Rescue package for maths at 16-plus
The mini-maths courses will be open to all students, whether in sixth forms, colleges or on the factory floor, breaking down the divide between academic and vocational studies.
News of this radical departure comes as Britain is once again seen to perform badly by international standards. This week British nine-year-olds came 17th out of 26 competitor countries in the world's biggest-ever maths survey. Innumeracy is thought to be a particular handicap for the British workforce.
The new style of maths course is also a last-ditch attempt to rescue the ailing general national vocational qualification taken by one in five students, which only last week was savaged in a major report for lacking purpose and for neglecting technical subjects such as maths.
The qualification will take a more rigorous approach to maths than the GNVQ's much-criticised "key skills" in which mathematical techiques were expected to permeate the course. Maths emerged as the weakest key skill in a recent report on the GNVQ by Her Majesty's Inspectorate.
The new qualification will take the shape of a GNVQ unit - a separately assessed chunk approximately one sixth of an A-level in size, requiring up to 60 hours of study.
But, crucially, it will be free-standing, and available to A-level students, trainee teachers, and workplace apprentices as well as GNVQ students.
The maths units will come in many forms, covering subjects such as algebra, statistics and geometry, with the possibility of specific tailoring to the needs of particular industries or groups of qualifications. A statistics course, for example, could be tailored for students of A-level geography, sociology or psychology. Trials will begin this September with a national pilot next year.
The units were commissioned by the Government's curriculum quangos, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications.
They claim the units are a major step towards breaking up the academicvocational divide and could become common ground for all students. They hope the scheme will encourage the "mixing-and-matching" of qualifications promoted by Sir Ron Dearing. If successful, the approach could spread to other subjects: work on French is under way.
A SCAA spokesman said: "This will allow students to bridge the Dearing pathways in all directions. An A-level student could also do one or more free-standing GNVQ mathematics units, as could an NVQ (workplace) student. The purpose of the unit is to increase the take-up of mathematics post- 16. "
Professor Alison Wolf of London University's Institute of Education is working on the new qualification. Professor Wolf also wrote last week's report criticising many aspects of the GNVQ and its delivery of "key skills".
"This is one of the things that will strengthen the GNVQ. I hope it will also strengthen the maths skills of 16 to 19-year-olds," she said this week.
"The idea of key skills . . . is still problematic. Hasn't the time come to recognise that, to stop tinkering with them and do something more far-reaching?"