Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, has just announced plans for a radical change in school exams for those aged 16. On the face of it this tougher, more rigorous system looks good for mathematics. I am concerned that in fact it will reduce mathematical activity in the UK.
I do think that the examinations have become easier over the years; this is an inevitable consequence of the incentives on student success for both teachers and the examination boards.
I do think that there is a consequent danger that the brightest students will become bored; though there is nothing to stop teachers from introducing more demanding and varied material (why is non-examinable a dirty word in education?).
However, this does not mean that I support the proposals outlines by Gove and Clegg a couple of days ago. Some of my reasons are fairly standard:
- Weaker students (and students with less academically supportive family backgrounds) are likely to struggle to achieve anything – particularly in all or nothing subjects like mathematics
- Girls are likely to fare worse in the more traditional exam-only culture.
- Clegg’s intervention to ensure that there is only one examination may backfire: many people will leave school with only a transcript of attainment showing very little achievement.
An inevitable consequence of (3) is that a second exam system will eventually be brought in (sound familiar?). The system is to be brought in in two stages – English, Maths and Science starting in 2015 (examined in 2017) and the rest the following year. This creates a strange hybrid generation in the middle!
But there are other knock on effects of the current plans.
4. Wales. My understanding is that Wales is not forced to follow England’s lead here. Will it go it alone, keeping GCSEs going, or will it join Scotland’s system? Or move with England?
5. A levels: a harder exam system at aged 16 is likely to discourage students from continuing to A level, leading to a less well-educated work force, precisely what this initiative is trying to address!
6. In particular, the numbers taking maths, which is seen as hard, at A level is likely to fall and hence…
7. …. the numbers taking maths at University will also decrease.
Teachers and Universities have been working hard to overcome the sudden drop in numbers taking mathematics at A level following the 2000 A level exam fiasco. Those in favour of this policy argue that those coming to university will be better prepared. I won’t hold my breath, and anyway, we need good mathematicians getting good degrees to be the next teachers, industrial innovators and financial marketeers! Maths education is not just about the elite next generation of academics.
So my concern is that whilst the best young mathematicians will thrive in the new environment, most of them would have succeeded anyway, and there is a danger that this policy will actually reduce the supply of good mathematicians!
Be careful what you wish for.