Why teach Mathematics?

Last week I was discussing the new O-level with my Head of Department. I was of the opinion that an O-level is not necessarily a bad thing but it very much depends on what there is for pupils that are not capable of passing O-level to do.

The problem with GCSE Mathematics is that it does not actually achieve any of the goals it might have been intended for.

A C+ in Maths GCSE does not mean a pupil has a level of numeracy that employers will be happy with.

Less than a C in Maths GCSE does not mean a pupil does not have a level of numeracy that an employer will be happy with

GCSE does not really identify the best Mathematicians either. A reasonably bright, hard working student can get an A without actually being good at Maths.

GCSE does not identify those that are suitable for further mathematical study (although it might perhaps identify those that are not). My last Year 12 group was at least half full of pupils that were not good enough at maths to get a half decent grade at A-level (although they are all going to be doctors obviously).

Because students are not allowed to fail are so well drilled and prepared and forced to work and revise if they choose not to their GCSE Maths tells  us little about their work ethic or ability.

This is what competition between exam boards, league tables, OFSTED and idiot politicians have led us to. A situation where exam boards determine the percentage of pupils that are going to pass (generally last years percentage +1 or 2 ) and set the grade boundaries accordingly. This results in pupils sitting exams that doen’t really tell us anything about what they are capable of.

I mean what does a C in Maths GCSE actually mean in terms of what a pupil can do. I could hazard a guess as to what a C student can do but it would be a guess. All a C in Maths really tells anyone is that a student is in the top 60% of their cohort. How useful. In my year 12 class the pupils GCSE grades tell me how good their GCSE teachers were at drilling and preparing pupils and that’s about all. The best Mathematicians don’t have the best GCSE maths grades and the worst mathematicians definitely do not have the worst grades

I think an exam that identifies those that are suited to continuing their education in maths or a maths related subject is a good idea. I think an exam that suggests you are numerate if you pass and not particularly numerate if you don’t is a good idea. I think trying to set one exam that accomplishes both is fundamentally flawed.

Personally I think making Maths GCSE double award would make more sense. Changing the name to O-level is hardly going to make a huge amount of difference without more important changes. The bottom line is for as long as there are league tables, OFSTED and competing exam boards what the exams are called remains trivial. Mercifully at least some of the nonsense is being scrapped.

We will have to wait and see what the new exam looks like and what the other maths qualifications are for those that are not suited to O-level.

What concerned me was the part of the conversation where my HOD said there was no point in discussing the proposals because it’s our job to get kids through the exams no matter what they are and that anyone who doesn’t want to get kids through exams shouldn’t be teaching.

I understand that pupils need qualifications in order to be employable. I understand that they need to pass exams. I understand that I am judged as a teacher based on exam results. That, however, is not why I teach Maths. My goal is not to get pupils an A*-C in Maths. My goal is to make them better at Maths. I don’t want to “get kids through exams”. I want to help them get themselves through the exams. I’m a good, successful teacher and I’d put my results up against most peoples that work in a similar school. I don’t mind being judged based on my results. Generally I’m more critical of myself than those judging me anyway. However the results are incidental. I make pupils better at Maths. That is my goal and that is why I teach Maths. If they get good grades that’s fantastic. It’s not why I teach though.

I hope that O-level maths + alternative maths qualifications for those not doing O-level will be an improvement on what we have now. Sadly I suspect it won’t be for those not suited to O-level.

I woudl include those that are too lazy to pass O-level in the category (not suited to O-level along with those that are not good enough at maths to pass it.


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