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 nonexaminable
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 examonly 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
welleducated 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.