Maths Memos

Visiting HoDoMS

 

HoDoMS is a strange set of initials! It stands for a group representing the heads of mathematical sciences departments in UK universities. Each year the group has a two-day Easter meeting in Birmingham. The group was keen for an update on developments in school mathematics. This group is acutely aware that what happens in school, especially at A-level, will have a major impact on recruitment to their courses, and indeed on the quality of those applicants. Indeed the changes made to A-level in 2000 did not just result in a major fall in the number of applicants for A-level maths and further maths: the knock-on effects led to the closure of some university maths departments.

Also at HoDoMS was Richard Craster and members of the ALCAB mathematics committee. ALCAB is the body set up by the government to advise on the content for A-level. Richard is head of the mathematics department at Imperial College, London and leads the ALCAB mathematics group. His ALCAB committee have had a challenging six months producing their recommendations…which have to be with the Department for Education (DfE) within a month.

So Rosalind Mist, Head of the Secretariat at ACME, and I set the scene, including outlining the changes post-16 that are planned. Then we handed over to Richard to lead a discussion of ALCAB's emerging findings and to test the water with colleagues present.

Of course A-level is only part of the picture that is changing. We have a new and more challenging primary curriculum being implemented, and changes at Key Stage 3. There is a new and larger GCSE curriculum. Post-16 we have compulsory maths for those who have not achieved a grade 'C' at GCSE. There is a new 'core maths' course, an option for those students who have achieved at least a C at GCSE but are not taking maths at A/S or A level. And we have revised maths and further maths A/S and A levels coming in as well.

So what challenges did colleagues foresee? Well there is the obvious one of teacher supply. We are already short of secondary maths teachers, in some places desperately so. Many of the new changes will require extra teachers, so we risk compounding the problem…just at the point when the expanding economy is increasing the demand for such skills elsewhere than education. We will have to hope that the new measures to encourage teachers into the profession bear rich fruit.

Colleagues were supportive, if a little puzzled, by the new core maths. This is very different from current qualifications. Its focus is strongly on becoming more confident with your current mathematics skills and learning to use and apply them. This qualification needs more than UCAS points: it will need a deep understanding from employers and higher education and for them to value it. Otherwise its take-up may be very limited.

The major worry expressed by colleagues was for the future of further mathematics at A/S and A level. The increase in numbers taking the further mathematics A-level (up 152% since 2003) is a stunning success story, and Ofqual have found that this is more challenging than any other level 3 mathematics qualification in the world. In other words, this is a major world leading qualification. However the new funding arrangements for sixth forms put its future (as often a fourth A-level) at some risk. We will have to see if the move away from modular A-levels also has the negative effect on uptake that some fear. Nor is this just a concern for university mathematics departments. ALCAB has found that university engineering departments hugely value the extra material in the further mathematics A/S level, for example.

Given these fears, which it would seem the ALCAB group themselves share, colleagues were supportive of the work of the ALCAB group. Next year we can update them on how progress towards implementing these various changes is developing!

Robert Barbour is an ACME member and an independant consultant.

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