Blank slate time…

Oh lookit! Another rant a-coming! As always, let me be clear: when I attack maths education, it is absolutely not an attack on teachers. I’m not a teacher because it’s a ludicrously difficult job and I don’t fancy it. When I attack maths education, it’s entirely about the curriculum and the system of assessing it.

In any case, yesterday, a House of Lords report declared that all A-level students should study maths to 18. It highlighted the problems that school leavers often don’t have great numeracy skills, and that many students started undergraduate maths and science courses don’t have the skills they need. It says maths in schools is ‘glorified numeracy’.

My first reaction was ‘goody! more work for me!’ — but it was followed by several hours of intense confusion: how would I arrange education, if I were in charge of a totally new country?

There are bits of the report I like. It’s quite right to call out the discrepancy between what employers and universities expect and what gets taught — and to blame it (at least partly) on the ‘race to the bottom’ among exam boards. If there’s one place competition doesn’t belong, it’s here.

But forcing everyone to do maths to 18? I’m not sure about that. At least, not in isolation. Exactly the same comments could be made about literacy and, for example, art, music, foreign languages or manners.

The solution isn’t to have everyone doing A-level maths — or compelling any other subject. That would be preposterous. The solution isn’t even to have everyone resitting GCSE until they get a better grade.

I think the solution is to have a system more like the International Baccalaureate, what the Americans call a liberal education. You do a little bit of many subjects, and concentrate on a few.

If you were aiming towards a maths degree, you would do a high-level maths component, serious-level courses in other things that interested you — roughly equal to your ‘other’ A-levels — and courses in other subjects at a level appropriate to you. If you can’t rub two letters together, you do very basic English. If you can cook a little but it’s not a lot to shout about, you do basic cookery. A little of everything.

If, instead, you wanted to be a historian when you grew up, you’d do high-level history, serious-level courses in maybe a language and English, and lower-level courses at the appropriate level.

The thing is — this shouldn’t start at 16. It should start at 11. It should be a fully modular system — is there any real reason to separate classes off by age?

With particular regard to maths, it would allow the mathematicians to do the proofy stuff they need to do well at university, without forcing the engineers to sit through it; the maths-for-scientists modules would suit them better. Meanwhile, the historians would keep their hand in with the basic maths skills they need for day-to-day life rather than having to do calculus they’re just likely to wind up resenting.

Oh, and no compulsory exams. You’d need to demonstrate mastery of a course to pass it — but that could be using projects, presentations or reports as an alternative.

If you had a blank slate, how would you change education?

Colin

Colin is a Weymouth maths tutor, author of several Maths For Dummies books and A-level maths guides. He started Flying Colours Maths in 2008. He lives with an espresso pot and nothing to prove.

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