Examinations: Mathematicians divide with exam boards on textbooks

18th September 2009 at 01:00

Exam boards are encouraging teaching to the test and narrowing the curriculum by endorsing textbooks and allowing their examiners to co- author them, senior mathematicians claimed today.

The Institute of Mathematics and its Applications is calling for Ofqual, the exams regulator, to prevent the boards from gaining any commercial advantage from the sale of textbooks.

Its concerns are shared by the London Mathematical Society. Chris Budd, chair of the society's education committee, said: "I understand that in some cases the chief examiner is a co-author of the recommended textbook, which is hardly healthy for a competitive textbook market - or for students.

"With the exam boards having so much control over publishing, mathematics is becoming a pass-the-test subject.

"Which means new students arrive at university without the understanding we would expect."

The two organisations claim that all three of the big exam boards in England are endorsing, and allowing examiners to co-author textbooks.

The Institute says the practices have taken hold in the past decade with the introduction of modularised exams.

Board-endorsed textbooks are being produced with a narrow focus on particular exam modules and the style of question used in that module.

This leads to schools spending more money on textbooks and fragments the market, making it much harder for other publishers to come in with different, more innovative approaches, the institute claims.

Chris Belsom, chair of the institute's schools committee, said: "Teachers are finding they have little choice in the books and resources they use. Texts are very examination focused and are often dull and uninspiring.

"This is stifling their ability to teach innovatively and using a variety of approaches, which in turn is restricting the mathematical education which their pupils receive. And of course when exam specifications change, these textbooks become obsolete, forcing schools or colleges to spend more money staying up to date."

Good examiners do not necessarily make good writers of textbooks, and exam board endorsement is acting as a restraint of trade, according to the institute.

Spokeswomen for AQA and OCR boards said they endorsed materials that provided quality support to schools, but it was up to teachers to decide what to use.

Examiners were prevented from using their association with the boards for commercial purposes. But they were self-employed and boards had no legal right to stop them from working for other organisations.

An Ofqual spokesman said: "Teachers who become examiners gain a wealth of experience and it is right that they should be able to share this experience with others for the educational good of pupils and students. But there are limits to what can be allowed."

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