The rest of the story on modular maths

21st March 1997 at 00:00
At a time when almost all of post-16 education is about to move to modular courses, the article "A-level maths goes modular" (TES, March 7) told rather less than the whole story.

It is true that students starting mathematics A-level in September 1998 will probably have to take a modular course, but this is not so much a sudden change as the continuation of a process that has been going on for a long time. It was in 1967 that the University of London awarded its first modular degrees, in mathematics and science; three years later the Open University admitted its first students. Since then most other universities have followed the same path, at least in numerate subjects. It is hard to understand how university lecturers can criticise A-levels for adopting a structure which they themselves have found makes for more effective delivery of mathematics.

The move to modular A-levels was not, as is often suggested, motivated by market forces (that is, one examination board trying to take candidates from the others). It was born of a genuine determination to overcome the problems of low take-up and high failure rate which have been the hallmarks of school mathematics in recent years and which now threaten our national prosperity. And they are working; their introduction is one of our great success stories. Do we really want to go back to 1975 when 44 per cent of those bright young people who took A-level mathematics failed it and had nothing to show at the end of two years' work? Would we have been right to sit back and do nothing when the number of students taking A-level mathematics fell by 40 per cent over a decade?

The standard of a course has nothing to do with whether it is modular or not: you can make it as easy or as hard as you choose. Any suggestion that modular courses are necessarily less demanding or cannot cater for the most able students is frankly rubbish. London's mathematics degree continues to be held in international esteem.

It is not, however, just mathematics but virtually every other subject as well that is now going modular and for quite different reasons. The Dearing review recommended that the first half of each A-level should constitute an AS-level; this requirement coupled with the natural divisions within most subjects makes it almost impossible to avoid a modular structure.

The sequential nature of mathematics makes it particularly suited for modularity but the same is not obviously true for some other subjects. The transition from a linear syllabus to a modular design is not simple. You have to establish coherent pathways through the subject that can be expressed as sequences of modules. To do this well requires a great deal of time and thought. It needs input from teachers and those with the overview of the subject found in curriculum development bodies, subject associations and universities, as well as from examination boards. There is much more to the process than just setting new examinations.

What is happening now is that the examination boards are being rushed into writing modular syllabuses for subjects with no such tradition in order to meet the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority deadline of June 2. The results will often not be as good as they could be; you just cannot do this sort of work in a hurry.

There is a real danger that a number of botched syllabuses will give modularity in general a bad name and that as a consequence the existing achievements in subjects such as mathematics will be undermined. Those who are insisting on the present timescale would do well to reflect on the old proverb that if a job is worth doing it is worth doing well.


Project leader MEI University of Plymouth Drake's Circus Plymouth

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