Blog: Making maths work - Simon Lebus

Blog: Making maths work - Simon Lebus

Thursday 5th March 2015

Both the Conservative and Labour parties look set to include commitments in their manifestos to compel all teenagers to study maths until the age of 18.

Maths is in fact already the most popular A Level and is taken by approximately 27.7% of all A Level students. Many of these will go on to study maths or one of the physical sciences at University and the educational challenge is how to cater for the remaining body of learners, especially now that the compulsory participation age is being increased to 18.

This is a highly diverse group, with different levels of ability, varying levels of enthusiasm, and very different requirements in terms of the types of mathematical competence they will need to support their occupational, further education and employment aspirations. The challenge therefore is to develop (and be able to deliver) a range of mathematical courses sufficiently broad to ensure that this very diverse constituency is effectively and comprehensively provided for.

This is partly the philosophy behind the launch of the Cambridge Mathematics Framework which will be inaugurated at a conference next week. It will set out to map the mathematical knowledge that should be available to be taught in schools and provide a structured basis to allow students, employers and higher education institutions to identify the particular domains in which people need to be competent - for example, statistics for aspiring social scientists or mechanics for engineers.

The inspiration for this is the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) which splits language competence across the four domains of speaking, listening,reading and writing into six different levels, each associated with various ‘Can do’ statements. For example, in the speech domain, a ‘C1’ student (the second highest level) can deal with hostile questioning confidently while an ‘A1’ student (the lowest level) might only be able to take part in a routine conversation on simple predictable topics.

The development of a maths framework along these lines is designed to provide a common point of reference that will allow employers, higher education institutions and subject groups to be much more specific about the maths skills they require from students and employees, and lead to a more fruitful and targeted dialogue between various stakeholder groups about some of the practical steps now needed to improve maths education.

The comparison with languages also provides an interesting parallel in terms of trying to understand one of the main challenges of making the study of maths compulsory until the age of 18. One of the reasons the then Labour government stopped the compulsory study of Modern Foreign Languages up to GCSE level was the difficulty of getting engagement from actively uninterested students and the disruptive effect they were having on classroom discipline and teacher morale. There were also problems attracting the right numbers of suitably qualified teachers.

Given the already well recognised shortage of maths teachers, whichever party is next in government will need to give serious thought to how they plan to deliver on their compulsory maths till 18 commitment. Unless they can make a success of this they will find compulsory maths going the same way as compulsory study of Modern Foreign Languages - it won't work and will be followed by a disorderly and ultimately damaging retreat.

Simon Lebus
Group Chief Executive, Cambridge Assessment

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