Disastrous change of course;Mathematics;Subject of the week

21st May 1999 at 01:00
Steve Abbott storms at the latest proposals on A-level maths

New plans for mathematics A-level threat-en to take the subject on to the rocks. Part of the problem lies with rules which would make all A-levels modular. Other obstacles are rules for content, calculators and coursework. Teachers and examiners who want to influence policy are faced with a further problem - it is not clear who is steering the ship.

Teachers are being buffeted from all sides - new appraisal proposals, performance-related pay, numeracy and literacy strategies, changes to the national curriculum. At Easter I hoped to find out more from those supposedly in the know by attending the joint Association of Teachers of MathematicsMathematical Association conference in Liverpool. The message was clear - no one knows who is in charge.

The Joint Mathematical Council is the representative body for mathematics. Two of its members, ATM chair Ann Kitchen and MA president Chris Robson, spoke at the conference. They seemed frustrated at their inability to get a serious hearing. Chris spoke directly about the JMC's dealings with government. Ann tried to make sense of the A-level proposals.

From September 2000, A-level students will start with three, four or five AS courses, each consisting of three "AS" modules, which may be examined during the first year. They will then continue some subjects by taking three more "A2" modules, leading to A-level awards.

The three-module AS and six-module A-level pattern applies in all subjects, regardless of suitability. The original intention may have been to allow mixing of modules across subjects - an interesting idea, but impractical.

The mathematics course, as envisaged, is further complicated. To be called "mathematics", an AS or A-level has to contain at least 50 per cent pure mathematics and at least 25 per cent applications. Furthermore, at least 20 per cent of the assessment must be "synoptic", a poorly defined term that seems to mean something like "covering the whole course". These percentages are reasonable in themselves, but when multiplied by three or six they result in fractions of modules. The six-module rule has no educational justification - four-module and 10-module courses have been running successfully for some time.

Such peculiar percentages have forced examining boards to be inventive. It seems the following could all appear: AS syllabuses that are 23 pure maths, 13 applications; hybrid AS modules of pure and applications; or modules with unequal weighting. In many cases, getting an AS mathematics without also taking an A2 module will be impossible.

And this is not the only problem. Another rule demands that at least 50 per cent of the assessment must restrict candidates to a basic scientific calculator. The likely result is that A-level students will use their expensive graphical calculators in just one of their pure modules. This flies in the face of much curriculum innovation, which puts graphical ideas at the heart of A-level.

The calculator rule seems aimed at preventing the use of machines capable of symbolic algebra calculus. So why not ban those machines only? Most A-level mathematics is concerned with graphs and functions; graphical calculators enable students to relate abstract ideas to concrete visual representations.

The plan to restrict coursework to a maximum of 20 per cent could also have bizarre effects. Most coursework is likely to be restricted to applications-based modules, which could devote 40 per cent of their marking to coursework. But an A-level in statistics couldn't then combine the statistical modules from the maths portfolio without falling foul of the 20 per cent rule.

So, what are the educational reasons for the A-level regulations? Is one pattern suitable for all subjects? Why have six modules in a five-term course? Why allow scientific, but not graphical calculators? The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the body responsible for the regulations, arranges consultation but seems unable to act on the feedback.

I recently attended a consultation on the national curriculum review. If my experience was anything to go by, mathematics subject officers dismiss suggestions out of hand, saying the QCA's position was already decided at a higher level.

Perhaps maths teachers should talk directly to ministers. Further and higher education minister Baroness Blackstone has already demonstrated a weak grip on reality by telling schools and colleges they can teach students five A-level subjects without any extra funding. The JMC did arrange a meeting with school standards minister Charles Clark, intending to suggest a standing committee to advise on issues related to mathematics. Mr Clark responded by telling them he had hoped to talk about something more interesting. The JMC's request to talk to the Department for Education and Employment official in charge of mathematics policy met only an embarrassed silence.

Of course, the problems with A-level mathematics are not unique. In the wider area, the debacle over the performance management green paper suggests the government is all too ready to put forward half-baked ideas. The devil is in the detail.

Steve Abbott is deputy head of Claydon High School, Suffolk, and president-designate of the Mathematical Association. He is writing in a personal capacity

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