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Maths split plan on hold

'Citizenship' plans risk labelling pupils academic or less able at 14, reports Warwick Mansell

Far-reaching plans for the future of maths teaching are to be put on hold following a row over a proposed "mathematics for the citizen" course for the less able.

Maths experts complained that the proposal would separate academic pupils from the rest. As The TES revealed last month, Professor Adrian Smith, chair of the Government's inquiry into maths, put forward the idea which would have effectively split the subject into two at 14.

The suggestion, originally proposed by the advisory committee on maths education, was for separate courses, including "maths for the citizen" programmes, covering basic numerical concepts, and separate courses for those interested in taking the subject further.

However, at a private meeting to discuss the plans with subject experts earlier this month, Professor Smith, principal of Queen Mary College, London, was met with a series of complaints.

It was suggested that the move would re-create the old CSEO-level division of pupils which the GCSE aimed to redress when it was introduced in 1988.

There is widespread agreement in the maths community that the present GCSE system fails to stretch the most able, or to motivate those who are struggling with the subject.

The row centred on how to respond to this problem. In particular, it focused on the proposed design of five learning "pathways", allowing students to take courses which are tailored to their eventual plans to enter either employment or university.

Several at the meeting took issue with the fact that the proposals offered no chance for pupils to transfer from vocationally-orientated courses to more academic ones after the age of 14.

With only weeks to come up with an alternative, Professor Smith's report for ministers next month is expected to leave open how courses are constructed.

The issue is likely to be left for Mike Tomlinson's inquiry into the future of 14 to 19 education across all subjects, which is due to be completed next summer.

Some see this as final evidence that Professor Smith was not given enough time for his inquiry. He had only 10 months to come up with detailed recommendations aiming to tackle the deep-seated problems facing the subject.

These range from the falling numbers taking maths A-level to the shortage of teachers.

There is also understood to be frustration within the inquiry that the remit covered only secondary education. Next month's report may call for further investigation, covering the pre-14 years and focusing on the success of the Government's numeracy and key stage 3 strategies.

However, serious changes for maths are still in prospect in the short-term.

There is some support within the maths community for most pupils to be given the chance to gain a "double GCSE" in maths, for example, giving them a better grounding in the subject.

The inquiry is also developing plans for a national academy for teachers of maths, supported by professional development centres.

Professor Smith told The TES that most people at the meeting had supported his ideas, but it was thought sensible not to come up with a detailed model before Mr Tomlinson's report.

Putting the plans on hold will not necessarily delay their final implementation. Professor Smith's investigation was always designed to come up with proposals which would dovetail with Mr Tomlinson's 14 to19 recommendations. These are not expected to introduce radical curriculum changes until around 2010.

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