Free-standing mathematics units

19th May 2000 at 01:00
NEW mathematics qualifications for post-16 students will be launched in September. These qualifications, known as Free-standing Mathematics Units (FSMUs), were developed initially by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, and then success-fully piloted over a two-year period. The units will now become incorporated within the national qualifications framework and be widely available at schools and colleges around the country.

During the next academic year common FSMUs and assessments will be offered by the awarding bodies. Institutions can enter candidates through the awarding body of their own choice. FSMUs have been designed for a wide spectrum of students and a range of starting levels of competency in mathematics.

They are available at Foundation, Intermediate and Advanced levels, operating respectively at the lower end (grades G-D) and the upper end (grades C-A) of GCSE, and into ASA-level expectations in mathematics. The Advanced units earn UCAS points.

FSMUs differ from other mathematics qualifications at these levels. Each unit requires about 60 hours of guided-learning time, focusing on particular aspects of mathematics, rather than on the broad-brush approach of GCSE or GCE mathematics. Students choose units on the basis of immediate individual need and present level of mathematical understanding. They are encouraged to explain their mathematical reasoning and to develop skills in presenting, using and interpreting mathematics.

The units use ICT and stress applications of the mathematical principles to give the mathematics immediate relevance. This is achieved by encouraging students to apply the mathematics of their chosen unit(s) to other areas of their study, work or leisure in order to produe their own portfolios of work. The weighting of the final assessment is 50 per cent for portfolio work and 50 per cent for external, timed written examination.

When an FSMU is chosen to support another area of study, the mathematics and this other area mutually reinforce each other. FSMUs can provide a bridge between academic and vocational studies, and can be used to enhance either.

Karen Pittaway of Kingston College has been teaching FSMUs for two years. She says: "The units provide a positive experience for students who have often found mathematics difficult. We have seen improved retention and achievement. Students are proud of their results and are confident to talk to other people about their maths. The units have also provided skills which would appeal to employers. The use of spreadsheets, and other ICT packages, has increased motivation. Students who at the start of the course were frightened of using computers are now confident in a range of packages. They also have a portfolio of evidence which they can show prospective employers and course tutors. These portfolios are individual and they provide positive evidence of their maths work."

The possession of mathematical skills is now seen, from both an individual and a national perspective, as a key to economic success. Increased participation in the study of mathematics beyond the end of compulsory schooling can be boosted significantly through the study of FSMUs. And it was just this that formed a key recommendation in the second report of the National Skills Task Force, published by the Government last year.

Dr Jack Abramsky is principal officer for mathematics at the QCA, 9 Bolton Street, London W1Y 7PD. Tel: 020 7509 5555.

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