Weight on their minds

4th April 1997 at 01:00
What is a "40:60 split", and why should such a simple ratio worry mathematicians, of all people? The answers to these questions lie in the ferment of A-level change overtaking the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, much of it induced by its outgoing chairman, Sir Ron Dearing.

Thanks to his elephant-sized review of 16-19 qualifications, all A-levels will in future be presented in two halves. First-year sixth-formers will take an AS-level exam, that is supposed to contain the most fundamental or "core" elements of the subject. They can then decide to push on and complete the A-level with a second year of study, or, clutching their AS certificate, can look elsewhere.

All well and good, you might think, and likely to encourage a bit of breadth in sixth-form study. Sir Ron has told the university admissions tutors he wants these half A-levels taken seriously.

But the message he has given the Gold Standard brigade is rather different. Apparently fearful of equating the "easy" first year of sixth-form study with the "hard" second year, Sir Ron has asked for a system of differential marking. The AS will count for fewer marks than the second year of A-level study; hence the contentious 40:60 split. As a spokeswoman from SCAA explains: "The skills and understanding that represent the A-level standard draw more on the second year of study."

The mathematicians are worried because, they say, their subject is too diverse and contains too many "core" elements to fit neatly into two parts. Sixth-formers will need to study more basics in pure maths, mechanics and statistics than can possibly be shovelled into the first year and just 40 per cent of the marks - unless one of these strands is abandoned.

The result, says Roger Porkess, project leader at the Mathematics in Education and Industry syllabus group and a maths examiner, has been chaos for the A-level writers, who have to complete the new syllabuses by the end of the month.

"Because Ron Dearing is determined on a 40:60 split, the structure through which maths is taught is being changed," he says. "That really is a case of the tail wagging the dog. If you have equally weighted sections, the problems don't exist. It is not even as if the split is the right way round: it is more logical to emphasise the basics and divide the marks 60:40."

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