Further concerns

11th May 2001 at 01:00
A new ASA-level structure doesn't fit the bill for Further Maths, says Charlie Stripp.

Further Mathematics is a subject that is valued greatly by the science, maths and engineering communities. Recent initiatives from the Mathematical Association, which leafleted every secondary school in support of Further Maths, and MEI (Mathematics in Education and Industry), which is developing distance-learning support for Further Maths, are symptomatic of the concern in these communities that many more students should take Further Maths at A or AS-level.

The standard Mathematics A-level is an excellent general maths qualification. However, it is not designed for the most talented, and never has been in the 50 years that we have had A-levels. It does not stretch the most able students, nor does it include some very important topics such as complex numbers and differential equations (beyond the most simple). It also fails to give students the algebraic fluency that many university courses require. Further Maths addresses these problems directly. Students who are lucky enough to take it in the sixth-form have a major advantage over their peers at university.

Since the early 1980s, the number of students taking Further Maths qualifications has fallen by two thirds, to below 6,000 last year, though this is a recovery from the low point of below 4,000 in the mid-1990s. The main reasons for this decline have been teacher shortages and the high cost of running small classes. Now, with he advent of Curriculum 2000, there is a danger that a misunderstanding of the nature of maths, combined with inflexible bureaucracy, could present a new threat to Further Maths, resulting in a lowering of standards. This is because:

* In this country, Maths and Further Maths at A-level include pure maths, statistics and mechanics. In other countries, these would be classed as three separate subjects. Students are now being encouraged to broaden their choice of subjects in the sixth-form. Many students (and their advisers) do not appreciate the increased breadth achieved from choosing Further Maths; instead they perceive it as narrowing their options.

* The new AS and A-level structure means students are expected to complete an AS in each of their subjects in the first of two years of advanced study, then extend some of their first-year subjects to full A-levels in their second year. Further Maths cannot fit this format satisfactorily. By its very nature, it builds on work covered in the standard maths A-level, so it is impossible to complete a Further Maths AS-level in the lower-sixth year. Further Maths fits neither the Curriculum 2000 format, nor its associated funding mechanism.

QCA officers are aware of these problems and hope to help resolve them. To save this key subject, special arrangements must be made to enable it to fit into the Curriculum 2000 initiative.

Charlie Stripp is chair of the A and AS subcommittee of the Mathematical Association

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