Experts say new A-level will protect pure maths

17th July 2009 at 01:00
Academics are split over the merits of a controversial new maths A-level that focuses on practical application rather than theory.

Academics are split over the merits of a controversial new maths A-level that focuses on practical application rather than theory.

Education for Reform, a group of 58 teachers, academics and business leaders, hit the headlines last week with their claims that the proposed `Use of Mathematics' A-level is "weak" and will "cannibalise" the subject, encouraging pupils who would have taken a traditional maths A-level to switch to the "easier" option.

But three other groups of maths experts, including university department heads, argue that the new qualification will actually protect the traditional maths A-level by preventing its dilution.

The draft Use of Mathematics papers include questions on carpet-fitting, road distances, income and the weight of babies. In an open letter sent to The TES, the Heads of Departments of Mathematical Sciences say the qualification would increase numeracy levels and reduce the need for remedial maths to be taught in universities, providing there are enough resources for schools to introduce it alongside, rather than instead of, the traditional maths A-level.

It says that while Use of Mathematics would not be accepted for entrance to university maths, physics and engineering courses it might be "excellent" preparation for degrees such as geography, geology, business and biology.

Professor Alice Rogers, London Mathematical Society vice-president, said the Education for Reform report overlooks pupils "who could benefit from carrying on with mathematics after GCSE, but who would struggle with A- level". "It is better to provide a separate qualification rather than risk diluting A-level to accommodate these pupils," she said. "It seems unfortunate if such people are to be excluded from gaining an A-level which extends their mathematics."

The society says England allows pupils to drop maths "unusually early compared to the rest of the world". The new qualification was the best way to allow more to continue. But a press officer later admitted that although the society backed qualifications that would reduce the dropout rate, there were "varying opinions" within it over the benefits of Use of Mathematics being classed as a full A-level.

Professor Nigel Steele, honorary secretary of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, said close monitoring of the uptake of the new qualification could counter the "cannibalisation" risk.

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