'Bias' fears as centre reviews stats

14th January 2005 at 00:00
The reform of maths teaching has been put at risk by the award of a contract to survey teachers on the place of statistics in secondary lessons, leading academics have claimed.

To the amazement of maths specialists the Royal Statistical Society's centre for statistical education is to investigate teachers' views on whether its own subject should be downgraded within maths GCSE.

Tony Gardiner, reader in maths at Birmingham university, warned that any bias by the centre could see pupils continuing to spend too much time on statistics, leaving them struggling to master the basics of algebra and geometry.

Last year's report by Professor Adrian Smith on the crisis in maths teaching raised concerns that pupils were spending a quarter of their time at GCSE on data handling, much of it spent compiling figures for coursework projects, and not enough mastering pure maths.

Professor Smith recommended a review of the 14 to 19 curriculum, which would recognise the need for pupils to spend more time on topics such as algebra and geometry, and suggested data handling could be taught in other subjects, such as biology or geography.

But this brought a stinging response from the Royal Statistical Society. It warned that the move put at risk the teaching of statistics as a coherent subject, and worried about non-specialists teaching the subject.

So when the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority awarded the contract to carry out the review recommended by Professor Smith to the centre, based at Nottingham Trent university, concerns were raised about its impartiality.

Barbara Ball, of the the Association of Teachers of Mathematics, said: "The centre has the expertise to carry out this review, but they may well have a biased point of view."

Sue Singer, the Maths Association's president designate, said: "We are very concerned that nothing will change, and that pupils will not have enough time to spend on algebra and geometry. They will go on to AS and A-level study without having mastered these core concepts, which could put at risk the future supply of maths undergraduates, and potentially, teachers of the future."

Gerald Goodall, director of education and professional affairs at the RSS, said of the claims that the centre would not downgrade statistics within maths as "an affront to the professionalism of the people who run the centre".

If the two-year survey found in support of Professor Smith's recommendations, much of the teaching of statistics would be transferred to other subjects, he said.

He added: "There are no preconceptions in the centre's work and it is utterly and totally unprofessional, and highly objectionable, to say that there are preconceptions associated with it."

He would not say, however, whether statistics would be downgraded within maths GCSE if the review found it was impractical to teach it in other subjects.

A QCA spokeswoman said that the centre would not be making recommendations, but simply surveying teachers on where statistics should be taught within the curriculum. She added: "We have complete trust in their objectivity."

Professor Smith's recommendations, if implemented, would affect GCSE courses before the possible introduction of a diploma to replace GCSEs and A-levels from 2014.

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