Maths split to aid best and worst

20th February 2004 at 00:00
Inquiry will conclude post-16 reforms put thousands of students off further study. Warwick Mansell reports.

Maths GCSE courses are failing the least able and the brightest pupils, the man leading the Government's inquiry into the subject's future said this week.

Speaking to The TES in advance of next week's publication of his long-awaited report on post-14 maths teaching, Professor Adrian Smith delivered a devastating critique of the failures of the current qualifications system.

And he said the Curriculum 2000 reforms, which launched the AS-level, had been an example of "shooting ourselves in the foot" which had put off thousands of young people from studying the subject in the sixth form.

His 15-month inquiry is expected to propose that post-14 maths is split into two, basic numeracy, dubbed "maths for citizens" in early drafts of the report, and more academic courses. While all would take the former, a minority would not study for the academic qualification.

Professor Smith, principal of Queen Mary College, London, is also likely to recommend new courses at GCSE and A-level to stretch the cleverest pupils.

He suggested that foundation tier GCSEs in the subject, aimed at the bottom third of pupils, were failing to motivate youngsters.

He said: "About 30 per cent of the age cohort are entering a tier where you can aspire at most to a D grade, when grade C is the benchmark for academic achievement and for schools' league table performance.

"At the other end of the spectrum, there is a widely held perception that the current syllabus does not really stretch and extend the top 10 per cent."

Post-16, he said, there had been warnings that splitting the subject into AS and A2 qualifications under the curriculum 2000 reforms would not work.

Progress in the subject was far from uniform. Many youngsters take a year to master a third of the concepts in the two-year course, before making much more progress in the second year.

Consequently the maths AS-level pass rate - 70 per cent - was much lower than that for other subjects, and the numbers opting to take the subject fell by 20 per cent the following year.

He said that there were worries about the small numbers taking the subject post-16, but "we have shot ourselves in the foot by a re-organisation which has led kids to vote with their feet".

Mr Smith's findings are expected to dovetail with a recommendation in this week's report from Mike Tomlinson that all students complete courses in maths, communication and information technology.

Mr Smith has faced opposition within the profession for proposing that maths courses should be split up, some catering for youngsters needing only a functional grasp of the subject in later life, and others for those likely to pursue it academically.

But this is likely to be a key part of his report. The continuing shortfall of well-qualified maths teachers will also be a major theme.

It is likely that greater use of computer technology to help schools deal with teacher shortages will also feature.

Mr Smith has addressed the contentious issue of whether maths teachers should be paid more than colleagues to improve recruitment and retention.

News 8

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