Let maths stars shine

19th March 2004 at 00:00
High-achievers should have their own more challenging curriculum and exams. Warwick Mansell reports

High-achievers in maths should have their own "star curriculum" from the age of 11, one of Britain's experts on the subject has proposed.

The first detailed reaction to last month's highly critical report on the subject's teaching suggests radical changes to teaching for the top quarter of maths pupils.

The curriculum for children with an aptitude for maths would involve more work on multi-step problem-solving, an area where there appears to be a lack of understanding.

The move risks being branded as elitist. But the Mathematical Association is broadly supportive.

The idea was put forward in a paper by Dr Tony Gardiner, a reader in maths at Birmingham university, presented to a conference at the Royal Society, London, last week.

In a 170-page report, Professor Adrian Smith, principal of Queen Mary college, London, identified a catalogue of failings in maths over the past 20 years.

Dr Gardiner envisages the top one or two sets in each school being given access to an adapted curriculum, with harder problems often straddling two or more areas of learning.

For example, pupils could be expected to use algebra to describe patterns and relationships in geometry. At all stages, they would be challenged to think laterally.

Key stage 2 and 3 tests and GCSEs would also feature separate "star" papers for the more able, with youngsters able to achieve a level 5* at age 11, a level 78* at 14, and a "more meaningful" A* at GCSE.

Dr Gardiner told the Advisory Committee on Maths Education conference that teachers were being forced by league tables, the curriculum and the requirements of exams to teach the subject superficially.

Exam questions routinely "led pupils through" difficult problems, providing clues on how to get to an answer which they might have struggled to reach themselves.

As a result, children were developing a mechanistic, rule-following approach, which meant many were arriving at university unable to do problems an 11-year-old could tackle with good teaching.

Dr Gardiner said this also contributed to a slump in the numbers taking maths A-levels from 85,000 in 1989 to 56,000 last year.

The Government's approach to nurturing talent was founded mainly on encouraging youngsters to take GCSEs early. But most experts said this perpetuated superficial teaching.

Professor Smith has called on the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to devise an "extension framework" for high-achievers throughout secondary school.

The QCA, however, has been cautious in its response. QCA officials who spoke at the conference did not divulge their plans. The Government has also not yet said how it will respond to the Smith report.

A QCA spokesman said that the existing curriculum already provided opportunities for gifted mathematicians to stretch themselves.

The authority would await the Government's reaction to the Smith report before deciding what further action to take, but this was likely to build on existing provision for talented youngsters.

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