Education & Family

New sixth-form maths course will focus on 'real' problems

Close-up hand and whiteboard
Image caption The government wants "the vast majority" of sixth-formers to study maths

The government has pledged funding to develop a new maths course for sixth-formers who are not studying the subject at A-level.

The course will focus on using mathematics to solve real problems.

The government wants most 17- and 18-year-old students to study maths, and has asked Mathematics in Education and Industry (MEI) to develop the course.

Charlie Stripp of MEI said: "We need to educate young people to be problem solvers in the real world".

The aim of the new course would be to allow students to continue studying mathematics after GCSE, alongside their other subjects. It would be open to those who achieved at least grade C at GCSE but who would be unlikely to take maths A-level.

The new syllabus would be based on ideas set out by Professor Timothy Gowers, of Cambridge University, in a recent blog. He suggests that the teaching of maths to non-mathematicians should be rooted in "real world" problems.

He wants pupils to be able to answer questions about potential everyday situations (see panel).

The idea would be that the problems should link to students' other subjects - for example: "You have a product to sell. How should you price it so as to maximise your profits?", which would engage economics and business students.

The question "How much can we trust opinion polls?" would be of interest to students studying social sciences as well as focusing on the study of statistics.

'Sterile' questions

Professor Gowers's blog asks: "At the moment, there are large numbers of people who give up mathematics after GCSE with great relief and go through the rest of their lives saying, without any obvious regret, how bad they were at it. What should such people study if mathematics becomes virtually compulsory for two more years?"

In the past he has criticised previous attempts at a maths curriculum for non-mathematicians as "sterile" and prone to asking "questions that are purely mathematical, and extremely easy compared with A-level maths".

MEI, an education charity, has been given £275,000 to develop Professor Gowers's ideas. Chief executive Charlie Stripp said: "This is a new type of maths course that will start from interesting, difficult realistic problems, that students can see the point of solving, and show them how maths can help solve them.

"Many students are turned off maths because they can't see the point of learning maths techniques to answer textbook questions that seem irrelevant to real life.

"We hope this course will motivate many more young people to take maths post-16, instead of dropping it after their GCSEs, only to regret it later when they realise they lack the skills they need."

Education Secretary Michael Gove said the decision to fund development of the new curriculum should help revitalise maths teaching in schools and colleges.

"Professor Tim Gowers's brilliant blog has sparked huge interest in how we could radically improve maths teaching," he said. "I am delighted that MEI is trying to develop the Gowers blog into a real course that could help thousands of students understand the power of mathematical reasoning and problem-solving skills."

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