In the two weeks since I posted my election statement blog, A-level reform has featured in the news more than once. The TES article below shows that how universities should be involved with A-levels, already unclear, is becoming contentious.
Some structure is required to allow HE mathematics to play a part in the review of A-level. To me this is part of a wider problem of curriculum design and maintenance which we currently have in England. I am not an expert on educational systems worldwide, but I believe that many countries have a standing committee for the development and review of the school curriculum. I believe that it would be valuable to have some such structure in England, and that the LMS, working with others, should be able to contribute to the design of a body with the working title ‘Standing Committee for Mathematics’.
Education is inevitably political, because it is important to so many voters and is directly experienced by everyone. A Standing Committee for Mathematics might be the best way to handle the mismatch between the political cycle and the educational development cycle.
Some of the debate seems to imply that making assessment more rigorous will be enough to raise standards. However there is a danger that the ruler will change, rather than the thing being measured. Also, with a free choice of A-levels, subjects whose rigour increases more may simply be taken by fewer students. It is stating the obvious, but changes need to be incremental and piloted, and the remit of the Standing Committee would need to include developing a curriculum to teach (with assessment as a corollary rather than a driver), the provision of textbooks (something which the LMS is already considering) and mathematics
CPD for teachers.
This raises wider questions of how universities might contribute. Universities cannot and should not take over the core functions of schools, but in my opinion it is good that the new ‘Widening Participation’ obligations are sparking thoughts about how universities might contribute to changes they and others see as desirable. Many problems stem from a shortage of teachers who can recognize (and relish) the real mathematics at each level, and confidently teach in a way that develops mathematical thinking rather than simply trains to answer routine questions. Universities can surely help by supporting those who can do this, and enabling more to develop such capability.
Lest this all seems rather mote and beamish, I will end by reiterating this paragraph: too often in HE we turn a more critical eye on schools than on our own departments. I feel that the LMS Education Committee should help catalyse constructive discussion of the courses we give, as well as continue to provide support (for instance via policy statements) for departments which are finding generic institutional policies conflict with the specific needs of mathematics.