those on the less academic route to progress to the other course. The Maths Association hopes that most students would do both courses.
Post-16, students would get four maths options, based on what they planned to do on leaving school:
* a vocational course, developed with employers, in maths for the workplace;
* a traditional course for those planning to study the subject or a maths-based science at university;
* two specialist courses for those interested in a degree in social sciences or humanities.
This week, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority announced plans to change maths A-level from 2005, apparently making it easier by allowing students to spend more time mastering basic pure maths.
The inquiry's proposals represent a long-term vision, designed to tie in with former chief inspector Mike Tomlinson's controversial plan for a baccalaureate-style diploma to replace A-levels and GCSEs. They might not be implemented until 2012.
However, some observers say the proposals may lead to changes in existing qualifications. For example, students might be offered the chance to sit two GCSEs in maths: one in numeracy and the other in wider mathematical concepts.
Other recommendations from the nine-month inquiry include using more undergraduate and postgraduate students to support teaching in school classrooms.
The inquiry team - led by Professor Adrian Smith, principal of Queen Mary College, London - also pushes for bigger financial incentives for maths teachers. Figures this week revealed a 20 per cent drop in the number of secondary maths trainees in the past six years.
The report identifies 29 problems for the subject, from the fact that many are happy to own up to mathematical ignorance, to the dearth of maths skills in the workplace.
A-level entries fell last year, from 66,247 to 53,940. Many were put off by the difficulty of AS-level, which a third of candidates failed.
The report presents initial findings of the inquiry by Professor Smith and his eight-member steering group, who received more than 150 submissions from maths bodies and other organisations.
But Professor Alan Smithers, of Liverpool university, questioned whether such radical change was needed when the numeracy and key stage 3 strategies were poised to improve secondary students' basic mathematical knowledge. He said splitting pupils up at 14 was "forcing choices on students a bit early".
Changes announced this week let students gain maths A-level with four AS and two of the harder A2 modules. All other A-levels require three AS and three A2 units. There will be two applied and four pure units.
Qualifications and Curriculum Authority chief executive Ken Boston denied this meant A-level maths would be getting easier.
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