Last Thursday the A level results were announced and there were the usual recycled comments with some people attacking and others defending the system. There appears to be three main arguments used:
- A levels are getting easier;
- Teachers are getting better at preparing students for the exams;
- Students work very hard and so it is insulting to them to say the exams are getting easier.
So let’s examine these arguments for A level maths, which is the subject I know about. Unlike some pundits I don’t wish to pontificate about subjects I am not familiar with. My main point is that the arguments above are not contradictory and it is quite possible for exams to be easier than in previous years and for students to find them hard.
- It is generally acknowledged in the mathematical community that A level maths exams are getting easier and it has been remarked on by a government advisor A-levels are easier says adviser. Yet this headline is misleading because it is only referring to maths and physics which shows just how difficult it is to have a rational argument about the standard of A levels.
It is interesting to see the effect this is having on university mathematics courses even in the last few years A-Levels: Gah.
However, A level mathematics and its equivalent has become steadily easier over at least the last hundred years as the subject has been ‘democratised’ and taught to a wider population. I am very much in favour of this but the cost has been the dumbing down of the syllabus as I have mentioned before. I can only repeat my question that
Is it possible to teach mathematics to a larger range of students without compromising on the level taught?
- This is true but nothing to be proud about. Teachers and schools are under extraordinary pressure to get good results. Hence they teach very much to the exams, test and retest, and have no time to explore interesting parts of mathematics which would help to motivate and put things into context.
How politicians can imply that this is good beats me.
- Mathematics, as those of us who taught it know, is hard. This has been recognised (finally) by recent research, and it has been proposed that, as happens in Australia, more UCAS points are awarded for harder subjects like maths, though I can’t see that it will happen here.
Also mathematics is essentially linear so unless students are adequately prepared at one stage they will find it very difficult to proceed to the next stage. With dumbing down going right back to the early years of education most students will find each stage hard no matter what the level. The ignorance of this caused disaster in 2000 when A level maths was temporarily made tougher and so the gap from GCSE was unbridgeable for many students, leading to lots of failures, the abandonment of the subject by many and the restoration of an easier system.
Finally, with a greater percentage of the student population studying mathematics many of them are bound to find the subject hard.
It is good that Further Mathematics is becoming more popular and is to be encouraged, though it should be noticed that it too is a pale reflection of when it was last popular.
I don’t have easy answers to the problems of mathematical education but wish to see an informed debate on it. I just hope that Alexander Borovik is not correct when he writes
The current crisis in mathematics teaching is a dawn of a much more serious crisis of transition from the mass mathematics education of the past to a more selective and elitist education of increasingly small, in relative terms, numbers of mathematicians.