Roger Porkess does not look like a people's champion or a rabble-rouser.
Retiring behind thick glasses, the white-haired 53-year-old looks more like the mild-mannered tertiary maths teacher he was for almost two decades than the fierce critic whose campaign against the Government's school curriculum agency, SCAA, has won him the backing of shadow education secretary David Blunkett and brought him a legal threat from SCAA chief executive Nick Tate.
Mr Porkess, project leader of independent curriculum advisory body Mathematics in Education and Industry (MEI) at the University of Plymouth's Centre for Teaching Mathematics, has led the campaign against SCAA's moves to change the maths A level syllabus core. The legal threat, which Mr Porkess will not discuss in detail, centres on a letter he sent to school heads last October urging them to protest against the changes (THES, January 10).
"My only concern is to ensure schools produce an adequate supply of mathematically competent students for higher education and industry," he proclaims. "Which at the moment, they are not."
Mr Porkess completed his first degree in maths at Cambridge in 1969. With spells in the 1970s teaching maths in Ghana and Malaysia, he spent the 1980s as a head of department at a school in Staffordshire while working as an unpaid volunteer on the team at MEI, which he was invited to join full time in 1990. MEI's current pioneering modular maths A-level syllabus is studied by about 20 per cent of all A-level maths pupils.
He argues that the national curriculum has been disastrous for maths. "At a time when numbers in tertiary education were rising, the number of students taking maths A level fell from about 100,000 ten years ago to about 60,000."
Mr Porkess is not averse to changes to the syllabus but objects to the way the 1997 maths subject core has come about. In 1993 the syllabus core was reduced and new syllabuses were developed to answer the complaints of universities and to avert the perceived crisis. But, says Mr Porkess, it has not been given a chance.
"The first graduates of the changed 1993 A-level syllabuses have only just started at university. Before anyone had a chance to look at these students, someone at SCAA batted an eyelid and declared the whole thing would be changed yet again," he says.
SCAA has now finalised the new maths core, and education secretary Gillian Shephard's office is expected to give its approval by the end of this month. Educationists will continue to argue about its merits. SCAA has admitted the controversial ban on calculators was rejected by most maths consultees but will go ahead anyway.
"SCAA should either leave maths alone or establish a proper thorough review from the age of five right through to university," he says.
In many respects Mr Porkess has failed. Despite a few concessions in the core's details, his vociferous appeals - taken up by the Joint Mathematical Council and opposition parties - for an extended timetable for changes to maths have been rejected.
But he says: "The pressure is now diverted to the politicians. By the time the new syllabuses are submitted in summer, there will be a new Government of whatever party. I'd like to think they'll have a new agenda."
... BUT SCAA DEFENDS REVISION OF THE MATHS A-LEVEL SYLLABUS CORE
Like an old sparring partner, the SCAA responds to Roger Porkess by combining a robust defence with a note of weariness.
"Mr Porkess questions why we are reviewing the maths core before we have had time to monitor the performance of pupils sitting the 1993 revised syllabus," said a SCAA spokeswoman. "But we needed to make revisions to all A-level cores regardless of the changes in 1993 because we are implementing the proposal in Sir Ron Dearing's 16-19 inquiry that a horizontal AS level be introduced across the board.
"Mr Porkess says the changes we are making are not radical enough, but we don't believe that the maths A level needs a fundamental review. And to ensure consistency between the horizontal AS and the A level we do not want to make fundamental changes."
To justify the controversial detail in the new core, SCAA points to its recent Standards Over Time report into A-level maths quality, which Mr Porkess claims SCAA has largely ignored. "It found that there had been a reduction in the demands placed on students in algebraic manipulation, advanced problem-solving and reasoning. We've taken this opportunity to re-emphasise these areas in response to concerns. "The calculator ban in certain papers is part of a series of measures in which we are looking at their use throughout secondary schools."