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Last Updated: Friday, 20 February, 2004, 13:48 GMT
Maths exams 'fail at all levels'
By Gary Eason
BBC News Online education editor

student writing
Present system is not working, inquiry chief says
The country "shot itself in both feet" in the reform of A-levels, says the man leading the government's maths inquiry.

The changes had increased the shortage of maths specialists, said Professor Adrian Smith, principal of Queen Mary college, University of London.

He also told BBC News Online that current GCSE courses demoralised the less able one third of students and did not stretch the brightest 10%.

He argued for "significant but affordable" extra resources for maths.

The focus he was given for his review was post-14 learning, although he suggested this might be ignoring problems in the early years of secondary school.


In an increasingly technological society, maths skills at all levels were in great demand, Prof Smith said.

But the school system did not deliver what was needed.

Prof Adrian Smith
The existence of confident, competent, charismatic teachers on the ground is the key to it all
Prof Adrian Smith
At GCSE, the bottom third of youngsters were entered for exams in which the highest they could attain was a grade D - when the outside world and the school league tables only recognised grade C as the "threshold of success"

The effect was "demoralising" for the youngsters concerned.

The other perception was that the top 10% who were mathematically able were not being challenged - "and they are a vital resource".

During the Curriculum 2000 reorganisation of A-levels into AS and A2, the maths community had warned that this would not work for their subject because it did not fit into two equal parts - perhaps a third of the ground was covered in the first year then people accelerated through the rest.

"And lo and behold that's exactly what happened," Prof Smith said.

The AS pass rate was just over 70%.

Not surprisingly this was noticed by schools being externally audited and by young people with an eye on the points they needed for university entrance, and they "voted with their feet".

There was a 20% drop in the numbers taking the full A-level - and that did not "bounce back" in the following year either.

"So in a system where there was already concern ... we shot ourselves in both feet by knocking another 20% out of the system."

More teachers

Prof Smith said existing incentives to encourage people to train as teachers were general - maths needed its own special focus.

To make recommendations on changes to the curriculum, qualifications and pedagogy for those aged 14 and over in schools, colleges and higher education institutions to enable those students to acquire the mathematical knowledge and skills necessary to meet the requirements of employers and of further and higher education
There might have to be enhanced training for graduates in, say, physics and engineering to convert them to maths teachers.

"The existence of confident, competent, charismatic teachers on the ground is the key to it all."

But in the short term there would not be enough of them, so they needed some kind of national support infrastructure involving greater reliance on computers or teaching assistants, "just anything to make better use of the specialist teachers that we have, to raise morale and confidence".

He did not want to quantify this until his report was published next Tuesday but described the necessary investment as "significant but affordable".

Asked if the report would be optimistic, Prof Smith said that if its recommendations were taken forward there was a "better than sporting chance" of reversing the decline of maths.

If the country did not urgently prioritise the problem, "we are going to be in trouble".

Tomlinson review

The review of all 14 to 19 learning in England by Mike Tomlinson's working party, which produced an interim report this week, said everyone should have to have a "functional" level of maths to get one of the proposed new diplomas.

Mr Tomlinson said his final recommendations would draw on the work of Prof Smith, who is wary that Tomlinson's "functional maths" might be seen as "the only model".

"You need a radical rethink."

People had told his inquiry that the shortage of maths specialists in schools meant they were concentrated on GCSE and A-level learning, at the expense of the first three years - which lay outside his remit.

"Whatever resources you have in an 11 to 18 school you need to look across the range, so it's hard to arbitrarily draw the line at 14," he said.

"All these great ideas post-14 may be for nought if kids are going backwards at 11 to 14."

The BBC's James Westhead
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