Watch the figures not the spin

31st May 1996 at 01:00
Maths teaching in Scottish secondary schools in decline, shrieked the headlines. The Assessment of Achievement Programme clearly demonstrates an alarming situation in maths basics. The dismaying study shows a fall in performance since 1991 in 11 of the 37 indices examined, and no improvement in the remainder. It raises pertinent questions on teaching methods, mixed-ability classes, and secondary foot dragging over 5-14.

The killer questions? Sixty per cent of 970. Twenty-four per cent of 52 pupils answered correctly. Twenty per cent of 150? Forty-three per cent managed that. When confronted with a question designed for children in primary 4 - divide 342 by 9 - just 61 per cent of secondary 2 scored correctly. But the 5-14 guidelines indicate that by secondary 2 "certainly most" should achieve a mean level score at level E. In maths, 47 per cent did.

Ministers have responded by calling for speedy secondary implementation of testing through the 5-14 programme, and a national inquiry into mathematics teaching. The Government is right, and should go further, with a countrywide audit starting in the Scottish teacher training colleges. The responses of Educational Institute of Scotland and Scottish Parent Teacher Council leaders? Depressingly protectionist and predictable. "Testing in S2? A backwards move . . . teachers furious . . . terrible disruption . . ."

So rolls the demon rhetoric. But the country desperately needs full implementation of the 5-14 programme, a reform widely welcomed in theory, valiantly tackled in primaries and now disastrously road blocked in some secondaries.

The AAP study of maths in 1994 demonstrates beyond all shadow of doubt the imperative need for 5-14. Failing maths departments and teachers must be identified and helped, and national curriculum guidelines offer the means. Primary testing enabled Lothian to take remedial action for 51 per cent of eight-year-olds in certain schools who had a reading age of five. Primary testing gave birth to the after-school supported study movement. Likewise secondary testing will play its part in lifting maths achievement.

This time union polemic is passe. Research findings tell parents that in Germany the lower half of the ability range is two years ahead in maths of the same group here; that in Japan the average 15-year-old is better educated in maths than the top quartile of our 16-year-olds. The Government has put individual pupil progression centre-frame in the Scottish curriculum. But a national reform is both mocked and stalemated by an ideological refusal to offer the necessary differentiated teaching (setting) for children arriving certificated at levels C, D or E.

The situation has parents voting with children's feet. The growing flight of the urban middle class from council education is documented in the most recent Scottish School Leavers' Survey. The number leaving Glasgow's independent schools from social classes 1 and 2 stands at 51 per cent compared with 14 per cent 20 years ago. Edinburgh's corresponding figure is 46 per cent. Why do they go?

Perhaps the chattering classes provide their own answers to the coded rhetoric of HMI. Let the AAP report speak for itself.

* Are S1S2 pupils, particularly the more able, receiving sufficient teaching of algebra?

* Do S1S2 pupils receive sufficient experience of paper and pencil work and mental calculation?

* Would pupils' ability be improved by more frequent and regular practice in measuring and estimating?

* How can programmes of work and teaching approaches be adjusted to improve matters in secondary 1 and secondary 2?

It may be too much to hope that union leaders can view the evidence with humility. What has Scotland done to deserve this irrelevant rump of a professional cartel which so discredits its members by allowing outdated ideology to fly in the face of common sense?

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