'You can call me old fashioned if you like'

19th May 2000 at 01:00
Peter Lacey of the ATM asserts his faith in teacher power

As ever, the teaching and assessment of maths continues as a live item on the national agenda. Subject associations that represent teachers from the foundation stage through to higher education have a responsibility to inform this debate, and the Department for Education and Employment recognises this contribution and subject associations welcome regular access to the minister of state DFEE.

There is much on which to comment. The extension of the numeracy strategy into key stage 3 is based on two premises: first, that there is a need to secure better continuity into and progression through KS3 - agree; and, second, that primary school solutions will necessarily achieve these ends - disagree. For many pupils there are parts of this KS3 strategy which appear to be insufficiently demanding. I am also concerned that the KS3 pilot will last only one year - it took longer to work up the primary strategy.

Optional tests at the end of Year 7 and Year 8 are inevitable but obligatory tests at the end of Year 7 for those who "failed" to achieve level 4 at the end of Year 6 begins to redefine the purpose of end of key stage tests.

Having had promoted the virtue of whole class teaching and "moving a class along together" we are now receiving messages that the higher attainers need more challenge. World class tests at 9 and 13 are under development and even Year 6 entry to GCSE has been proposed: assessment solutions to curriculum and pedagogical issues. Introducing more challenge does not necessarily mean introducing more content. I was struck by one of the sessions I attended at our recent conference where it was suggested we focus on a "thinking-rich" rather than a "content- rich" curriculum. We were presented with problems based on the content of the current curriculum but which demanded levels of insight and understanding which provided high levels of challenge.

Extension papers at the end of KS2 do not need to take material fro the KS3 programme of study. They could include questions which demand deeper insights and more complex applications of the content in the KS2 programme of study. This principle would make the extension papers, at the end of any key stage, more accessible while ensuring high levels of challenge. In short, recognise that the standards of Using and Applying Mathematics can be assessed at a higher level than the other attainment targets. It is for similar reasons that GCSE assessment, and its related tiering structure, remain as targets for criticism.

I am intrigued by the assertion that A-level maths needs to be made harder. Add more algebra, trigonometry and geometry is the cry: a curriculum solution to an assessment issue. It was only six years ago that the comparative difficulty of A-level maths was recognised and steps were taken to arrest the decline in the number of students taking A-level courses. References to a gold standard are as meaningless as they are in current global economics. We are locked in a time-warp, looking to yesterday for tomorrow's solutions.

I welcome the development by the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency of the "subject discussion areas" on the National Grid for Learning. At our ATM conference, more than 300 teachers gave four days of their time to work on their own maths and give serious consideration to learning and teaching in the classroom. The prospect of the debate being sustained and extended using ICT provides the opportunity for further developing the professional community and voice of mathematics educators.

We need to exploit this opportunity. Call me old-fashioned if you like, but, just as I have confidence in surgeons to develop surgical techniques and improve health, so I have confidence in teachers to develop teaching techniques and raise achievement.

Peter Lacey succeeds Ann Kitchen as chair of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics, 7 Shaftesbury Street, Derby DE23 8YB. Tel: 01332 346599. www.atm.org

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