Specify the skills;Opinion

20th November 1998 at 00:00
If they ever manage to escape the clutches of the department for silly names, the proposed "free standing maths units", as they are provisionally called (page 3), could prove an important step towards improved numerical competence among adults and the breakdown of the artificial vocational and academic divide.

Served up in flexible chunks of about one sixth of an A-level, these post-16 add-ons are to be customised to meet the mathematical demands of different subjects or occupations. They promise, then, both a means to broaden the currently overly-narrow sixth-form curriculum and to provide a worthwhile and achievable goal for those who need to improve computational or statistical skills at work.

Both are clearly worthwhile: at present too few proceed beyond a modest foundation in maths at GCSE to A or AS level. Other subjects are apparently more attractive - or less demanding - than the advanced study deemed appropriate preparation for maths or physical science undergraduates. Low attainment in the subject at 16 is also a bar to many, even though they may later find themselves in need of more advanced mathematical skills in biology, social science, geography, economics or business studies or in the workplace.

But self-evident worthiness alone will not ensure take-up. In today's consumer-led education a qualification also needs customer-appeal if it is to be viable.

Free standing maths units, even if a chic title can be coined for them, are unlikely to be successfully marketed as must-have fashion objects. So their utility needs to be clearly demonstrable.

As things stand, they will make extra demands on students and staff already in short supply while contributing nothing to a student's university entry points score or a school or college league table standing. And employers are notoriously impervious to change when it comes to new qualifications.

The ultimate users - those expected to give preference in course or job selection to candidates with this qualification - hold its future in their hands. If bespoke mathematics beyond GCSE really is valued, those who require it must be prepared to reflect this, not only in their selection and rewards but also in their willingness to get involved in specifying exactly what skills are required.

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