Quick fix for A-level maths under fire

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The Independent Online
Government maths advisers met yesterday to consider the future shape of maths A-level amid a dispute about what students should be taught in the sixth form.

After a year in which universities and employers have argued that maths teaching is in crisis, maths experts are accusing Sir Ron Dearing, the Government's chief adviser on exams, of rushing the changes.

Members of the maths and science committee at the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, which Sir Ron heads, have asked him to postpone the decision so that the issue of what all students need to know when they arrive at university or go into employment can be resolved.

They say the questions are too big to be settled before Sir Ron reports to Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, at Christmas. A-level courses were changed only two years ago.

At the heart of the dispute are university lecturers' complaints that they are having to do remedial work with maths students whose A-level courses have not equipped them with the ability to solve problems, understand proofs or even to do basic number work accurately.

At present maths A-level syllabuses have to contain some common elements - about 50 per cent of the whole. Maths dons say that first-year undergraduates have studied dozens of syllabuses and would like the compulsory "core" of knowledge for A-level increased. Teachers, however, say the choice of maths A-level syllabuses helps them to pick the one best suited to their students and to motivate them. They point out that modern A-level courses are not designed simply to equip pupils to become university mathematicians.

Margaret Brown, a maths education professor at King's College, London, and a committee member, said the committee was divided on whether the "core" of knowledge needed to be increased but unanimous in its wish for delay.

"We are cross that our request for more time has been turned down," she said. "It is going to be like the national curriculum. We shall change it in a hurry and very soon we shall have to change it again to correct the mistakes we made the first time."

Dr Frank Berkshire, director of undergraduate studies in maths at Imperial College, London, said: "It would help very much if the core at A-level were increased. We give our students a test when they arrive and find that virtually every topic has been covered by someone but very few have been seen by all. Over the last 15 years we have seen topics being dumped off the end of the lorry."

The authority is reviewing the "cores" of all A-level subjects before the introduction of the new Advanced Subsidiary exam, to be taken after one year in the sixth form.

A spokesman for the authority said there would be wide consultation before its proposals went to Mrs Shephard. "We are confident that the work that needs to be done on the cores can be carried out within the timescale," he said. " In the unlikely event that problems arise which require further attention then we will advise the Secretary of State."