From education to employment

Speech by Ken Boston, QCA Chief Executive to Advisory Committee on Maths Education

The failings of the current mathematics curriculum were underlined on Wednesday, in a speech delivered by Ken Boston, the Chief Executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), to the Advisory Committee on Maths Education.

Describing the mathematics curriculum and teaching as one of the “most challenging areas in contemporary education”, Boston went on to outline the QCA’s major concerns. After 11 years of mathematics in primary and secondary school, many young people have still to grasp “functional mathematics”, with many failing to gain a grade C or above at GCSE. Less than 10 % of young people continue with mathematics beyond the age of 16, and less than 10 % of those who do continue go on to take a degree in mathematics.

Varied Aptitude

Boston argued that current underachievement in mathematics is chiefly due to the diversity of mathematical aptitude among young people, which is extraordinarily difficult to capture in a uniform curriculum, stating: “Children differ in aptitude and ability; the range of that difference is greater in mathematics than in the vast majority of other subjects.”

Perhaps not surprisingly Boston defended teaching standards, arguing that levels of differentiation are not explained by varying levels of teaching performance; while he conceded good teaching obviously impacts on levels of achievement, even high quality teachers cannot be expected to “unlock genius where it doesn”t exist”.

These issues, whilst relevant to all subjects, are especially pertinent to mathematics, Boston contended, because the subject is uniquely important to those pursuits and occupations that contribute toward the wider economy. “Mathematics provides the language, analytical tools and models that underpin scientific and industrial research and development, the knowledge economy, finance and ICT,” said Boston. Even the more basic operations such as food processing, health care, packaging and tourism, he claimed, are underpinned by mathematics skills.

QCA Respond to the Challenge

Boston went on to outline the QCA’s response to the issues raised above, which includes several additions to the current curriculum. A new two-tier GCSE maths paper will be introduced to “ensure that the most able candidates are extended to the maximum capacity”. A Further Maths GSCE will also be introduced, Boston continued, with a Level 2 functional maths component for award of a Grade C in maths GCSE, becoming a further addition. The latter, Boston claimed, would “ensure that more young people achieve something really worthwhile in mathematics”.

Revisions to the curriculum are also intended, with the coursework component receiving the most urgent attention, across all subjects. The QCA will also be reviewing the GCE specifications, to introduce revised A levels for first teaching in September 2008. In addition, consultants commissioned to carry out work as part of the Post-14 Mathematics Review have proposed developing and piloting revised GCE specifications from 2007, with a view to full introduction from 2011.

Finally, Boston was unable to fully ignore the question of teaching, adding that other initiatives in areas such as training, recruitment, retention and rewarding mathematics teachers, and in “the pedagogy of mathematics teaching”, would also be critical to success, which should be measured, Boston further added, by several league tables. “More than any other element of the curriculum, mathematics is a nationally important priority,” he concluded.

Michelle Price

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