Lining up A-levels

21st January 2000 at 00:00
John Berry of the MA on achieving common ground

For the past few months the GCE examining boards have been revising their subject submissions in the light of "expert panels" set up by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Whether the six module teach-test model for Advanced GCE is sound educationally and promotes good learning is not an issue on the agenda. It is a model that all boards are working with. At least we will have a common model, which must be an improvement on the current six modulefour modulelinear offerings. What we are likely to have in mathematics are five specifications from the three examination boards in England together with one from each of Wales and Northern Ireland. Why have seven specifications? Is it time for a national curriculum in maths at A-level?

My own view is that diversity of provision is an improvement on the narrow offering and straitjacket of the national curriculum that is failing our most able students. Yet diversity raises problems:

* School league tables and competition between schools make the choice of specification and examination board crucial; inevitably the standard will vary across specifications. At present grades from one six-modular A-level scheme are roughly one or two grades different from a linear scheme. Mathematical knowledge and skills at a B grade on the modular scheme roughly equates to a D grade on the linear scheme. Should employers and higher education have different entry requirements for the different schemes? Examination boards are commercial companies and high grades lead to more customers.

* Many studens go on to use A-level maths in further and higher education. It is difficult to achieve continuity if the content at A-level varies. Within the new six-module specifications, most students are likely to study three pure maths modules and three applied modules drawn from mechanics, statistics and decisiondiscrete Maths. The pure maths (or methods) modules are broadly the same but others may vary considerably. What can we assume that students have studied? The answer is P1-P3, so the applications modules have little currency.

Perhaps a core for the basic application modules with a common examination across specifications is the way forward. But let's look at the evidence of the national curriculum. For children aged five to 16 we have a curriculum designed by committee where imagination and all diversity has been lost. The past 10 years have seen some exciting teaching and learning initiatives at A-level - for example, the practical work and coursework in some of the MEI modules.

How do we go forward? A common curriculum and assessment could be encouraged for the first modules (ie, P1, P2, M1, S1 and D1) which would ensure the basic building blocks for students. Diversity of provision could then be encouraged for the other modules of pure and applied maths.

Is it really too late for the QCA to sort out the mess and move towards a partial national curriculum for maths A-level?

John Berry, professor of mathematics education at the University of Plymouth, is president of the Mathematical Association, 259 London Road, Leicester LE2 3BE. Tel: 0116 221

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