Greater expectations

19th May 2000 at 01:00
Think big, says Steve Abbott of the MA, and standards will rise

What should a keen secondary maths teacher be thinking about in the year ahead? First there are the changes driven by the Government. On the curriculum side there is work to be done on the national numeracy strategy framework for Year 7, the new version of the national curriculum, the changes to A-levels and the introduction of key skills for all sixth formers. Then there is the continuing drive for improvement, as well as ICT training for all, new appraisal arrangements and the pay threshold. On top of all this, it is Maths Year 2000 - a golden opportunity to boost the image of maths.

Three further issues deserve space on many departmental and school development plans: the continuing problem of transfer and the first year at a new school; how to develop a cross-curricular dimension to maths; and how to raise the profile of maths in the school.

The Department for Education and Employment is so concerned about the transfer issue that it is setting up a key stage 3 pilot scheme in 13 local education authorities. In maths the biggest issue is that above-average students mark time in their first year at secondary or upper school. Neither the new national curriculum nor the framework for Year 7 addresses this seriously. Both seem to assume that Year 6 pupils have not studied beyond level 5. Indeed, there is a table in the framework saying that Year 7 pupils should be retaught material from level 5. Yet the most common complaint from parents is that able children are switched off maths by the lack of challenge in Year 7. On the other hand, provision for gifted and talented pupils is a major strand in the Excellence in the Cities project. Here, the advice seems to be that the most able students should take GCSE in Year 7.

In a move that would be funny if it were not so serious, the new national curriculum now has a separate programme for KS3 that no longer includes level 8 material in the recommended programme of study. Experienced teachers will ignore the implied suggestion that trigonometry, for example, should be delayed until KS4. They will know that, while few achieve level 8 in KS3 tests, the trigonometry studied in Year 9 is essential groundwork for higher-level GCSE and A-level. I believe that the best way to improve GCSE standards is to raiseexpectations; this means altering schemes of work that lock up to half the year group into foundation level. The Government target of 75 per cent of KS2 pupils reaching level 4 should be matched by a similar target of 75 per cent reaching grade D at GCSE, which would require perhaps 80 per cent to be prepared for intermediate or higher level.

The new foundation-level programme of study for KS4 offers little to remotivate weaker students. Repeatedly covering earlier work is known to be a poor strategy; many students respond by slowing their pace of work to a crawl. Instead, we need to develop more imaginative approaches, perhaps involving cross-curricular projects with other departments, that make imaginative use of ICT to link the work. For example, land use (geography), design and manufacture (technology), data handling and calculation (maths) could be brought together in a project that investigated the environs of the local football ground and designed a new stand. The maths involved would include analysing information collected by the geography department (shared via ICT), calculating the capacity of the new stand, drawing scale diagrams, considering sightlines, estimating facilities required. Local business people, a favourite footballer, an architect and the local press could be brought in to judge the results.

Cross-curricular projects across phases could be part of a response to the transfer issue. In KS3 they could give a focus to Year 8 work or be linked to assessments in using and applying in Year 9. They could involve art (for example, wallpaper designs and symmetry, making use of drawing software), science (looking at speed and road safety, making use of spreadsheets and data logging), modern languages (producing a maths worksheet in the target language, suitable for younger pupils) or physical education (measuring fitness, devising a scoring system for a pentathlon). Notice how cross-curricular work, raising the profile of the department, remotivating students and developing teachers' ICT skills can be brought together in a single project. What is more, it will look good on the threshold assessment.

Steve Abbott is deputy head at Claydon high school, Ipswich, and president for 2000-2001 of the Mathematical Association, 259 London Road, Leicester LE2 3BE. Tel: 0116 221

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