Maths A-level could include more ‘real world’ problems to attract pupils

Department for Education is to fund charity to come up with new ideas to make curriculum more enticing

Sixth formers could be asked to work out the chances of their next holiday flight crashing or discuss whether they should trust political opinion polls under plans to persuade more pupils to study maths after the age of 16 through the use of innovative, real world problems.

The Department for Education is to fund an education charity to suggest ideas for a new maths curriculum suitable for all students who gained at least a C grade in the subject at GCSE. It follows a speech last year by the education secretary, Michael Gove, who argued that the “vast majority” of 17- and 18-year-olds should continue to study maths even if they don’t pursue it as an A-level.

Mathematics in Education and Industry (MEI) is to base its work on the ideas of Tim Gowers, professor of mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge, who was knighted in the last Queen’s birthday honours list.

Frustrated by what he saw as dull sample questions for a proposed new A-level in use of mathematics, Gowers has used his personal blog to come up with more enticing alternatives to tempt those without a natural predisposition for the subject into taking an interest.

The blog now lists dozens of suggested questions covering areas such as estimation and probability – for example calculating how many molecules from Socrates’s last breath will be in a classroom – to elements of game theory, which balances an individual’s actions with those of other actors. One of Gowers’s suggested questions would see students deciding whether they would benefit from paving over their front garden to create a parking space: this would increase the value of their house, but if all neighbours followed suit the street would become uglier, with everyone losing out.

MEI said it would “investigate how Professor Gowers’s ideas might inform a curriculum that could become the basis of a new course for students who do not currently study mathematics post-16″.

An ability to properly assess risk and statistics is seen as particularly helpful to equip students for the world beyond education. Among Gowers’s suggested subjects is an examination of how far opinion polls can be trusted, and whether on a given air flight you are more likely to perish in a crash or through unrelated natural causes.

Some suggested examples come from the news, for example the case of Sally Clark, who was wrongly convicted of murder in 1999 after a paediatrician argued that the chances of both her infant sons dying of cot death was one in 73m.

The overall strategy for boosting post-16 involvement in mathematics is being led by the Advisory Committee for Mathematics Education, an independent body which works with the government on the subject.

The plan was to help young people use maths to be “problem-solvers in the real world”, said Charlie Stripp, chief executive of the MEI. He 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.”

Gove said Gowers’s blog was “brilliant” and had generated huge interest in improving the teaching of maths. He added: “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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