Cambridge University 'to set maths A-levels'

From  ‘s article in The Telegraph:

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.

Read the full article.


The ownership of A-levels

From TES, from an article Gove under fire, by William Stewart, 19 October 2012:

“By far the most important thing we are doing on A levels

is getting university academics back in the driving seat instead of the Department for Education,” the source [very close to education secretary Michael Gove] said. […]

[Mr Gove] wanted government to “step back”, allowing universities to take “real and committed” ownership of new A levels, giving the qualifications their endorsement so that they, rather than exam boards, “drive the system”.

But in an official response to the plans, seen by TES, Universities UK states: “We do not think it would be advisable or operationally feasible for the sector to take on the ‘ownership of the exams’, particularly in terms of formally endorsing all A levels as currently  proposed.”

[UUK] argues that because A levels are a national qualification, “ultimate responsibility and accountability” for them should remain with the government. […]

Ministers believe there is a split over A levels between academics and the universities they work for, which represents a “huge problem”.

“Almost all academics want linear A levels, but universities are not run by academics and admin offices have totally different views, partly because of the cursed focus on ‘access’ which has poisoned intelligent discussion of (the) real problem, which is too many rubbish schools,” the source close to Mr Gove said.

Read the whole article.

A Bacc is coming?

From Mail Online, By Ben Spencer:

Education secretary Michael Gove is […] said to be developing an Advanced Baccalaureate which would see students studying a mixture of A-level subjects, writing a 5,000-word essay and undertaking voluntary work. […]

If his proposals are enacted it would mean the entire exam system for secondary schools will have been replaced in the space of thee years.

The new baccalaureate system would require A-level students to study ‘contrasting’ subjects to give them a broad education, The Times reported last night.

A candidate who chose A levels in maths, further maths and physics, for example, would be expected to pick a humanity, such as history or French, as a fourth subject. 

Mr Gove also wants shorter and more open-ended questions in exams.

One option he is apparently considering is to limit the A-Bacc to teenagers who choose at least two A levels from a list of subjects specified by Russell Group universities – maths, further maths, English literature, physics, biology, chemistry, geography, history, and modern and classical


Read more:

New exams without trials?

From The Guardian:

Education Guardian has learned that Ofqual, the exams regulator, has quietly abandoned a promise to ensure that all major exam reforms are piloted in advance. This means that the next big set of changes – the much-discussed introduction of English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs) to replace GCSEs, initially in

English, maths and science, from 2015 – are likely to go ahead without any conventional pre-trials.

Read the full article.

Key Stage 4 qualification reform – Secretary of State’s announcement

From DfE:

In the core academic subjects that make up the English Baccalaureate – English, mathematics, sciences, history, geography and languages – the Government intends to replace current GCSE with new qualifications, to be called “English Baccalaureate Certificates”.  The Government will be moving away from the competition between Awarding Organisations to sell their qualifications in these subjects.  Instead of schools choosing between a number of competing GCSEs in these subjects, a competition will be held to identify a single suite of qualifications, offered by a single Awarding Organisation in each subject, for a period of five years.

 A public consultation on these reforms has been launched, which will run until 10th December.  This can be accessed [here].

Click here for quotes from the Consultation Document:

Continue reading

No A* grades, endless re-sits or marks for coursework?

From Daily Mail:

Michael Gove is to herald an end to a quarter of a century of ‘dumbed-down’ exams this week when he abolishes GCSEs and brings back a tough new O-level style system.

The Education Secretary will announce the new exams on Tuesday in a joint press conference with Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg […]

Under Mr Gove’s shake-up, the

current system whereby nearly three in ten pupils get A or A* grades will go. Instead as few as one in ten will get the top mark, Grade 1. […]

Marks will depend on a traditional ‘all or nothing’ three-hour exam at the end of the two-year course […]

[…] questions in the new exam will be graded, starting with easy questions and building up to difficult questions which will stretch the cleverest pupils.

It means that less able pupils may be unable to complete the paper.[…]

In addition, the new exams will be run by a single exam board following complaints that competition between rival boards is driving down standards. Read more.

And from BBC:

But pupils will not start studying for it until September 2015, after the next general election. The first exams would be taken in 2017.

Gove pushes on with plans for the return of O-levels

From Mail Online:

Michael Gove will this week press ahead with reforms designed to fix the ‘broken’ exam system as he vows to replace GCSEs with a more rigorous, O-level style of exam.

The Education Secretary is expected to unveil plans to introduce a new qualification before the next election in 2015, arguing that GCSEs ‘haven’t worked’. […]

The proposals will be put out for consultation before the new examination is introduced in 2014.

The Education Secretary says the Government will consult experts, teachers and parents on what the new examination, and its grades, should be called.

‘The aim is to ensure that we have an examination that recognises the genuinely academically gifted by making sure that top grade, an A or whatever it might be called, is clearly a sign of someone who is a high flier, but at the same time, this examination, we hope, will ensure that all children – we hope the majority will take it at 16, some may take it at the age of 17 or 18 – that all children can have their fluency in English, mathematics and other subjects like history and physics recognised.”

Read more

Ofqual: Recruitment of Key Stage 2 subject experts

A colleague brought to my attention to the following advertisement from Ofqual:

“Recruitment of Key Stage 2 subject experts

[…] We are keen to hear from you if you feel you have a suitable level of experience in Key Stage 2 education and assessment, specifically in reading, writing, mathematics or science. You might be a current or ex-teacher or marker, or have other relevant experience in developing or delivering Key Stage 2 assessments. […]”

He has also raised his concerns:

“I have a gut feeling that any set of minimal requirements for “Key Stage 2 subject experts” invited to  work on “developing Key Stage 2 assessments” should include (at least in case of mathematics) some experience of teaching and assessment not only at KS2, but also at KS3 level. For otherwise how can they ensure the continuity and cohesion of pupils’ study?”

My opinion is that there are few people who will have the necessary experience of both KS2 and KS3 teaching experience and assessment development. They are more likely to find people with the KS2 experience only – of course KS3 experience as well would be a bonus, but most people (I should probably say teachers here) are primary or secondary, not both. People in middle schools (ages 9-13) would have bridged the KS2/3 divide, but perhaps would not have seen the curriculum through to the end of KS3. I think that if they stipulated the KS2/3 requirement then they would be faced with a dearth of applicants!

I was always amazed that pupils who came into secondary education with level 5 mathematics at KS2 never really seemed to have a grasp of the topics at that level – even many of those with level 4 struggled with level 4 in KS3. Now this could have been the 6  week lay-off they had over the summer, or the fact that they had been crammed for the KS2 mathematics SAT tests to get the best results for their primary school data. However there seemed to be little correlation between the algebra at level 5 which was tested at KS2 and the algebra at level 5 for KS3, the latter always seemingly the harder. Unfortunately I do not have any hard data to back up my opinion – it is just a gut reaction. One has to believe in the integrity of the powers that oversee these tests (QCA, QCDA, Ofqual or whatever) and that continuity did and will take place.

What should be the priorities of Ofqual A Level Reform Consultation?

Having read the Ofqual A Level Reform Consultation I suggest that DfE:

  1. Be wary of changes which may lead to a reduction in numbers taking Mathematics and Further Mathematics.
  2. Accept that there MUST be a common core in at least the pure parts of Maths and Further Maths.
  3. Accept that if the country/government is serious about wanting a more numerate population then the maths curriculum must be drawn up to do the job, not fitted into an unsuitable mould for the sake of ‘consistency’ across subjects.
  4. Accept that, at A level, no one exam can test satisfactorily the whole ability range in mathematics.
  5. For minimum disruption, redesign something like AEA or STEP to stretch the top ability range with problems (where students are not led through to the solution) and where rigour and good style are recognised and rewarded. Fund it and make it more accessible than the present AEA/STEP, with on-line support as for Further Maths. (I imagine HE are not so unhappy with the content of Maths and Further Maths but with the lack both of rigour and of problem solving.)

[Related posts: Universities to set A-levelsA Level Reform ConsultationCommons Select Committee on Education: Introduce National Syllabuses]

O level papers from 1957, 1962, and 1968

I found these old 1968 GCSE [then called O’ level] Maths papers in my study. Try them and see what you think.

1968 O Level Maths Paper 1   * 1968 O Level Maths Paper 2

And these are 1962 Ordinary Level Maths papers – passed to me by my dear friend, Frank.

1962 O Level Maths Paper 1 * 1962 O Level Maths Paper 2

And Graham’s  1957 Ordinary  Level Maths Papers

[Originally posted at Maths Answers]