Posted by: Administrator | 02/11/2009

Chris Budd: Pathways and Use of Maths

Following the recent posting by Tony Gardiner, I am happy to try to summarise some of the issues related to the proposed Use of Maths A2 A-level (some of which were covered in my earlier posting).

It is important to consider the overall context of the Use of Maths A-level. Most importantly, it is not a replacement for the usual Maths and Further Maths A-levels, and the LMS continues to support these latter qualifications and the need to make them challenging for the students that take them and to prepare such students to take mathematically rich degrees at HE. Returning to Use of Maths. Since its publication in 2004, the LMS has broadly supported the conclusions of the Smith Report ‘Making Maths Count’ into post-14 maths teaching. One of the conclusions of this report was that too many students stop studying mathematics post-16. This is potentially bad both for them and for the future health of UK science and technology. A recommendation of the Smith Report was that there should be different ‘Pathways’ for students studying maths post-16 (of which the ‘first pathway’ would be ‘traditional’ Maths and Further Maths A-levels) so that students of different levels of mathematical attainment could study a mathematics course up to the age of 18 which is best suited to their needs and abilities. The LMS Education Committee has supported this approach, whilst being very mindful of the resourcing issues that are involved.  The Use of Mathematics (current AS and proposed A2) qualifications have been considered as a possible ‘second pathway’ for students who want to do a good amount of mathematics post-16, but who would not be going on to do a degree with a high mathematical content.  The Education Committee recognises the potential advantages of doing this, but is also concerned about the potential dangers in that (i) teaching a full A-level in Use of Maths  could lead to a reduction in the resources available for teaching the traditional Maths and Further Maths A level courses and (ii) students might take Use of Mathematics who instead should be taking a usual maths A-level and this might cause problems to subsequent university entrance. The Education Committee is also concerned that the pilot examination papers for the A2 level in Use of Maths were not well designed or challenging.

In a recent outline report to the Joint Mathematics Council (JMC) I have stated the following in response to various questions asked by the JMC. In particular:

  1. Which of these positions (Unconditional agreement, Agreement subject to safeguards, Unconditional rejection) does your society hold ?
    “Within the LMS there are varying opinions as to whether the risks of UoM being classed as a full A-level outweigh the benefits, but there is support  for providing  qualifications which lead to fewer students dropping maths at 16. The LMS is in favour of more students doing A level Maths and A level Further Maths and in stretching and challenging the students that do these courses. It also strongly supports all initiatives to get more highly motivated maths teachers into schools so that this can be possible. There is a wide range of views about the Use of Maths.  As such, there is not a simple answer to the various questions that would really reflect the views of the LMS membership.”
  2. What sort of safeguards would your society want ?
    “Whilst there are various views within the LMS about the merits of Use of Maths, there is unanimity in the view that if it were to be introduced it should be subject to very strong monitoring so that:

    1. students should only do it if they would otherwise be dropping maths post 16
    2. it should in no way draw students away from doing A level Maths and hence should never be offered unless A level Maths is also being run at the school
    3. great efforts should be made to carefully inform the students taking maths post 16 of the differences between Use of Maths and A level Maths.”
  3. Would you like to see more piloting for this or any other reasons?
    “The LMS Education Committee was concerned about the detailed nature of the trial examination papers and hope that if a decision to take UoM forward was agreed that HE (especially those members very experienced in teaching maths and maths modeling service courses) should be closely involved in the design of the new course and papers so they should be better fit for purpose.”

I hope that this gives a useful summary of the current situation regarding Use of Maths. I should say that overall debate about Pathways continues apace. The Advisory Committee for Mathematics Education (ACME) is currently having a consultation into the pathways model to which the LMS has been invited to contribute. I encourage anyone who wishes to contribute to this debate to email me at mascjb@bath.ac.uk.

My own personal (and strong) belief is that many of the concerns about the Use of Maths A-level are secondary to the much bigger concern about a lack of teaching and other resource for teaching mathematics at schools. We can only have good teaching if we have a good number of good teachers. I believe strongly that the LMS should do everything that it can to lobby for more resources to teach maths at schools and that its members should constantly seek ways to support, encourage and develop both current and future maths teachers at all levels.

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