Education system fails next generation of mathematicians


Young people with the potential to successfully study mathematics at A level and beyond are being let down by a system that rushes them through the learning process and fails to allow them to develop a deep understanding of the subject, according to a new report by the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME).

The new ACME paper, Raising the bar: developing able young mathematicians, identified that the process of accelerating promising pupils through the curriculum was occurring at both primary and secondary school. 

At primary, schools are assessed on the results of Level 6 tests, which examine pupils on their ability to solve mathematics utilising concepts from the secondary curriculum.  At a secondary, league tables encourage schools to enter their pupils to take their mathematics GCSE early (“early entry”), which can lead to shaky foundations and hinder progression to A level.  

Chair of ACME, Professor Steve Sparks FRS said: “Just because a pupil can charge through the curriculum at top speed through procedural learning, does not mean that he or she has developed a clear grasp of the subject matter or could apply the fundamental principles more broadly.  The ‘acceleration’ approach is driven by league tables, and puts us at odds with many of the world’s highest performers in terms of mathematics education. It is inconsistent with the Government’s stated aim to encourage more students to study maths to 19.”

The report argues that adding extra content to the national curriculum is not the best way to develop young able mathematicians. Instead, such students should study the standard content in much more depth, with an ‘enhanced interpretation’ of the curriculum developed to support teachers and students.

The report also highlights that any initiatives should work with a broad cohort of students, rather than the top few percent, in order to increase the number of 16+ students choosing to study mathematics-based subjects or pursue mathematics-based careers. 

The key recommendations of the report include:

  • An ‘enhanced interpretation’ of the National Curriculum Programme of Study should be developed that allows for deeper study of the core content, rather than offering next year’s material or adding new content for the top few percent.
  • Additional assessment of the enhanced interpretation should be introduced, which should be accessible to around 25% of the cohort and graded independently of GCSE/EBC. This should test deeper understanding, not just extra content.
  • Some exposure to the enhanced interpretation of the curriculum should be a prerequisite for A level Mathematics.
  • Initial teacher training should be developed to support teachers in the delivery of the enhanced interpretation of the curriculum.
  • Supplementary resource materials should be developed to support teachers in the delivery of the enhanced interpretation of the curriculum, until it can be fully reflected in the core curriculum materials.
    Professor Sparks added: “We now have a real opportunity to address these issues and to develop a mathematically literate workforce of the future, able to keep pace with the demands of modern life and work.  The Government should act now to create an enhanced interpretation of the National Curriculum, and should develop school accountability measures that prioritise deep learning over rapid progress through extra content.”
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