Leading mathematicians are to script new syllabuses and exam questions as part of radical reforms being introduced to drive up education standards.
Revised qualifications will feature an emphasis on key disciplines such as trigonometry and probability, “demanding” questions will be set to stretch the brightest pupils and lesson materials will be available online.
The move is designed to address major concerns over a sharp decline in teenagers’ maths skills – leaving hundreds of thousands of young people unfit for the demands of higher education.
Cambridge warned that even the most talented students did not have “sufficient mastery of basic mathematics” and existing A-levels were too “superficial”.
Academics including Sir Tim Gowers, who won the prestigious Fields Medal for mathematics in 1998, will be involved in the project, although it could lead to a significant delay in the introduction of new sixth-form exams. [...]
A source close to Michael Gove said: “It is vital we raise standards, raise ambition and get people who really understand subjects back in charge.
“It is incredibly exciting that some of the best mathematicians in the world want to fix A-level maths. This will spread understanding of teaching the deep problem-solving skills that are so vital to universities and businesses, and give many more pupils an advanced education.”
Cambridge’s Department of Pure Mathematics has submitted a report to the Department for Education outlining how new-style maths A-levels should be structured.
It claims that changes are needed because “the majority of the talented students which Cambridge is able to recruit do not have sufficient mastery of basic mathematics to enable them to confidently engage with anything other than routine problems”.
“Existing A-level curriculums treat topics superficially and the UK has lost the tradition of teaching school mathematics coherently and in depth,” it adds. “The effect on Cambridge is acute.”
The document, by Prof Martin Hyland, head of the department, suggests focusing A-levels around a series of “key mathematical ideas”. This is likely to include complex numbers, trigonometry, combinatorics, probability and centres of mass.
In a key change, it recommends creating “graded sets of problems” for bright teenagers. A major part of assessments will be addressed at all students, but Cambridge is proposing a “range of demanding questions to challenge the most able”.
Academics are pledging to “exploit the potential of the web” by making maths materials available online and creating a newly-constructed website for teachers’ feedback.
Mathematicians from other universities will be asked for their input into the new A-level, which will extensively trialled in schools.
But the move is likely to lead to an overall delay
to the introduction of new-style qualifications in the subject, with Cambridge suggesting they could take five years to develop.
The Department for Education originally suggested it wanted new A-levels to be taught for the first time in 2014, although the Cambridge plan would rule out major changes until 2017 at the earliest.
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