WHAT should Britain's brightest young mathematicians be taught? And how can more of them be encouraged to pursue careers involving a subject in which they showed so much early promise?
The report, Acceleration or Enrichment? Serving the Needs of the top 10 per cent in School Mathematics, comes down against the increasingly popular practice of entering younger and younger pupils for GCSEs, recommending "if in doubt, don't".
The document, written by mathematics teachers, lecturers and researchers, criticises the new government focus on "hot-housing" youngsters, especially a new initiative which aims to get 500 10 and 11-year-olds to sit maths GCSE this year.
Published by the UK Mathematics Foundation, the report condemns such schemes as "the easy, or lazy option", which have been adopted by schools because they produce an obvious end-product - GCSE grades - but also because there is no real alternative currently available for gifted students.
The authors argue that major acceleration often has unanticipated disadvantages for bright pupils' long-term development. Students may pass their exams early, but their grasp of key ideas may remain fragile, they argue.
Students who complete all school-level mathematics at an early age may be less likely to pursue maths degrees or careers than their peers, the report says. This is partly because such bright 16-year-olds may be encouraged to broaden their education with non-mathematical A-levels in the sixth form.
Such schemes are also extremely expensive to run
and will divert resources away from other pupils in a way that can rarely be justified by any net benefits, the report says.
Modest acceleration - such as entering a top set for GCSE a year early - would be acceptable, but only if it was part of a coherent strategy which would enable students to spend the free year it created doinga maths course which would stretch them further.
It criticises the Government's Excellence in Cities programme for "embracing the ideas of identification and acceleration" of gifted children as a central part of its strategy. The programme calls on every secondary school in these areas to identify between 5 and 10 per cent of every age group as "gifted and talented".
Removing students from their own age group, says the report, "exposes them to public view and to the pressure of other people's expectations".
Instead, the authors call for an extension curriculum to be developed for the most able mathematicians. This would develop core topics in more depth and introduce extra material which does not pre-empt subsequent sections of the standard curriculum.
The report calls on teachers to expect more of their brightest pupils without necessarily demanding that they cover the material faster.
Acceleration or Enrichment?
Serving the needs of the top 10 per cent in School Mathematics is
available from the UK Mathematics Foundation, School of Mathematics, The University of Birmingham.
Telephone 0121 414 6580.
Serving the needs of the top 10 per cent
A successful programme for the brightest maths
* offer an "extension" curriculum to stretch the brightest
20 per cent.
encourage students to set themselves high standards and
to expect to get routine tasks 100 per cent right
discourage strategies which take students away from
children of their own age
offer all sixth-formers the chance to study further
students who take GCSE and A-level early from
dropping maths study in the sixth form in order to gain other qualifications
instil greater competence and commitment to the
subject among school-leavers