Education

The lesson is, don’t be bad at maths

An update to my last post about Judith Woods’ article about the GCSE system. She says it’s unfair that her daughter had to get a decent mark in maths to get into her preferred sixth-form college, when all she wanted to do was study fine art.

To explain: although my daughter got a fantastic grade in art, which she wants to study, her grade in maths, which she does not want to study, isn’t deemed high enough to gain entry into the sixth form of her choice – to do fine art.

 

Meanwhile her friend did not get as high a grade in art, which she too wants to study but she got a lot higher in maths, which she does not want to study, and as a result she will be attending that very self same sixth form – to do fine art.

 

It’s a sort of twisted logic worthy of Lewis Carroll.

Well, no, it may be somewhat unfair, but it isn’t Lewis Carroll, not when you think about things from the college’s point of view. It may be disappointing to this girl, and I do feel for her, and it’s a very imperfect system, but we’re not in Alice in Wonderland territory.

The main point is that she’s not trying to get into art school, where requiring a good grade in maths really wouldn’t make much sense. She’s trying to get into a sixth form college, which will teach fine art as one of many other subjects. The students there, including this girl, if she went, will be doing three to five different subjects a year. So she couldn’t just do fine art, she’s have to some other subjects as well.

Now, a top sixth-form college can afford to be picky about who it lets in. It will want to admit the best students it can, for various reasons. One of these reasons will be that the better students are probably going to be easier to teach. I say ‘probably’ because I found that at University this was generally true, although not always — sometimes a year where the required marks were lower were better to teach than a year where the students had got higher marks. And sometimes the students with the higher marks can be more of a pain in the arse as they expect everything to be done for them, instead of them doing the work. But as a general rule of thumb it’s more likely that the students with the higher marks are the better students to have.

So that means you want students with higher marks, and higher marks across the board, not just a high mark in one thing, Someone who is good at only fine art may be great to teach in fine art, but drags things down in every other class they do. This may not, of course, apply to this particular girl, who may be a joy to teach in her other classes, but we’re talking probabilities here — you go with what’s more likely.

I note that many University courses require a good or decent mark in GCSE Maths, in addition to whatever other requirements they have. Places that add this requirement do it because they think that it helps keep out students who get the required marks in easier A level subjects. This is hardly perfect, and some courses that used to do this no longer do so, and it would certainly be good if some better system could be devised where students who are clever and talented at everything except Maths could still get in, but then things become very messy and complicated, and there’s no guarantee that you’d really achieve the aim of letting in just those students who are clever and talented at everything except Maths and not a lot of other students who won’t be up to it (and exactly who those C&T students are is hard to decide to start with).

This is not to say that I always agree with having these sorts of Maths requirements. I’m not sure they’re always a good idea. But they’re hardly Lewis Carroll. As I said, the top sixth-firm colleges want top students, and requiring a good mark in Maths is a crude and sometimes unfair but generally pretty effective way of ruling out an awful lot of students who aren’t at the level they require.

I do, however, expect that Woods is right in saying that the GCSE system is generally a shambles. It’s the government organising it, so its bound to be.

And I have been somewhat unfair on the parents because at the bottom level it’s really the state that’s to blame for all this tremendous pressure that is being placed on students by their parents. The main reason why middle-class parents, and aspirational working-class parents, are desperate to get their kids into good schools is because the average state school is so badly run, and hamstrung by political correcteness, with little ability to discipline badly-behaved kids. That’s why you have to get your kids into a good school where the kids behave well because they all come from backgrounds where that’s expected. If they end up at an average state school, however, then they’ll face all sorts of disruptions from unruly classmates.

The bright kids may be protected to some degree in subjects that are streamed, but someone like Judith Woods’ daughter, who is only average in some subjects, will have to sit through endless classes that are ruined by bad behaviour, and where the expectations from the teachers are low. I can’t really blame parents for wanting their kids to be spared that.

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