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Problems add up for maths

An underlying note of warning has been sounded this week in two separate reviews of mathematics. Teachers may be pushing pupils through the various assessment stages too quickly, with the result that their knowledge is not sufficiently consolidated. In other words, depth is being sacrificed in an unseemly acceleration towards the next level.

This may well be the reason why both the Assessment of Achievement Programme (AAP) report into 5-14 maths and the HMIE Improving Achievement in Mathematics report both identify weaknesses at the primary-secondary transition phase -problems which, it seems, may linger through to S4 and are not corrected until the S5-S6 stage when, presumably, only the strongest pupils continue with the subject.

The ripple effect does not stop at the end of secondary, however. While S5-S6 maths attainment fares well in the reports, recent comments from mathematicians in higher education suggest that university entrants lack the depth of knowledge and understanding of the subject required in their first year of university and that at least part of that year is having to be spent on consolidating old ground. That, ironically, is what secondary maths teachers say they have to do in S1.

While problems at all transition stages have become almost a permanent feature of any HMIE report one cares to pluck off the shelf, the issue has gained a fresh piquancy with moves by more and more schools to use the relaxation in age and stage regulations to embark on Standard grade and Higher courses earlier. HMIE reports that the introduction of Standard grade courses in S2 and S3 is not, as yet, raising attainment. It is early days perhaps, but such a finding will be met by sage nods and "I told you so" comments from those teachers who believe that pupils should not be facing their first public examinations at 14.

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