Monday, 8 August 2011

Carol's GCSE maths split could add up to a solution

Carol Vorderman has come up with one very good idea about what to do on Maths, but some of her other prescriptions need more careful thought. Her report for the Conservative Party has attracted standard diplomatic language from Education Secretary Michael Gove, suggesting no great enthusiasm for her findings, but one of her ideas really should be taken forward. Vorderman is absolutely right to argue that GCSE Maths should be split between a functional exam and an exam focused on algebra and trigonometry. It is vital that everyone understands how to calculate, use fractions and percentages; not everyone will master calculus.But it is also important that any functional test is developed with business, if it is genuinely to achieve its aims. Otherwise it could act as a hindrance to achieving wider qualifications - as the Diploma has shown.

However, if a young person gets a good GCSE in functional maths, it is less obvious that they need to continue studying to the same standard to18, as Vorderman recommends: of course maths should be integrated into other courses as appropiate, and those who don't get a C grade at 16 should at least continue to aim for this grade in functional maths. Unless we move towards an International Baccalaureate style exam at 18, it is harder to see how compulsory maths could fit in with our current A levels.
Vorderman's attack on national testing in primary school seems more perverse: teaching to the test has always occurred, and happens at GCSE and A level. The issue is what they are being taught and whether being tested helps youngsters to retain what they have learned. If testing currently doesn't do that enough, improve the tests but don't abandon something that helped improve maths teaching in primary schools (along with Labour's numeracy strategy, which Vorderman launched) considerably. There may need to be a renewal of the energy that the numeracy strategy brought, but it would be wrong to replace testing with assessment at 11; doing so would be a huge setback for primary maths.

1 comment:

matt said...

I agree that there is a really good case for some students studying a GCSE with a big chunk of algebra and other students studying a functional maths course with minimal pure mathematical content. This is already happening in 6th Form Colleges - we run Maths A-Level (traditional content) for some students and Use of Maths A-Level (no pure content) for others. We also offer Numeracy Level 2 and Functional Skills Maths at Level 2 as alternatives to Maths GCSE for students for whom a GCSE C is still out of reach because of the pure maths content. However, the one massive issue with doing this 14-16 is that not having a traditional Maths GCSE will eliminate certain opportunities. For example, our Physics AS entry requirements would definitely only accept a Maths GCSE containing algebra. What about university entry (will Russell Group differentiate)? Why not just offer Maths GCSE (perhaps with increased pure content) and Functional Skills Level 2 in schools? Yet again, the government needs to find ways to encourage schools to make the right decisions for their students and not just do their best for students within the constraints of target-driven priorities.

However, there is a real issue with opportunities