Maths guru attacks quality of exams

20th July 2007 at 01:00
Man heading inquiry into primary teaching says maths GCSEs and A-levels are 'not fit for purpose'

the new head of a ministerial inquiry into maths teaching in primaries is behind a recent report which condemned the Government's assessment policy.

Sir Peter Williams, chancellor of Leicester University and chair of the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (Acme), has been appointed to a role central to Gordon Brown's education plans.

He is to lead a review which will seek to define the most effective methods of teaching and learning maths to develop pupils' deeper understanding.

The review will also help with the design of Every Child Counts, an intervention programme for young children struggling with numeracy.

Details were sketchy this week as to who else would be on the review team and what its priorities were.

It is envisaged, however, that it might have parallels with last year's inquiry into phonics, led by Sir Jim Rose, Ofsted's former head of primary inspections.

One area that might prove tricky for Sir Peter is the impact of testing. In its submission last month to a Commons Education and Skills Select Committee investigation on assessment, Acme offered a withering verdict. Its introduction to the 11-page statement read: "Continual testing and practising for tests has resulted in a narrow and impoverished mathematics curriculum and poor quality teaching.

"This seems to explain the failure to raise real standards and the reluctance of students to continue with mathematics."

Many maths exams for 16 to 18-year-olds were not fit for purpose, it continued, with "superficial" test-focused learning to the fore. And government plans to bring in progress tests for pupils when they are ready might accentuate over-testing, it warned.

The select committee's inquiry was abandoned this week, amid a revision of its responsibilities following the Prime Minister's introduction of two separate depart- ments covering school and university education (see page 4).

At the weekend, Sir Peter, 62, a former master of St Catherine's College, Oxford, and president of the Association for Science Education, induced panic among government officials after The Observer reported him as saying there was no doubt A-levels had got easier over the past 30 years (see box, below).

Observers see him as a calming figure who, as head of Acme, has had a tough job in acting as a bridge between an often frustrated maths community and the Government.

The committee was set up under the auspices of the Royal Society to represent maths teachers in largely behind-the-scenes discussions with ministers, although it has become increasingly outspoken.

Margaret Brown, an Acme member and professor of King's College London, said: "He is a very nice man who is obviously also highly intelligent and committed to maths. He has not got an extensive background in primary maths, but he has been learning very fast with Acme. You won't find anyone with a bad word to say about him."

However, the maths review, a centrepiece of last week's speech by Ed Balls, the Children, Schools and Families Secretary, where he set out his priorities, has raised eyebrows.

Primary maths test results have improved dramatically under New Labour. Unlike test scores for English, few have questioned whether this represents genuine gains. In 2003, in international comparisons, English 10-year-olds were the most improved in maths.

Research by Professor Brown found that the numeracy strategy had proved more effective with middle-ability pupils than with those at the bottom of the class. She therefore argues that this could be a focus for Sir Peter's review.

The TES has been unable to speak to Sir Peter.

A-levels are easier true or false?

The Observer's interview with Sir Peter led with his reported claim that A levels are getting easier. However, the issue is not clear-cut.

Sir Peter cited evidence that maths papers now featured equations requiring less depth of understanding, while in physics, some university degrees now lasted four years rather than three because lecturers needed more time to build students' capabilities.

The newspaper also quoted research from Durham University showing that students achieving particular scores in tests at 16 went on to get better grades at A-level in 2006 than in 1988.

But the researchers conceded this is not categoric evidence that A-levels are easier it could just be that teachers are getting better at preparing students for the exam.

Research for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in 2004 concluded it made little sense to try to determine whether exam standards were being maintained, as GCSEs and A-levels had to keep altering to reflect changes in society.

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