Mathematics education uncovered and recovered

Maths curriculum and its problems

Children learn mathematics at school simply because they have to: some bits and pieces resembling mathematics as a knowledge area have been picked up and turned into a compulsory school subject. An obvious reason for doing this is that maths deals with numbers, and numbers are everywhere we look, so being able to understand and process them is a necessary life skill. True, but is it really necessary to study mathematics throughout all your school years just to be able to deal with everyday, routine, practical applications?


If we take an inventory of how much mathematics a person needs to know for their everyday needs, our list will hardly go beyond the content of the modern primary curriculum and could be labelled as “Numeracy skills”. The topics that are currently studied in the primary schools in England cover practically all useful numeracy and more.


When it comes to the secondary school curriculum, a serious problem regarding the content of the curriculum arises. Once the easy-to-agree-on goal of equipping all children with necessary numeracy skills is achieved, which presumably should happen by the end of the primary school, where to go next? What is the purpose of maths lessons at the secondary level?


The goal as I see it should be two-tiered. Firstly, the lessons should give a broad overview of mathematical methods and applications, including their history and (relatively) recent developments. Additionally, for students interested in further study of mathematics and sciences, the lessons should provide an introduction into mathematical reasoning and an opportunity to go deeper into technicalities.


The obvious need for two different strata of the curriculum is recognised in the existence of two tiers of GCSE Maths exams that are set for two different categories of students who in preparation for exams are taught separately, Foundation tier topics being assumed to be easier than Higher tier ones.


However, this distinction does not reflect the principal educational goals stated above. The Foundation tier topics are too narrow and detailed for students who will not need mathematics beyond primary level in their life. These students will unlikely to be able to see the wood of mathematics for the trees of exercises on disconnected topics, and the few things they would probably remember are some ludicrous mnemonics . As for the Higher tier, for students who are willing to become engineers, scientists and mathematicians, the content is too shallow and patchy; it does not lay a solid foundation for further study.


This mismatch between the needs of the students and the curriculum content manifests itself in two well-known facts. One is the enormous amount of stress and struggle the students without much interest in maths have to go through, with about 40 percent of them failing to get an official GCSE benchmark grade every year (currently grade 4, previously known as grade C). This means hundreds of thousands of 16-year olds being let down by the system year after year.


At the other end of the spectrum, there is a substantial gap between GCSE and A Level, and students continuing to do mathematics and maths-heavy subjects at A level often get overwhelmed by the pace of the course. Many of them are unable to make sense of new concepts due to the lack of adequate preparation that should have been provided by GCSE Maths.


Therefore, the current maths curriculum, aimed to serve everyone, is hardly suitable for anyone. This has been the case for years, and it will continue until the problem is recognised, articulated, and a fundamental change of the content is called for.