We must not reward failure

8th May 2009 at 01:00

There is some positive news for mathematics education in A Curriculum for Excellence. Assessment in numeracy will be available which, hopefully, will assess the arithmetic and statistical elements of the current maths exams. This will allow a more "pure mathematics" course, including algebraic manipulation that does not exist today.

Numeracy for all must include a sound knowledge of interest rates, mortgages, loans, APR - in other words, many of the current topics which have led people into debt. ACfE encourages cross-curricular teaching so topics, such as statistics, could be taught in geography andor science, rather than just in maths. However, all is not perfect.

In the recent Timss (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), Scotland's 14-year-olds came 17th; way behind England in 7th position. So, what has happened to the exam system or the Scottish educational system, which is said to have once been the envy of the world? The powers that be all deny exams are easier - of course they would. What an embarrassment to admit it.

However, ask teachers or lecturers about the standards compared to 10 years ago. In maths, there is no comparison to the early 1990s or before. I have given top sets in S5 past papers from the 1990s, and most pupils (who have a grade 1 in knowledge and grade 1 in reasoning) fail. This has happened with 11 classes. No dumbing down? Get real.

Consider the cut-offs for Standard grade Credit level in 2008, which are on the Scottish Qualifications Authority's website (albeit well-hidden by a poorly-navigable site). For grade 2, the pass boundaries correspond to a pass of 47 per cent in knowledge and understanding and 38 per cent in reasoning and enquiry. In 2006 and 2007, it was 40 per cent and 38 per cent respectively.

Standard grades used to be about pupils reaching a standard; now it appears that the SQA must have a minimum number of pupils reaching a grade, regardless of the standard. This has produced a similar distribution of awards in the last three years, which must be more important (to them). Here is the shocking analysis, showing pass boundaries for reasoning:


2008: 64%

2007: 60%

2006: 64%

2005: 51%


2008: 38%

2007: 38%

2006: 40%

2005: 31%

In 2005, the reason given for such low marks was "the transition to lengthier reasoning questions". To achieve grade 2, most people's impression that a 50 per cent pass is necessary has gone. A large number of pupils have actually got more wrong in the exam than correct, so it is little wonder they cannot do Higher well. However, parents and pupils will be pleased that they have achieved a grade 2, despite its very low grade pass. Is this really a pass? I don't think so.

Why do parents, the general public or employers not know about this? I feel the figure is shocking, although it could be argued that it is not hidden since it is on the website. Well, a parent searching the site would need Taggart to find it.

I'm sure that, after voicing this concern, any promotion prospects I had are gone. That may be, but I strongly believe we are doing pupils and society a disservice by expecting lower standards; something must be done. I want to educate young people to contribute to their community, this country - mankind itself. Most teachers have high expectations of their pupils - why won't the SQA?

The financial crisis has shown that incompetent or egotistical leaders are not up to standard, so let's not have a similar situation in education. The future of our young people and our country is too important. The banking world is in meltdown and we do not want to go down their route of rewarding failure. A 38 per cent pass is not acceptable.

Grant Macleod is principal maths teacher at Lomond School, Helensburgh.

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