Calculated to ruin our chances

13th December 1996 at 00:00
Revisions to the A-level maths syllabus will do little for national standards, says R H Barbour.

When the national curriculum was brought in, many of us warn-ed that it bore dep-ressingly little relationship to the subject known as mathematics.

It adopted a view that mathematics is inductive. It all but abolished algebra. Geometry was so destroyed that they at least changed the name to the quaint "Shape and Space". Statistics filled an amazing 25 per cent of the syllabus. The accompanying "non-statutory guidance" encouraged the view that standard algorithms were old hat.

With this background, it is pleasing to see from the recent International Maths and Science Survey just how successful we have been. Out of nine major industrialised countries we were bottom in algebra and number, which was entirely predictable and very possibly intended. We should send our warm congratulations to all at the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. They removed algebra from the curriculum and we can't do it. They discouraged number algorithms and we can't do those either.

But they are not stopping there. Another little wheeze has been dreamed up. It is called, "How to mess up A-level in 48 hours". We were assured that a small tinkering exercise was needed to bring maths A-level into line with the Dearing proposals. What we in fact find is a major shift in several different directions at once.

The content of A-level maths has just been reduced to close the gap with GCSE. SCAA now proposes to increase it by about 30 per cent at a stroke. The effect, surprise, surprise, will be to increase the gap. The result will be a further reduction in the numbers taking A-level maths. But perhaps this is the intention? I think we should be told.

The other proposals oscillate between the batty and the bizarre. Calculators become both forbidden and compulsory. The statistics freak in SCAA makes further headway into his empire with a quantum increase in the compulsory core statistics. Comprehension exercises will be compulsory, without any apparent trialling or evaluation.

What SCAA should be doing is planning, in a rational and long term manner, to redress the havoc it has wrought on the maths curriculum. By all means close the gap with A-level, but do this by teaching some real maths lower down. The recent international survey sends us a serious message. We are failing. We are failing because the language of the technological society is mathematics. It is not SCAA pseudo mathematics. It is not Dearing's Application of Number. It is the real historic subject called mathematics. Other countries teach it. Why don't we give it a whirl?

Robert Barbour is head of mathematics at Hagley RC High School in Worcestershire.

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