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Introducing the 'sat-nav' maths exam

By Benjamin Cohen

Updated on 09 July 2009

Benjamin Cohen looks at plans to introduce a new "use of mathematics" A-level allowing students to use technology to answer exam questions.

Maths calculations

Technology is playing an increasingly important part of the teaching of mathematics, to the extent that a new more practical mathematics A-level has been proposed.

But sample exam papers obtained by Channel 4 News have been described by some of the country's leading maths professors as "sat-nav maths" and that the qualification will not be worth the paper it is written on.

On Friday, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority will close consultations on a proposed new "Use of Mathematics" A-Level. Designed for the age of the computer, the new qualification focuses on practical applications of mathematics rather than higher mathematical theory.


It aims to put students in touch with the skills that they will use in the real world with papers including "personal finance".

A number of examination bodies have created sample examination papers but they have not been officially circulated to the academics in Britain who will be selecting students to study mathematics at university.

Channel 4 News obtained sample exam papers produced by one board, AQA, which revealed that on all papers students will be allowed to take in complex graphical calculators which will allow them plot graphs and then copy them onto the exam paper.

Channel 4 News showed Nick Shepherd-Barron, Professor of Algebraic Geometry at the University of Cambridge the sample exam papers. He described them as "dispiriting".

"It's hardly what Newton gave us," he said.


He warned that pupils who take them may lose out to rivals in other countries where more traditional mathematics is taught. He told Channel 4 News: "You have to remember that we have a lot of students from Europe. It is difficult to have an education system which is going to cope with highly qualified Poles and Germans and with less qualified British students."

Professor Shepherd-Barron is one of more than fifty of the country's leading mathematics academics who will tomorrow sign a submission to the QCA that was compiled by the Reform think tank declaring that the new Use of Mathematics A-Level is not worth the paper it is written on.

He explained that those taking the exam papers with the aid of graphical calculators may get the correct answer, but that does not mean they are qualified to study mathematics at university.

He told Channel 4 News: "The question is not really whether they get the right answer, it is whether they understand what they are doing and if they understand the limits of what they are actually doing. If you think you are understanding something but in fact you are just following a routine, you not acting as a human being. You are acting as an inferior computer."

Mick Brookes, General Secretary of the National Association of Headteachers said the academics are displaying intellectual snobbery.

He told Channel 4 News: "They should get down from their ivory towers. They should be out in the world where young people live and exist and they should be appreciative that young people have great skills in the use of technology and we have to latch on to that.

"We can not continue teaching an out dated 19th century curriculum. This is simply turning many children off education because it is completely not relevant to them at all."

But some believe that the Use of Mathematics does not go far enough in the use of technology.

Wolfram Alpha, dubbed the 'answer engine', allows students to solve in complex mathematical equations. Teachers are worried that students are using it for their mathematics homework.


Dr Conrad Wolfram, Managing Director of Wolfram Research told Channel 4 News that eventually students should be able to take laptops into mathematics exams.

"You should use a laptop, you should use computer for doing the calculation bit of maths," he said.

"There are a few cases where it is important to do calculations by hand, but these are small fractions of cases. The rest of the time you should assume that students should use a computer just like everyone does in the real world. "

James Robinson of Ripley St Thomas School in Lancaster, speaking on behalf of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics, told Channel 4 News: "There's an old phrase 'garbage in garbage out'. If you enter the material into Wolfram Alpha incorrectly you will get the wrong answer. If you don't know the mathematics behind it you won't know you have got the right answer."

The QCA's consultation on the Use of Mathematics closes tomorrow and it is anticipated that it will be introduced as a subject from September 2011.

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