Making things compulsory

I see the latest recommendation is to make maths compulsory up to the age of 18

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/jul/24/make-maths-compulsory-a-level-lords

This is alleged to be a suitable solution to many things: the relatively low take-up of maths post-16 (well, OK, it’d do that), the lack of students taking STEM subjects at university, and the less than adequate maths skills of students taking university courses such as engineering or physics (who have therefore taken Maths A-level).

Two questions to be answered – will it achieve what they want, and is it a good thing to do anyway.

Achieving what they want – not convinced at all. Making someone who is studying English, French, History, RS take Maths as well will not somehow convert them into a STEM undergraduate. OK, if your original choice was Physics, Art, English, Drama, then compulsory maths would allow you to apply for engineering…. IF you wanted to.   Or are they thinking that kids’ response will be “Oh, I have to do maths anyway, so I might as well apply for a degree in it”? You will forgive me if I am somewhat sceptical.

Will it increase the mathematical knowledge of those who currently do A-level, but forget it all before starting their physics or engineering degree course? Doubt that too. If you make maths compulsory, then sixth form class sizes will increase, and there’ll be people in them who don’t want to be there. Teaching conscripts is very different to teaching willing recruits – quality of what’s delivered in the classroom is almost certain to go down in those circumstances. Also, even if there’s a lower level qualification (below AS) for all those forced to do maths, there will be more people trying to do A-level (on the grounds that “if I have to do it anyway, I’ll make it one of my subjects”) so there will be a further pressure to get them all through by hook or by crook. That will mean more teaching to the test, more learning of methods by rote, more focusing on short-term “progress” and less on long-term understanding. In short – more of all the things that contribute to the mathematical problems we have now.

Will it increase the numeracy of school-leavers? Almost certainly not, in isolation. Most non-technical jobs don’t require a knowledge of maths beyond GCSE – the issue is retention here, not learning it in the first place.

As for making things compulsory, as a principle – NO!   At 16, you are old enough to get a job, leave home, have sex… surely you are old enough to decide what you do and don’t want to study? After all, you can opt not to study at all if you want!

Anyway, making things compulsory doesn’t make you engage with them – it can have exactly the opposite effect.  My mother’s school made them all take Art up to the age of 16 – didn’t improve her ability to draw or paint one bit, it just made her thoroughly miserable, and meant she didn’t realise until her 70s how much she enjoyed art as a consumer. Similarly for me and subjects I hated – the longer I did them, the more long-lasting the dislike.  I don’t want anyone to hate Maths, of course I don’t. But if people do dislike it, forcing them to prolong the agony for a further two years won’t render them more enthusiastic, it will simply make them more reluctant and/or terrified if they have to use it in the real world.   Better, surely, to provide more opportunities for people to return to study later… but that’s for another post!

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