Do we let teens drop maths?

13th August 2004 at 01:00
The Government wants to make maths compulsory for all to the age of 18. Is this a recipe for disaster?

There is a crisis in maths teaching in England. The number of A-level candidates continues to fall and fewer students are starting maths degrees, resulting in fewer creative, well-qualified students who want to teach the subject.

Much of the teaching in schools is now undertaken by staff who are under-qualified or who were trained overseas. There is a booming maths supply business.

So what does the Government propose to alleviate this crisis? To make maths compulsory from 14 to 18. This is a recipe to alienate teenagers from maths completely and further damage the subject at degree level.

Many pupils are put off by maths as it seems tedious (and hence difficult), unrelated to their interests and irrelevant to their career plans. These demotivated pupils often disrupt classes. This should not be happening.

Let us look at the evidence. Do we really all need higher mathematical skills for future life? To anyone outside the profession, the answer must be no. The world is now a far more automated place, with little need even for cash exchanges - the smallest shops use barcodes and automatic change technology.

Yes, we all do need an understanding of numbers and the ability to estimate so that we can check whether automated results are of the correct order of magnitude, but this should be covered in depth at primary school. Many young people also need to be able to read and understand spreadsheets in their future work but this is not maths as we know it.

Of course, for some pupils, there is a need for deeper study. For example, many problems in maths teaching would disappear if, as in continental Europe, future primary teachers had to continue their study of the subject to at least the equivalent of an AS-level. Potential software technicians also need more study.

However, I contend that the average young person will need little maths in their future life.

If we make the subject optional at age 14, pupils would opt in - they would take it because they want to. We would have classes of pupils who enjoyed the subject and wanted to pursue it in different ways. Crucially, as well as traditional academic courses, we should have more practical courses with problems genuinely relevant to real life, rather than the contrived situations so beloved of examiners.

Over the past two years, GCSE maths has introduced compulsory statistics coursework. It seemed a good idea at the time - and if pupils and teachers had been allowed to pursue their own interests, it would have been a success.

Alas, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority insisted on strict marking criteria. so throughout the land every pupil ended up struggling with "hypothesis tests", "stratified samples" and interpreting the data.

Such material is only appropriate to the small minority interested in statistics. For most it is a meaningless exercise that takes hours of boring work. At the end of the course, many pupils still have no concept of what a hypothesis test actually means. Rather than inspiring students, the coursework has undoubtedly put even more off taking mathematics at a higher level.

So let us have some common sense. Make maths optional at age 14 and provide academic, practical and vocational courses that cater for the varied interests and expertise of pupils.

The academic course should act as a foundation for A-level. The practical course should relate to the interests of students (for example, travel, music, sport, media and design) while the vocational course should be integrated into practical work. Let pupils choose what suits them - including the option to drop the subject.

Maths should be an exciting, creative and, at times, useful discipline. By making the subject optional at 14, in the short term we will have better-motivated classes. In the long term we will raise the number of young people who want to teach maths. They will have enjoyed the subject at school, having experienced its excitement, beauty and, at times, its relevance.

Professor David Burghes is director of the centre for innovation in mathematics education at the University of Exeter

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