It's time to increase the numbers in A-level maths

13th December 1996 at 00:00
The worry about last week's Standards Over Time report, from the Office for Standards in Education and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, is not so much what it says as that it should be seen as important. What matters is that we should have an education system that meets the national needs of today, and that we should have the confidence to plan ahead. We should not be looking back to what happened 20 years ago, as the report and the SCAA suggest.

Maths is a case in point. We have a major crisis on our hands because the number of students taking maths at A-level is too low to meet the needs of higher education. Last year only 41 per cent of those starting engineering degree courses had an A-level in maths.

Between 1984 and 1995 the number of students taking maths A-level fell by 41 per cent -despite an increase in the numbers staying on at school after 16. Undoubtedly one of the reasons is that maths has been harder than most other A-levels, a statement which is backed up by ample research evidence. The other two "hard" A-levels, physics and chemistry, have also lost numbers heavily - 40 per cent and 19 per cent respectively.

The national need is quite clearly to increase the uptake in maths and if this means it must be made comparable to other subjects, then that should be done. What happened in 1975 is irrelevant.

The committee which drew up the present subject core (the essential elements common to all syllabuses) in 1993 under the chairmanship of John Marks grasped this nettle. It reduced the content, making syllabuses more accessible. This year, at last, we saw an upturn in the number of those taking maths.

Since we have had our attention turned back to 1975, let us remember that in those days before the national curriculum, children between five and 16 spent much more of their time on maths than they do now. The price paid for the broader curriculum studied now is losing the equivalent of up to two years of maths. It is a tribute to the hard work and dedication of teachers that students should still be achieving anywhere near the same standards.

The reduction in content of A-level maths does, however, mean that further maths, both at AS and A-level, needs to be promoted. In the past, virtually everyone going on to read maths at university took further maths, but in the past decade numbers have declined. Good mathematicians need to be challenged at school, and it is here that this challenge should be provided. The whole provision of maths post-16 would benefit from a small amount of extra funding for those who take further maths as a fourth subject.

And before anyone says it, this is not lowering standards. Real standards are measured by what students come out knowing. Altering the knowledge required does not automatically mean lowering standards. If making A-level maths a little easier means 50,000 extra students take it instead of stopping at GCSE, that surely would be judged as raising standards by any observer.

The problems besetting maths are not simple and will only be made worse by the quick-fix solutions being proposed: a return to 1975, banning calculators, the SCAA's instant new subject core (the authority has just finished consulting on new core elements for all A and AS subjects). What we need is a proper analysis of our national need, leading to a master plan, agreed by all concerned including, critically, the teachers who will have to deliver it. This will not happen on its own; it needs government to set up a full and independent enquiry. Until then, hands off please.

Roger Porkess is project leader at the Centre for Teaching Maths, a leading supplier of maths syllabuses

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