One of the problems with the debate on attainment is the lack of research into the effects of change, says Margaret Tettey. I have been involved in two meetings called by the London Mathematical Society to discuss the issues arising from the reports that standards are falling among students entering university to follow mathematical disciplines.
The first meeting seemed only to heighten the differences between those in schools and those in universities, while the second - a discussion on algebra - was more purposeful and could lead to the development of coherent schemes of work if time and money were made available.
Attending these meetings has forced me to ask myself some questions. Criticism of school practice can set off an automatic defence mechanism but it can also act as a stimulus and I have been taking stock of the present situation. The current university students started their education about 15 years ago and many major changes and initiatives have occurred over that time: the Cockcroft Report; the introduction of GCSE; the national curriculum versions 1, 2 and 3 with the subsequent changes in the GCSE syllabus; the rise and fall of coursework and the development of modular A-level courses. I should also include the Warnock Report which has meant that we are teaching an even wider spread of abilities and needs in mainstream schools. Alongside these external changes, teachers have been encouraged to develop the process skills of their pupils and to try to enhance understanding of mathematical concepts.
At the beginning of this period change took place slowly and teachers felt involved. The transition time from O-levelCSE to GCSE seems luxurious in retrospect; much time was given for training in the new approach and schemes. The arrival of the national curriculum meant that we were both coming to terms with the changes involved and spending an enormous amount of time setting up recording systems. This latter task has now been much reduced, but consider the number of teacher hours it has taken up. Just as we were getting over the national trial of key stage 3 SATS and the moderation of teacher assessments, the new GCSE syllabus was upon us. There was no training this time: now LEAs were feeling the pinch and the provision of advisory teachers and in-service training was rapidly diminishing.
The modular A-level courses have been welcomed by most of the teachers and students that I have met - they are accessible, motivating and we have seen an increasing number of students taking A-level maths at our school. Some of those at the meeting of the London Mathematical Society were already laying the blame for falling standards at the door of modular courses!
One of the difficulties in the current debate is the lack of research and monitoring into the effect of all these changes. It is very difficult to pin-point key factors. Are we comparing like with like? Are the gifted mathematicians choosing other disciplines? Has the introduction of the national curriculum had an impact?
Any seeming improvement in standards - better results at GCSE and A-level - are immediately met by a sceptical response from those in government and higher education. The examination boards are called to account and procedures are examined and our initial pleasure and satisfaction is diluted. The press reports that a certain proportion of children are "below average" at the age of 14 and are allowed to get away with it. It is as though teachers are so bogged down with changes that they are too tired to react to erroneous publicity.
What is happening in secondary school mathematics? From my experience maths is being enjoyed by more pupils, more pupils have access to GCSE and A-level courses and there has been more stability in the teaching profession over the past few years. The prospect of five years without changes to the national curriculum is welcomed, although we are still waiting to see what will happen with the latest version of the GCSE syllabus. We have not been able to afford the resources that we need to implement these changes as we would wish. We would like more time for planning our work related to the latest version of the national curriculum so that we can make it "our own". These needs are arising just at the time when cuts in our budget are really having an impact on our workload and resourcing.
School teachers should not react to criticism from those in higher education by throwing the baby out with the bath water. Perhaps, as an example, there is a need for more rigour and more practice in basic algebraic techniques for the higher achieving pupils but does this mean that the majority of pupils are subjected to what, in their eyes, are meaningless exercises?
If the London Mathematical Society can come up with proposals that can satisfy both sides of the debate this would be a great achievement and would put mathematical education back on its feet. We all need a sense of purpose and involvement.
Margaret Tettey teaches maths at Hampstead School, north London. She writes here in a personal capacity.