A disappearing number

28th September 2007 at 01:00
Even those predicted to gain top grades are reluctant to pursue maths at A level but some of them hate the subject with a passion. Adi Bloom reports.

Many pupils who achieve A or B grades in GCSE maths do not believe they are capable of completing the A-level course.

And even those who gain an A* often decide to drop maths because they do not see how it will be useful for them in later life.

These are the findings of academics from King's College and the Institute of Education, both in London, who questioned almost 2,000 GCSE pupils from 17 secondaries about their attitudes to maths.

The researchers' enquiries revealed that fewer than 20 per cent of pupils predicted a B grade in GCSE maths intended to continue with the subject at A level. And fewer than 60 per cent of those predicted an A grade planned to take their study of maths any further.

The majority attributed this disinclination to the difficulty of the subject. Several pupils, predicted B grades at GCSE, believed they did not have the ability to cope with the volume of work at A-level.

Others said they were put off by the perceived leap between GCSE and AS-level courses. One boy said: "Everyone... on the course says it's way too hard and not worth it."

Girls were particularly likely to assume that the A-level would be too difficult, even if they were predicted an A or A* at GCSE. One told researchers: "I will get stressed and it will get on top of me and I'm a bit rubbish at it."

Many pupils also argued that maths was boring and that they did not enjoy lessons.

Others were less circumspect. "It sucks, and I wouldn't want to spend any more of my time looking at algebra and other crap," one boy told the researchers. His classmate agreed: "I hate mathematics and would rather die."

Pupils who were predicted an A* at GCSE were often concerned about the usefulness of the subject. One boy said: "The amount of insignificant maths that I will never use is quite big."

Often teachers were blamed for pupils' failure to engage with the subject. "I despise the way it is taught," one A-grade boy said.

The researchers conclude that teachers bear much of the responsibility for making maths attractive. They believe teaching styles that promote better understanding of the subject and its relevance to pupils' lives should be encouraged. This would require professional development courses and less emphasis on targets and league tables.

Advice given to pupils should be tailored according to pupils' gender and anticipated grade. In particular, high-ability girls should be encouraged to have confidence in their own aptitude. And teachers should emphasise the courses and careers that include a mathematical element.

"Changing the attitude of some students towards maths at school level is important for improving participation," the researchers said. "Developing a positive attitude towards maths is a key aspect of students' learning."

'I Would Rather Die: attitudes of 16-year-olds towards their future participation in mathematics' can be found at www.bsrlm.org.uk

* margaret.l.brown@kcl.ac.uk

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