Stop teaching the unusable;Sounding off;Mathematics

8th May 1998 at 01:00
If we abolished compulsory maths in secondary schools and greatly reduced its dominance in primary schools, we would then have enough time to teach the real basics properly.

The purpose of education must surely be to enable a child to adapt happily and successfully to the environment in which he or she will live as an adult. What most adults need most is high levels of oracy and literacy. Many do not achieve this because they spent so much time learning, or failing to learn, completely unnecessary maths.

Few adults need more maths than the ability to deal with money. Most of the maths that most adults need can be taught in a short time in primary school, thus leaving time there, and in secondary school, for more important matters.

The defence of maths as a "basic" subject depends largely on selectively dated tradition. This is not a rational defence for any action because a tradition with a different date can usually be found for doing something else. Do we really want to go back to traditional child employment, to hanging as a traditional method of child punishment and to the tradition when children were not educated at all?

Apart from the sad waste of time spent trying to learn maths that will never be used, there is another aspect that should be considered. Some children develop an aversion to education - and hence perhaps to authority - from their failures at maths. Success at most subjects in school is a relative matter and pupils having problems can be encouraged by some perceived degree of success to keep on trying. Maths is often a black and white affair in which complete failure cannot be easily disguised.

Some children enjoy maths and find it easy. Such children should be encouraged and taught at a pace and to a level commensurate with their ability. This would be much faster and to a higher level than is usual in schools at present. And this group of children should be enough to provide that pool of adults whose jobs require high levels of mathematical knowledge and ability.

I taught maths in a comprehensive school for 13 years by the usual traditional, inefficient - and now laughably fashionable - system of class teaching. More children would discover an ability and liking for maths if this traditional method were replaced by the extensive use of information technology. It is only in this way that it is economically feasible to supply the unlimited amount of individualised interactive tuition that is essential for each child to reach his or her full potential.

Leslie Duffen

Leslie Duffen, now retired, taught maths at Teignmouth Community College, Devon.If you have a strong opinion ona curriculum issue, write to Brendan O'Malley, secondary curriculum editor, TES,Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY

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