Mere window-dressing?

11th May 2001 at 01:00
One head of maths fears the aims may be unachievable.

Mathematics staff at my sixth-form college are dismayed at the hijacking of the A-level syllabuses. Unable to provide a variety of courses for a range of student abilities, we feel that choices now are mere window-dressing. As professional mathematicians, we will strive to make the new specifications work, but we remain reactive rather than proactive.

There has been debate in The TES and elsewhere between "less emphasis on maths between 11 and 16" and "complaints from universities on A-level standards". There is a danger in the present system of supporting the former and worsening the situation in the latter. My colleagues and I predict that 11-16 students will perceive college maths as increasingly difficult, that fewer will continue to A2 and that those who do will be no better prepared for university.

Colleges are constrained both by the lack of continuity from GCSE and by the demands of higher education, which seem partly to have driven the ASA2 bandwagon. Not all ASA2 students continue maths at university.

The student experience this year has not been positive. They cover approximately 33 chapters of their course book in 33 weeks. Staff find it more difficult to pace lessons, incorporate ICT, consider innovation, allow investigative methods and give ndividual help. Students find the pace frenetic, with no time for the consolidation required in a linear subject. They spend too much time on maths and speak of being overwhelmed by it.

Choice is more limited. To fit student needs and university courses, we offered mechanics, statistics and two broad-based applied courses, one with substantial coursework. While in theory three are still possible, the drive will be towards colleges offering P1, M1, S1 and D1 in year one - an easy option but detrimental to students and higher education. Furthermore, the coursework element has been downgraded under QCA instructions. Even the "non-synoptic" OCR module cannot provide a viable, in-depth second-year study to enable students to use all their knowledge. And what of Further Maths?

Something had to give. Supported by an overwhelming number of parents, we decided to enter students for only two modules this summer. Colleagues may remember board representatives at initial meetings indicating that modules were designed to be taken in a 2+2+2 pattern, and how alarmed they were when told that 3+3 was expected by colleges and QCA.

We fear for the ideals of accessibility and broadening the curriculum. The QCA may have a system, but it does not work in practice.

The author is a long-standing head of a maths department


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