It has recently been suggested that mathematics should become a voluntary subject for pupils after the age of 14. My initial reaction was that this is a ridiculous idea. However, I am no longer so sure. Reflecting on the new national curriculum for maths at key stage 4 has changed my view.
I have seen hundreds of pupils arriving at secondary school aged 11 excited about maths and putting it high on their list of favourite subjects. I have also seen how a few years later a large proportion are disillusioned with the subject, finding it boring and a source of constant personal failure. Almost all pupils, even those who are relatively successful, opt out of the subject as soon as they can. Maths has not had the increase of numbers at A-level seen in other subjects recently.
The new national curriculum for KS4 will do nothing to correct this and may make things worse. In its current form there are two versions of the programme of study: foundation and higher. The problem is with the foundation level, which is basically nothing more than a rerun of KS3. Now think of the pupils it is aimed at. They have completed more than nine years of study of the subect and are clearly not doing well. It is not going to do anything positive for their attitude to force them to relive that failure for a further two years.
So why not let them opt out of maths after KS3? Give them the opportunity to take subjects that they enjoy and at which they can succeed and allow them to mature and develop a more positive attitude to study. Then after GCSE give them the opportunity to pick up the subject again of their own volition.
The argument goes that if you give up the study of maths too young, you can never get back. There is some evidence that this is so if you are going on to the subject at higher levels, but this is not what we are talking about. Equally, we have seen the success achieved by FE colleges with returners who come to take access courses and go on to higher education, often in fields where maths skills are needed.
So let's grasp the nettle and give pupils the opportunity to develop a positive attitude to maths by choosing it voluntarily, and so avoid ending up with yet another generation despising the subject.
Peter Gill is a lecturer in the School of Education, King's College London