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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 July, 2003, 16:21 GMT 17:21 UK
Debate over maths teaching
Quadratic equations have emerged as a litmus test of what education is for.

A Labour MP has taken up the cudgels on their behalf, prompted by a suggestion from the president of a teachers' union that maths should be optional for children after the age of 14.

Terry Bladen of the NASUWT union singled out quadratic equations as being something many teenagers had difficulty grasping and would probably never use again.

But Tony McWalter MP, who has degrees in philosophy and pure maths, says quadratic equations are the foundation of modern science and "education is about climbing mountains, not skipping molehills."

A quadratic equation is one in which an unknown number is multiplied by itself.

The government has said it has no intention of dropping maths as a "core subject", but an inquiry into the curriculum beyond the age of 14, under Professor Adrian Smith, is due to report this autumn.


Mr Bladen - who is a maths teacher - said: "For a significant number of pupils things like quadratic equations have absolutely no relevance to them, they can't see how they would ever use them and in fact they probably never would use them.

"So for these pupils what I think should be there is something like a numeracy curriculum that's designed to equip them with the number concepts that they'll need in their adult life."

Tony McWalter
Our educational system has become too focused on working with the current beliefs and enthusiasms of the pupil and insufficiently focused on ignorance
Tony McWalter

In response, Mr McWalter was moved to use Commons debating time to raise the issue, giving six justifications for quadratic equations.

The main one was that modern science had dawned with the experiments of Galileo - and his equation of motion was a quadratic equation.

But he went on: "I contend that our educational system has become too focused on working with the current beliefs and enthusiasms of the pupil and insufficiently focused on ignorance.

"Since education is meant to dispel ignorance - and for all of us appreciating and overcoming our own tendency to ignorance is hard work - an educational model that moves only along the grooves of pupil preference must be deemed too soft."

And there was a practical reason, too.

"In my constituency of Hemel Hempstead, women must wait 18 weeks for a laboratory to process their cervical smear test because many more young people want to work in television than in science, so there are not enough people to work in the laboratory," he said.

In reply the Higher Education Minister, Alan Johnson, said the government recognised the importance of mathematics at all stages of education.

"And we are committed to ensuring that all young people have the opportunity to acquire the skills that they need - as citizens, and as the mathematicians, scientists and engineers of the future," he said.

Maths 'should be optional'
21 Apr 03  |  Education
More students choose maths
14 Feb 03  |  Education

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