I wish I could respond with unhesitating encouragement. I'd love to advise all my students to continue with maths post-16 and I know that many of them would like to. I reckon that about half of my y11s have talked about taking A level maths, or have said that they will miss maths next year and wish they could do it in the sixth form.
So why didn't I just say go for it? Why don't I encourage all my students to take A level maths?
Well first things first, I firmly believe that everyone can achieve highly in maths, its just that some people need more time to understand things, or need to learn in different, often more visual ways. I also can't stand putting limits on myself or anyone else. I think anyone can do anything if they put their mind to it.
But we have to be realistic. It's not fair, in fact it is irresponsible, to encourage students to do something that they are unlikely to be successful in. Maths is a linear subject where you need to understand basic principals before you can move on. There is a substatial gap between achieving a C or a B in GCSE maths and tackling the subject matter in the A level course.
So when students who are on track to achieve a C or a B at GCSE ask about doing A level maths, I never tell them that it's out of the question, but I am honest with them. I tell them that it is hard work, much harder than GCSE and I tell them that they will need to do a lot of work in the summer between y11 and sixth form, to bridge the gap. I try to strike a balance between encouraging their ambition and being realistic about what can be achieved.
Even as I write this I feel awkward. I didn't become a teacher to put limits on students or to tell them that something is "probably too hard for you". But I have found some cause for hope from an unlikely source: the department for education. The turrential downpour of new initiatives, reforms and policy changes from the DfE has been pretty difficult to keep up with over the past couple of years and I have to admit that I hadn't seen this http://www.acme-uk.org/media/10520/20121217acme_post_16_strategy.pdf which is a report from the ACME (the advisory committe on mathematics education) about options for post-16 mathematics, published in December last year.
I was very encouraged to find this paragraph:
A new [mathematics] qualification should be developed and introduced as
part of wider A level reforms.
This qualification should:
- Be distinct from A level Mathematics, with an emphasis on solvingrealistic problems, using a variety of mathematical approaches, and should be for students not currently doing AS or A level Mathematics
- Give students the confidence to consolidate their understanding ofmathematics by using and applying mathematics already learned in GCSE and new mathematics beyond GCSE developed during the course.
- Have a smaller volume than AS level and be designed to be studied over two years
It sounds good to me. I like the phrase "give students the confidence to consolidate their understanding of mathematics by using and applying mathematics already learned in GCSE". I'm feeling cautiously optimisitc about the idea of a sixth form course that focusses on using and applying GCSE mathematics plus some extra content. I certainly agree that we need a course with "a smaller volume than AS level" for students who aren't ready for the onslaught of AS and A level maths.
So hurry up Gove, get a move on with this one. After all, its not like you to wait around!
I just have one plea: make sure you introduce it as an optional course, with engaging real-life content, suitable for those C/B grade students who want to keep going with maths. If you try to make it compulsory it will be "one-size-fits-all" and it won't work. Use it as an opportunity to give teachers and students more choice, not less.