September 18, 2008
Playing Games Isn’t the Answer
By Andy Sharman
UNIVERSITIES A flagship scheme set up to raise teenage interest in mathematics will be lucky to solve the crisis affecting the subject at university level, says one leading academic. Andy Sharman reports
It was marketed as a scheme that would benefit up to 15,000 pupils and assist the teaching of a subject in crisis. But the Fast Forward Maths programme, launched by the University of Cambridge, has been rubbished by a leading academic, who says that the initiative will be lucky to produce just two future mathematics students for the university.
Dr Tony Gardiner, of Birmingham University, says the $1.2m (670,000) programme, which consists of a series of week-long workshops targeted at 14-year-olds in deprived areas of London, is "crazy" and will do little to improve the poor level of understanding of maths among school-leavers, much less remedy the malaise that still hangs over the subject at university level. "How many kids are they actually going to reach?," asked Gardiner, who also questioned the fact that the scheme will be restricted to London.
The Fast Forward Maths programme is backed by the Goldman Sachs Foundation, the charitable arm of the American investment bank, and is intended to encourage more students to pursue the subject beyond the compulsory GCSE. As part of the scheme, Year 10 students from the capital will attend Cambridge for three week-long residential sessions over the first year. The students will then benefit from so- called e-mentoring - email contact with Cambridge undergraduates and access to online resources provided by Cambridge mathematicians - during Year 11, the year of their GCSE examinations.
Charlie Gilderdale, academic co-ordinator of the programme, says that the project is focusing on London because Goldman Sachs is based in the capital, and had a particular interest in serving the local community. He added that the scheme was just a pilot project that had only been made possible by the Goldman Sachs investment.
The aim, he says, is to "make a difference to the attitudes of students in terms of considering going into higher education", adding that grooming future Cambridge mathematicians "is not high on the list of priorities".
"I'm not bothered whether they apply," he says. "I just want to broaden their horizons. This may not be what they choose to do in future. But at least they'll understand why people get excited about maths."
But Gardiner argues that it is foolish for the university to be focusing such labour-intensive projects on pupils, when school teachers are the ones who really need the attention. The university counters by saying it is laying on Goldman Sachs Teacher Inspiration Days, aimed at encouraging and informing mathematics teachers, which will have the knock-on effect of benefiting the pupils in the teachers' schools. Still, Gardiner, who runs the week-long National Mathematics Teachers' Summer School - also at Cambridge University - says that it's pointless to have teachers for just one day at a time. "If you get them for a day, you cannot really get to the point where their assumptions are challenged," he says.
Despite recent headlines about pupils "avoiding" maths and science, the Fast Forward Maths initiative is being launched amid general optimism at the rising number of A-level candidates in mathematics. The Joint Council for Qualifications says that uptake is at its highest level for 18 years. More than 64,000 sixth formers sat the maths A-level this year, up 4,500 on last year. Further maths numbers were also up on 2007, rising from 7,872 to 9,091. Those that do the subject seem to do well: 44 per cent get an A grade in maths, as do more than 57 per cent of further maths pupils.
"Obviously the numbers are better than they have been, but it is rectifying a problem rather than going above the level that it was at in the 1990s," says Professor Brian Davies of King's College London, who is also president of the London Mathematical Society. The "problem" was the disastrous modification of A-levels as part of Curriculum 2000. More than 28 per cent of students failed the new AS- level maths in 2001 and subsequent students shied away from a subject perceived as difficult.
Gardiner says that the current upsurge in A-level candidates is only due to the fact that the course has been shorn of its more demanding elements, such as complex equations and calculus. "How did we recover? We made [the A-level] even easier; we cut out one-sixth of the material. But that does not mean we're back to the levels of the 1990s, because the students are learning different material," he says.
He also says that there's little cause for optimism at rising A- level numbers or the high percentage of A grades, because students are still turning up at university with poor knowledge, forcing departments to teach remedial maths - and "not a lot else".
"It is awful. They are at a Year 7 level. These are A-grade students and they can't handle arithmetic or fractions. They're lost because they've faked it for seven years. Honours maths students are struggling. It's not their fault: they're in a test-driven system which forces everyone to focus on superficial things."
But Roger Porkess, chief executive of the independent educational charity Mathematics in Education and Industry (MEI), believes that the tide has turned in mathematics, thanks to schemes such as Fast Forward Maths. MEI has been given much credit for its Further Mathematics Network, a programme that offers tuition to around 1,000 students who are unable to study A-level further maths at their school or college.
It also offers guidance to teachers and puts pressure on university departments to demand further maths as a requirement.
"In general, maths is getting a much better profile these days," he says. "Initiatives like this do seem to be having an effect. Maths is leading the other stem subjects in this area."
Cambridge will this month hold the 24th Physics at Work exhibition which, like the Fast Forward Maths programme, aims to raise the profile of a struggling stem subject. University departments have been forced to close in both maths and physics: the maths faculties at Hull and Bangor closed in 2005 and 2006 respectively; UEA no longer has a physics department and Brunel, famous for engineering, has ceased to teach physics. Many more departments are under threat.
At school level, there is a crippling shortage of specialised teachers in both subjects. Professor Alan Smithers of Buckingham University recently produced a report on the shortage in physics, claiming that half of teachers have only an A-level, or even GCSE, qualification in the subject, despite being expected to get their pupils ready for university courses.
"The major reason why too few people are coming through in physics and maths is that there aren't enough teachers," he says. "And physics has been lost in the past 20 years in general science subjects at school, frequently taught by teachers who have not studied physics at university and therefore find it hard to make the subject come alive in class."
Physics, too, has also seen an increase, albeit marginal, in the number of A-level entries. This can be attributed in part to universities such as Cambridge issuing hitlists of "soft", so- called less effective preparation subjects. According to this thinking, physics is more valued than the double award in science.
As for the university's maths and physics workshop programmes, Smithers is sceptical: "It's very good that this is being attempted, but let's not expect too much," he says.
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