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Top marks in maths 'out of pupils' reach'

An anomaly in the maths GCSE syllabus is depriving pupils of the chance to make the highest grades, writes Warwick Mansell

BRIGHT pupils will lose marks in their maths GCSE this summer because the Government's exam watchdog has botched the introduction of a new coursework element, according to a leading maths academic.

Professor Tony Gardiner of Birmingham University says the compulsory coursework in data-handling requires pupils to show knowledge not covered by the syllabus to achieve an A grade.

The syllabus was approved by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in 2000. But teachers have complained that marking guidance for the coursework, worth 10 per cent of the marks, is too harsh. To secure an A grade, students must not make a single unnecessary calculation.

Typically, the data-handling coursework requires candidates to assess whether there is any correlation between two sets of data.

For example, they are given the age and weight of pupils in a school and asked how they would calculate, using a graph, the strength of the relationship between the two sets of data. Advice for markers from examining body Edexcel suggested that students would have to make extremely complicated calculations, including "working out the symbolic curve of best fit" to achieve a grade A.

Edexcel said this area of study was included in the syllabus, but Professor Gardiner said that was not what schools were telling him. He said students lacked the mathematical tools to answer these questions in any depth.

He added: "Pupils are reduced to the wretched choice of either using little more than common sense to analyse the data, or techniques they have not been taught and can hardly be expected to understand."

Professor Gardiner said this was just one aspect of widespread unhappiness about the new coursework element and that hundreds of teachers had complained about it during the training courses he runs.

"This is a perfect example of something new being put out without any piloting," he said. "Teachers are tearing their hair about this and nothing is being done about it."

A QCA spokeswoman said the regulator had set out marking criteria that were in line with the national curriculum, and that QCA would ensure that students taking the examination would receive the grades their work deserved.

WHAT THE TEACHERS THINK

ANDREW Holman, maths teacher at Nottingham high, said: "It is strange that we are required to teach bright pupils specific methods that are beyond what is in the syllabus.

"Pupils may be penalised for showing workings that are deemed irrelevant by the marker. That seems unfair."

David Benjamin, maths teacher at Norton Knatchbull grammar school in Ashford, Kent, said: "It's easier to get a pass in the new exam, but extremely difficult to reach the highest grades. It's a myth that exams are getting easier."

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