Raising the hurdles

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
Will harder mean better? Chris Little opens a two-page analysis of the A-level standards debate.

The QCA's intention to raise the standard of maths A-level is misguided and will result in fewer 18-year-olds with high-level maths skills. Most A-level maths teachers would acknowledge that there has been a fall in the standards of the exam. The reasons are not hard to discover. The first can be traced to the introduction of the GCSE to replace O-level in 1988. The standard of A-level is constrained by the standard of the students recruited on to A-level maths courses. Students can enter with a grade C at GCSE, which requires much less knowledge and skill than than the O-level grade C did. Logically, that affects what may be expected of them after 18 months of A-level work.

The relaxation in maths standards at what used to be O-level and is now GCSE escaped political flak because the qualification itself changed, and there were sound arguments for replacing the two-tier CSE and O-level system with a unified GCSE. The influential Cockroft report in 1982, Mathematics Counts, eschewed the "elitist" nature of the O-level syllabus, accessible to only 25 per cent of students, and subservient to the demands of advanced level, in favour of a "bottom-up" approach. The syllabus was stripped of a lot of algebra for most candidates, and focused on useful real-life maths and problem-solving processes tested through investigative coursework. A grade C pass can now be gained with very little knowledge of algebra. All this content now has to be taught in A-level courses. Teachers who remember O-level will recall that calculus was in the syllabus and it is indeed possible to find O-level questions which would fit into current modular A-level papers.

Recent syllabus development in A-level maths has had to acknowledge the substantial diminution of course content since the change from O-level to GCSE. It has also tried to address the question of accessibility. Research in the 1980s showed that A-level maths was about half a grade harder than other A-levels, so there was a good argument for some relaxation in standards.

If we raise the standards of the exam, it does not take an A-level in maths to work out that the number of students doing A-level will go down, as weaker candidates will be put off. Maths is still one of the harder A-levels. That can be accurately measured by value-added data. For example, an A-level student who gets grade C passes in all their GCSE subjects can expect, based on past data calculate through the A-level Information System (ALIS), to achieve a CD grade for A-level art, a D grade for A-level English language, but only an E grade for A-level maths. If A-level standards in maths are forced up, without similar changes to other A-levels, then this discrepancy will be widened.

Another factor is the breadth of subjects students are tackling. My daughter is about to embark on a GCSE course of 11 subjects, whereas most grammar school students studied eight or nine O-levels. To a much greater degree than before, students will compare the demands of subjects and drop those which they are finding difficult in favour of subjects which will maximise their grades. The situation will be made worse by the new AS-level. The brief for this qualification was that it should be intermediate in standard between GCSE and A-level, commensurate with the standards reached after a further 12 months of work. Modular AS maths standards have not been adjusted in this way - the units are little different in content than the earlier modules of existing A-level schemes, and the papers are to be made harder under the new regulations. AS-level standards for maths and other subjects are moving in opposite directions.

Students will be invited to drop to three A-level subjects in the second year. Except for the most able, and those who are committed to degree subjects that demand it, there will be little incentive to continue with maths to A-level. As head of maths in a sixth form college, for the past 10 years I have tried to encourage all students with a grade C pass or above in GCSE maths to have a go at A-level, if they enjoy the subject and are prepared to work. But now I cannot in fairness adopt this policy: the realpolitik will force me to put off the weaker students, and advise them to do easier subjects. Is this what QCA really wants? Is this what the maths and engineering lobby from the universities really wants? I doubt it.

A more fruitful way to address the problem must be to look to the classroom and to seek ways of improving the quality of teaching and learning at the chalk face. Maths standards must be improved from the bottom up and there are signs that the numeracy hour in primary schools might bear fruit in better standards both at GCSE and A-level. However, raising the hurdle for A-level before enhancing the algebraic output of pre-16 education will inevitably result in fewer students completing the course.

Chris Little teaches at St Vincent sixth form college, Gosport, Hants

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