Letter: Don't blame maths teachers for errors of the syllabus

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The Independent Online
Sir: I read the comments of Andrew Holden, assistant chief executive of the Northern Examinations and Assessment Board with something approaching disbelief. ('Record pass rates for A-levels', 18 August). If he seriously believes that GCSE has made students 'more self-reliant and therefore better prepared for A-level' and that it has brought 'an incredible increase in motivation' he has obviously not had charge of a new A-level group recently.

As a chemistry teacher with 27 years' experience of teaching A-level, I would say the exact opposite is true. During the last years of the old O-level exam the transition to A-level in science and maths became more and more difficult. A couple of years after the introduction of GCSE, what had already become a significant knowledge and skills gap had developed into a yawning chasm and merging the three sciences into the milk-and-water melange which is all most state- school pupils are now offered made the situation even worse.

Each year I encounter a group of 18 or so new A-level students who not only know no chemical formulae, equations, properties of substances or other factual material but also, in many cases, can't read and follow a simple set of instructions, draw a decent graph, perform the elementary operations of arithmetic reliably or write up and present a piece of experimental work in a competent fashion. As soon as any difficulty is encountered the student now expects to be told the answer; any suggestion that he/she can arrive at it by reasoning from what has gone before is met with blank incomprehension.

What and where, then, are the marvellous skills which have replaced both the essential chemical knowledge and skills with which O-level pupils were routinely equipped? In the 11-16 sector science and maths in our state schools are effectively dead.

Yours faithfully,


Colne, Lancashire

18 August