Double-take needed on dual maths exam

16th February 2007 at 00:00
Bernard Canetti Is A Maths Teacher And Principal Of Brampton Independent Sixth-Form College, London

Much has been made of proposals to introduce two distinct maths GCSEs in 2010. The first will focus on basic numeracy, the second on theoretical topics such as algebra. This debate offers a chance for a radical overhaul that should not be missed.

An honest evaluation of the current GCSE is needed if we are to progress.

As Professor Adrian Smith said after his review of maths in schools, the GCSE is failing the least and most able students.

This failure must be recognised: nearly half of GCSE maths students achieve below a grade C - a staggering 340,000 pupils a year, many of them disaffected, without confidence in their basic abilities and without a worthwhile qualification to offer future employers.

The mistake has been to make maths a compulsory subject at GCSE. We must ask why. Most pupils have no interest in algebra or trigonometry and cannot relate to it in their lives. It is basic numeracy - now called functional maths - that should be compulsory, and this will form the basis of GCSE1.

Provided the specification is right, this will have a huge benefit for the large number of pupils who are now suffering from a disastrous system. It will provide the opportunity for a high proportion of 16-year-olds to pass a GCSE in maths and learn practical skills needed to operate confidently in the world.

For those who achieve high grades, the current GCSE does not allow for smooth progress to A-level. Most A-level maths students who come to our college are barely numerate, even though they have at least a grade A at GCSE. Few can add fractions, for example - a result of a misguided approach to the use of calculators. Basic skills matter, and the resulting gap is one of the reasons why students find maths AS-level difficult. The proposed dual award must address this problem by ensuring that the second GCSE is more demanding, allowing for confident progress to A-level.

Comments so far are not encouraging. The Department for Education and Skills has said it is unnecessary to take GCSE2 in order to progress to A-level. This is clearly unworkable. The recommendation from the Advisory Council on Mathematics Education that at least 60 per cent take the new second GCSE is also a concern. This is surely too high (fewer than 8 per cent take A-level) if we want to address the failure in the current system for the most able and for those going on to A-level.

The dual GCSE offers a real opportunity to deal with long-standing problems in maths, but it will be missed unless the specification and design for both are right.

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