Tale of two syllabuses

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
The new Year 7 National Numeracy Strategy framework for teaching maths bears a striking similarity to schemes for the youngest grammar school pupils in the Fifties and Sixties. In 1957, the Incorporated Association of Assistant Masters of Secondary Schools published a sample maths syllabus for grammar schools in their book The Teaching of Mathematics (Cambridge University Press). They apologised that their experience was limited to the highest achieving pupils, so their syllabus would be inappropriate for others. They also pointed out that they were publishing a teaching syllabus, to be used flexibly, and not an exam syllabus.

Comparing the two schemes shows a huge overlap. Number work is of a similar standard in both. There are a few differences: grammar school pupils went a little further with factors and multiples, but not as far as highest common factors and lowest common multiples, and had to deal with fractions of non-metric measures. Percentage change was included, and more mensuration than the rectangles and cuboids in the Year 7 framework (and it would have been in non-metric measures). The current framework includes far more mental work, interpretation of results and applications in problem-solving, as well as more accurate conversion between units.

In algebra there is now less emphasis on fctorising and fractional forms, but more on constructing and using formulae and functions.

In geometry similar facts about shapes are to be taught, but no transformational geometry was included in the grammar school syllabus. In its place was an emphasis on the beginnings of formal geometric reasoning (although those who came through such syllabuses will recall that it was often not well taught and only a few could develop proof for themselves in the first years of secondary school.) Trigonometry is not included in the Year 7 scheme, but was in the 1957 syllabus. The current scheme includes statistics and probability and a lot of work on handling data, none of which was usually included in the Fifties.

Apart from a few differences in emphasis it seems we now have almost a grammar school syllabus in place for all Year 7 pupils. Perhaps the authors of the earlier sample syllabus, in spite of their disclaimer, really did produce one that is appropriate for all.

But wait ... what did they call it? A Teaching Syllabus for the First Two Years. So we are now teaching - in one year, to all pupils - a syllabus which is largely the same as the one taught 40 years ago to the select few - and in those days it took two years!

Anne Watson is tutor for higher degrees at the University of Oxford

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