Sums fail to add up

19th April 1996 at 01:00
Ken Spours and Michael Young compare Labour's plans for 14-plus students with those of the curriculum's Mr Fixit while Jack Abramsky (below right) asks where the maths teachers will come from to put Sir Ron's reforms into practice Lack of resources and a chronic shortage of maths teachers threaten to undermine efforts to implement recommendations of Sir Ron Dearing's review of qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds.

Sir Ron wants much more emphasis on competence in maths and numeracy post-16. The report details of concerns about standards.

But the popularity of maths teaching continues to decline. Numbers of qualified maths teachers in schools fell by 21 per cent between 1984 and 1992. Government figures show, despite special bursaries to attract graduates that applications for postgraduate certificate in education places fell by 10 per cent a year. Research by Oxford Brookes University last year showed there were only 132 applicants for every 100 places.

As Sir Ron's review will have a strong impact on sixth-form and further education colleges, the National Association of Numeracy and Mathematics in Colleges will be heavily involved in implementing programmes over the next few years. A majority of students should be encouraged to take the new AS qualification in the three key skills of communication, application of number and information technology, says Sir Ron. Universities and employers will be urged to stress its importance.

But where are the teachers and money to meet this maths-for-all policy? There is a chronic shortage of qualified maths graduates going into teacher training. The sheer size of new organisational demands make it impossible to produce effective changes in a short time.

Sir Ron focused on the name for the skill application of number. The name has been lifted from general national vocational qualification jargon. Sir Ron complains that maths and science are undervalued in this country. But the continued use of "application of number" will guarantee that maths is never appreciated for what it really does - its powers of inter-relationship, abstraction and compression.

Maths must appeal to different people. There is thus a need for several distinct mathematical pathways through this new AS to cater for the needs of students with different abilities and interests.

As an AS level in key skills is to be introduced we must find how to attract more high-ability students into science and maths. This can only be done with a broadening at A-level, so students don't have to choose three special subjects.

Maths and science should be compulsory strands of a broader curriculum. Many students who do best in GCSE give up maths, having chosen arts or humanities. It is vital we offer them interesting and challenging maths in a broader system.

Sir Ron does recommend broadening the first year of A-level for those who do not know in which direction to go, or for those who want to build up their credits towards a national certificate or diploma with AS units, but it is unclear how this will be implemented. The traditional three A-levels route will still exist, leading to three-subject specialisation.

Sir Ron says there should be more emphasis on further maths at A-level for the better students and more special papers. This is to be welcomed in principle, but where will the time and cash come from to support such study?

The present Further Education Funding Council policies make it difficult to provide the necessary incentives for brighter students. The Dearing report's great merit is that it highlights areas of concern with lucidity. While many of its recommendations are sensible, others are problematical but this is partly because of inherent paradoxes.

Sir Ron wants to raise the level of education for all, but not at the expense of lowering standards. He seeks parity of esteem between vocational and academic courses and wants a single advanced national diploma based on two A-levels or equivalent. Yet he wants to broaden A-levels without debasing the present three A-level entrance route to higher education.

The vocational side of 16-19 education has clearly been the driving force here and this could be the biggest paradox of all. On questions of funding and resources his report is singularly silent.

Jack Abramsky is secretary of the National Association for Numeracy and Mathematics in Colleges

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