Failure isn't an option;Mathematics;Subject of the week

21st May 1999 at 01:00
Annie Gammon looks at the shortcomings of the GCSE multiple-tiering system and suggests how it could be improved

At the comprehensive school where I teach in east London, students entered for GSCE mathematics at foundation tier often lose motivation during key stage 4; the highest possible grade they can achieve is a D.

Last year's GCSE syllabuses and tiers of entry were slightly revised. Still, the current foundation tier prevents too many students from having access to a C grade.

Further revisions to GCSE are now being discussed, as the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) mathematics team revealed at the Association of Teachers of MathematicsMathematical Association joint Easter conference in Liverpool last month. Will these plans address the problem of my students, that all you can do at foundation tier is "fail" (get less than a C at GCSE)?

At present, there are three tiers of entry: higher, enabling grades C to A*; intermediate allowing E to B; and foundation offering only G to D. Mathematics is the only subject which has these three tiers. Other subjects have a maximum of two.

At Sarah Bonnell school, we have an intake of below national average attainment. We run 10 maths classes in key stage 4: two higher groups, four intermediate groups and four foundation groups (which tend to be smaller than the others).

Students following the foundation course tend to spend time repeating work they have covered before but not understood very well. Some work conscientiously and move on to the intermediate tier, but I am sure that if C grades were available at foundation level, the number motivated to work well would increase. So for this group, reducing the tiers to two, which would overlap at grades C and D, would be beneficial.

At the other end of the ability range, A-level teachers have long bemoaned the difficulty of providing for students who have gained a C or B from studying two different courses at GCSE. It is important to bear in mind that different material is covered in the different tiers and that a B in the intermediate tier, while signifying considerable achievement, does not point to a similar spread of knowledge as a B at the higher tier. Even more so, a C at intermediate tier is quite a different animal from a C at higher tier.

The QCA team are considering four possible options. The first is for a foundation tier and a higher tier. These would each be examined by a core paper awarding grades G to D at foundation and E to B at higher. Foundation students could then go on to achieve a C by taking an extension paper. Higher students could then reach an A or A* by taking another extension paper.

This sounds like a four-tier system to me. An additional tier will only add to our problems. While, at first glance, this model appears to show a C on offer to foundation students, in practice groups would once more be labelled at the beginning of Year 10 (or sometimes earlier) as "foundation - no extension" groups.

A second possibility is that all students take the same core foundation papers, which enable grades up to C to be reached. Students could then opt to take an extension paper which would offer grades B to A*. Against this, it is argued that it rather wastes the time of the higher-attaining students to be sitting papers twice. However, I do not think that sitting three or four hours of easy examinations would damage many students. Those aiming for the higher grades would know that their more advanced knowledge would be demonstrated on the extension paper.

Such a system would certainly ease the agonising over which group to put students into. A common paper for all students could encourage esprit de corps and provide more usable feedback for staff.

The only drawback to this option is that it might well prevent promising students who only got a C on the core paper from studying A-level mathematics.

A third tiering suggestion proposes a different three-layer set up, and a more rigid one. Higher tier would be just A*-A; intermediate only B-E; foundation confined to F-G. This option should not be considered. A structure where students would be shunted into a group where the highest attainable grade was an F is shocking and cannot be entertained.

The fourth proposal is a two-tier structure in which the foundation tier offers G to C and the higher tier D to A*. This would be simple and preferable to the current division into three tiers.

In this model, all students have access to a C. The higher tier would be studied by all students who are certain of getting a C or above, which would give a larger number of students a basis for further study of mathematics. However, it might be demoralising for less able students who aim for a C as a top mark to sit the higher-tier papers and be able to answer only 40 per cent of the questions.

In my opinion, QCA should choose one of the two-tier structures.

Another possible change - although not one being discussed by QCA - is an alteration to the proportions of GCSE allocated to coursework and examinations. This ought to be considered at the same time as tiering. It would give teachers and foundation-tier students another way of being motivated.

Why not increase the amount and range of coursework? Teachers often find that many students produce their best achievements when working on longer tasks. For instance, if we keep MA1, Using and Applying Mathematics, at the 20 per cent currently assessed by coursework, it could also be possible to assess students' understanding of, for example, datahandling or algebraic expressions by a portfolio of coursework.

The GCSE structure has only just gone through some change. It is crucial that any more change is given careful consideration and time allowed for consultation with all interested groups.

I believe that a change offering all students an option of gaining a C would be welcome. However, change should be made only with a promise that no further alterations to GCSE structures be made for 10 years. That would give us teachers time to develop our skills and our students' understanding.

Annie Gammon is a mathematics teacher at Sarah Bonnell school in Newham

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