A GROUND-BREAKING maths qualification for sixth-formers and adults has been praised by government advisers for encouraging students with poor GCSE grades to improve their skills.
The bite-size courses were piloted last year as an alternative to GCSEs and A-levels, offering "bolt-on" maths to non-mathematicians.
Since then the number of candidates taking the 60-hour maths programmes has increased nearly tenfold. Popular courses include "managing money" and "making sense of data".
Now in the second year of the pilot, the so-called "free-standing maths units" are the first qualifications to bridge the divide between academic and vocational courses.
They were devised after concerns that maths skills in Britain were inferior to those in other countries and that too few 16-year-olds chose to continue with the subject.
The courses have also been unexpectedly popular with A-level maths students. They complement A-level studies by teaching sixth-formers how to apply their maths skills, an analysis by the Government's exam quango, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, found.
Half of a course is assessed by a portfolio of coursework focusing on maths applications and half by a written exam testing knowledge of principles.
This year the courses are being taken by more than 3,700 candidates in 58 colleges and 15 schools, compared to 430 students in 21 centres in 1998.
The courses aim to meet the mathematical demands of different subjects or occupations. Ranging from foundation (equivalent to D to G grades at GCSE) to advanced level (nationally equivalent to an AS or A-level module), they focus on a narrow range of maths skills relevant to other subjects - calculus for scientists, for example, or three-dimensional problem-solving for art and design students.
The QCA evaluation of the first phase of the pilot found it was well-received by students and teachers alike.
The report said: "The units are encouraging post-16 students to study mathematics. At best the intermediate level students in the pilot study would have repeated the GCSE in an attempt to improve grades. Many of those at foundation level would have studied no further mathematics."
Teachers reported that the courses boosted students' interest in maths and gave teenagers who achieved only low GCSE grades an opportunity to apply their maths. Students who took the foundation courses had got at best an E at maths GCSE while intermediate units attracted pupils who had B to G grades.
The most popular foundation courses were managing money and making sense of data, while calculus and understanding mathematical thinking attracted the most candidates at advanced level.
Teachers were generally pleased with the content of the courses and considered they were pitched at the right level.
The QCA evaluation of the first phase of the pilot is on www.qca.org.ukfsmu