Calculator question may have simple solution

29th November 1996 at 00:00
I would like to endorse the concerns mentioned in Nicholas Pyke's article on the proposed graphic calculator ban in the A-level mathematics core (TES, November 15) and suggest a possible solution.

While I sympathise with those in university mathematics and engineering departments who are worried about their students' lack of algebraic fluency, banning the calculator for part of all A-level examinations would be counter-productive. Of the 56,000 A-level mathematics candidates in 1995, only 2,764 went on to read mathematics and fewer than 19,000, or under 34 per cent, went on to read mathematics, engineering or physical science at university. I suggest instead that the proposed new "special paper", which will be based on the A-level pure core, should be a recommended qualification for students going on to read mathematics, and should be encouraged for those going on to physics or engineering. This paper, as well as containing more demanding questions, could be strongly algebraic and done without the aid of a calculator.

Unlike further mathematics, it would not require extra teaching time and so could be attempted by any student. It would encourage students to master algebraic techniques if they wished to go on to study mathematics at university, while not dissuading other students from attempting maths A-level.

It is regrettable that there has been no widescale consultation because of the speed at which changes are being formulated and made. Many teachers, academics and examination board officials, however, have worked extremely hard together with the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority since the proposed core was published three weeks ago. It is to be hoped that its many shortcomings (of which the non-calculator paper is just one example) can be ironed out. It becomes obvious that this is not possible, the decisions must be put off for a year to allow more thought on the matter.

It is easy to identify potential problems due to changes in the mathematics core but the new general rules for A-levels will have a profound, and as yet unrecognised, effect on all subjects. I feel especially worried that decisions on these appear to be taken without any open consultation.

ANN KITCHEN Research fellow Centre for Mathematics Education University of Manchester

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