Alison Wolf

March 12, 2004

Taking the government's word for the quality of mathematics courses in schools could put university standards at risk

For decades, the decline in school mathematics has fed through into higher education. Universities have shrunk and closed their maths departments as undergraduate numbers have fallen. In a world where maths is central to ever more disciplines, we have been faced with engineering students dropping out as they repeatedly fail their maths papers and would-be economics students who can't understand the textbooks. In biology, geography and psychology, never mind chemistry, just reading up-to-date research involves a fundamental mathematical fluency. Most English students, with no maths since GCSE, cannot hope to acquire this through the unsystematic add-on courses that harassed departments devise.

Last year, the government finally commissioned a serious report on post-14 mathematics education, recently delivered by Adrian Smith, principal of Queen Mary University of London. We would do well to read, digest and support it vigorously. Otherwise, its recommendations may go the way of so many other reports that have presented governments with uncomfortable and expensive truths.

I should declare an interest here. Making Mathematics Count mentions, favourably, research on industry requirements that I co-directed with maths education professor Celia Hoyles: and we all tend to like people who like our work. However, the crucial parts of the report for universities deal with maths in schools. Here, I am sure that Smith is right to see the shortage of qualified teachers as the fundamental problem. You can tinker with diplomas till kingdom come but if there are no good teachers, pupils cannot learn properly, and if teaching is bad, they will not choose to study maths beyond the minimum required. Maths teachers have for years warned about the critical staff shortage. Universities, however, have helped the government to avoid action by constantly downgrading entrance requirements in the scramble for students. The professional engineering bodies have been pretty much alone in insisting that there are such things as absolute requirements for competence. A bit more honesty from other fields would help.

The most useful thing universities could do now, however, takes us beyond individual departmental admissions. We should line up behind Smith's suspicions about the way the government is busily classifying all maths (and other) qualifications into different levels, and his call for a full scrutiny of the "claimed equivalences" this involves.

All non-university qualifications are now shoehorned into a "National Qualifications Framework" with five levels, and any qualification is supposed to be "equivalent" to any other at the same level in terms of difficulty, value and status. Of course, no one outside education has ever heard of this process and nor have many inside, but it has enormous consequences. Civil servants are driven by the need to deliver national targets for qualification numbers. In this land of a thousand targets, we are all of us, by now, pretty good at spotting what that means. If one qualification is cheaper and easier to teach, and "counts" as the same, it is going to be a lot more popular than more demanding ones. This has already happened at GCSE. When B grades were offered to students on the middle-level GCSE course, and not just those on the hardest one, numbers taking the latter halved pretty much overnight. Both GCSE maths and an adult basic skills or key skills numeracy test are now in the framework as level 2, so schools and further education colleges can meet their targets and increase their value-added just as well with either. Universities need to take note because all this level-setting translates directly into admissions information. Levels decide what Universities and Colleges Admissions Service points a qualification can receive, and the forthcoming changes are likely to increase the importance of these points.

The Schwartz report on admissions seems likely to recommend more professional admissions officers - which, inevitably, will encourage greater use of formal rules for deciding who is eligible, and which qualifications count for entry. The Tomlinson inquiry is proposing upper-secondary leaving diplomas, for which some sort of level 2 in maths or English is all that is specified. And Ucas, as a quasi-public agency with ambition, is very keen on points and levels. Which generalist admissions officer will want to argue? Smith's report has excellent suggestions for improving sixth-form maths. In my worst moments, I fear that instead we will end up with self-congratulatory governments meeting targets by further reducing the maths most students learn. Isn't this, for once, an area where the whole higher education sector has interests in common?

Alison Wolf is professor of management at King's College London.

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