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Top sets maths: is this all they learn?

(72 Posts)
Saskia1234 Wed 24-Jun-15 12:34:41

We came to the UK in 2008 (from Holland) and our children are attending a lovely state primary school here, they are thriving there and are both very happy. Ds is currently in year 5 so we are looking at secondary schools now, and trying to understand the British school system which seems so incredibly complicated that after months of reading about it and talking to people I still find it hard to understand how it all works!

One thing that really concerns me is that it seems that children, even those in top sets, don't learn an awful lot in maths in the 5 years running up to GCSEs. Dh and I looked at GCSE past papers (higher tier) and we both agreed that this was stuff that we used to do two or even three years earlier in our secondary school. When we looked at A level past papers however, the level was really good, comparable to what we did (but then, children in Holland take 7 A levels instead of 3).

I've read many posts here on mn and elsewhere from parents saying their kids are bored to death in maths lessons, not learning anything new in the first two years - something we never experienced at school ourselves, and we were both good at maths (dh became a mathematician).

My question is: do schools teach only what is 'necessary' for GCSE, or do they teach beyond this, at least to the top sets, and start with harder stuff sooner to prepare those who might want to do A level maths? I understand sometimes they enter children a year early for the exam, but how often does this happen, and is it just as normal in comprehensives as in grammars or private schools?

Cloud2 Wed 24-Jun-15 14:28:36

I agree that secondary math are a bit too simple. My DS1 didn't learn much at year 7 at all. However, the top set in his school will learn additional math alongside GCSE math.

I guess each school do it differently. One DC of my friend is in a not very good state secondary, but he is very good at math, their school has let him did GCSE math earlier and finish A level math in year 11. And he has got a Cambridge math offer this year.

I think sometimes, a good and ambitious math teacher makes all the difference.

noblegiraffe Wed 24-Jun-15 14:42:03

Quite a lot of top sets will do an extra maths gcse, in statistics, further maths or additional maths. It's well recognised that the current maths GCSE is rubbish for bright kids and crap preparation for A-level.

However, there is a new GCSE being introduced for Y10 in September which should be more challenging. It will have extra content, and the questions are supposed to be harder. How hard has yet to be seen as there has been a complete balls-up with its introduction. A-level maths is also being changed to be made harder, for first teaching from September 2017, but I've not seen anything about it yet.

Saskia1234 Wed 24-Jun-15 18:13:23

Thanks cloud2 and noblegiraffe for your replies. I agree that an ambitious teacher can make all the difference, it's just such a shame the curriculum itself isn't a bit more ambitious... I imagine a lot of kids will just loose interest if expectations are so low. Surely if Dutch kids can handle harder maths, then kids here can do it too, especially since it seems to me that the level at the end of primary school here is higher than in Holland.
I've just checked and it looks like our local comp doesn't offer any statistics, further maths or additional maths on gcse-level. Does that mean it's no good for maths at all? There is another, outstanding, school not too far away and they had 1 (!!) pupil who did statistics last year (and it's a huge school), so not very promising either...

Millymollymama Wed 24-Jun-15 18:43:00

The new maths curriculum is more challenging and will contain elements previously in the A level curriculum.

In lots of schools the brightest can take maths a year early. Maths also has a very high number of A*s at A level - far more than languages for example. I would look for a school that routinely has enough children taking maths early and then has top results for A level maths AND further maths. At my DDs school, the top performers were doing A level work in year 11. Brilliant mathematicians would do it earlier than that. It just requires the school to be flexible. I know plenty of children who did not do the additional mathematical GCSEs but got top grades at A level.

Oxford and Cambridge accept these exams, plus their tests or the extra test taken for universities such as Warwick so clearly state pupils do get the required teaching or these universities would be full of foreign educated or private school pupils. A more difficult A level curriculum will no doubt reduce the number of A*s but that won't necessarily be a bad thing.

mumsneedwine Wed 24-Jun-15 18:50:17

Try them on this:
Hannah has 6 orange sweets and some yellow sweets. The probability that she takes 2 orange sweets is 1/3. Prove n^2-n-90=0. This years year 11 loved this one on paper 1.

catslife Wed 24-Jun-15 19:34:43

Which past papers did you look at OP? GCSE Maths was made harder in 2012 when the new linear specification was first introduced and will be made even harder for children starting GCSE Maths in September (first exams June 2017).
Maths is a subject which has a very broad ability range so on the Higher paper there will need to be questions that are suitable for grade C candidates as well as those aiming for A*s.
Is your ds likely to be top set material? It doesn't automatically follow that if your child is in top set at primary school they will remain so at secondary.

Mathematician Wed 24-Jun-15 20:32:19

Honestly? Yes, it really is that bad in UK state schools, and most independent schools too. Expect to do a lot of boredom management, and, if you care about your DC's mathematical development, a lot of challenging them at home too.

Millymollymama Wed 24-Jun-15 21:20:40

So how do young people manage on maths degree courses then, if it is so bad, Mathematician? Lots of parents are not good enough to help - are their children a lost cause? That is a dreadful position to take. Surely a teacher can extend gifted children to stop them being bored? I know 2 gifted mathematicians at Cambridge and they went through the state system.

spinoa Wed 24-Jun-15 21:55:29

As a mathematician I don't agree that the best schools are those which are accelerating students through maths - I would avoid schools which are rushing them through GCSE at 14 like the plague and I certainly wouldn't use offering Stats GCSE (considered very easy, duplicating AS modules) as a criterion for selecting good schools either. The "best" schools for maths are those which are doing UKMT and other extension activities, and teaching logic etc which is not in the school curriculum at all. Very few teachers seem able to extend able mathematicians without going up vertically in the curriculum.

I agree with Mathematician that maths can be pretty bad for bright students in most UK secondary schools. Students studying maths at university do have issues accordingly - they struggle to deal with multi step problems for which the strategies aren't obvious and often collapse at finding maths difficult for the first time. I don't think this is just a UK problem though - maths students at European universities have similar problems in my experience.

BTW Oxbridge and Warwick maths take relatively few comprehensive school students; many of their students from the state sector come from selective schools. MAT and STEP are designed for students to be able to prepare themselves but these exams still put off students from comprehensives who can't provide support. Cambridge in particular takes a lot of its maths students from abroad and from private schools.

lljkk Wed 24-Jun-15 22:12:22

I suppose a 1980s American education was lousy because the stuff DS is studying is harder than what I did at same age. I was in top 2-3% in the country on my pre-univesity math exams, btw (SATs).

DS is in top set maths and just starting yr11 ... he is currently doing trigonometry (I still hate trig). Will also in yr11 learn differentiation, integration, differential equations and (something else): stuff I did over 1.5 semesters of calculus at Uni (a top 10 in the world ranking Uni, btw).

Cretaceous Wed 24-Jun-15 23:54:42

Iljkk Funnily enough, I had a job in the US in the 1980s selling maths text books, and I was amazed at how easy the maths was compared with the maths I'd studied in the UK for O-levels in the 1970s. grin Obviously, seeing the discussion here, it's not the case now with GCSEs.

pollyisnotputtingthekettleon Thu 25-Jun-15 00:02:34

Maths has been dumbed down, i have a year 5 maths book (mine that I wrote in) and the work I did hasnt been covered in DD year 7 ... SIN/TAN Trig etc. Not sure when she`ll do this ...

noblegiraffe Thu 25-Jun-15 00:06:18

Trig is usually taught at GCSE, or occasionally in Y9 to level 8 mathematicians.

I'm not sure it has ever been taught at primary confused

Are you sure you're not mixing up Y5 with the old 5th year (Y11)?

DorothyL Thu 25-Jun-15 06:23:35

Trig in primary school?? shockgringrin

pollyisnotputtingthekettleon Thu 25-Jun-15 07:14:18

Yes really. I will find my book and send some pictures. We did area of circles and to the power of and long equations using a b x - what is that called ... mind blank ... The books were ment to be burnt but i pinched it ... the teacher kept asking me for it but it got `lost`shock

pollyisnotputtingthekettleon Thu 25-Jun-15 07:17:42

Its dated 1978 - i would have been 9 - going on 10 -

ninja Thu 25-Jun-15 07:41:06

Generally schools don't do early entry now because of only the first result counting, thank goodness - lots of evidence to show that students do better if done in year 11 even accounting for resits and there was a danger that lots of kids would just give up.

I agree that just giving 'more maths' in a vertical way isn't the most helpful thing but both the add maths and level 2 certificate in further maths are very good and proven to increase participation in a level maths.

As mentioned above doing the ukmt maths challenged etc (and there are lots of them around) is great. Far easier to see talent with these than from curriculum stuff imo.

Yes,GCSE should be offering more challenge now with more 'problem solving' as will A Levels 2 years from now.

OP the norm now is 4 a levels but that may change with the new funding rules.

AChickenCalledKorma Thu 25-Jun-15 07:44:08

Area of circles, powers and equations using letters is not Trig. It's algebra and geometry. Obviously I can only speak from my experience, but I did a bit of those things at primary school (1970s) and started Trig (sin, cos, tan) in the first couple of years of secondary. Probably about the level of current Year 8.

For what it's worth, DD1 is in top set in Year 8 and hasn't yet done any Trig. But she has done some with her father, which might answer the question about how able children cope ...

She's not especially bored, but there's definitely mathematical potential that we are feeding at home. And she managed the GCSE question about the sweets with only a very tiny amount of assistance grin

The Nrich website is a good resource for feeding hungry mathematical minds.

pollyisnotputtingthekettleon Thu 25-Jun-15 07:49:02

SIN COS and TAN is trig ... read the post.... its been a long time since I was at school .... and its early!

lljkk Thu 25-Jun-15 08:18:18

Trig was an 11th/12th grade subject for us, so age 17-18.
English DH has an engineering degree but turns out he never really did calculus. Anyway, his 1980s math was pretty similar to mine.

catslife Thu 25-Jun-15 08:20:58

Need to add that secondary school Maths is not just about GCSE exams - there are other ways that more able pupils can be catered for such as the Maths Challenge (available at several different levels for years 7 to 11).

Timetoask Thu 25-Jun-15 08:50:36

Mathis in the U.S. was rubbish in the 80s, I remember visiting my cousin in the U.S. when I was 13 and she was 15 and I was helping her with Mathis

AChickenCalledKorma Thu 25-Jun-15 09:08:59

grin it's a fair cop polly Yes, it's early ... and I read the wrong post! (I'm still amazed you did trig at age 9 though!)

OwlsEscapade Thu 25-Jun-15 09:43:04

The Netherlands are ranked really highly by the PISA report (FWIW). The latest info I could find was from 2012 article HERE

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