Functional Mathematics – A Context?

Richard Evans is concerned that functional maths is being distorted by a plethora of other developments

Any discussion of functional mathematics must now be informed by the recent White Paper “Raising Skills, Improving Life Chances”, The Leitch Report and the reforms associated with the development of specialised diplomas and the Framework for Achievement (FfA).

Specialised Diplomas.

The development of the specialised diplomas highlights the current chaotic state in government thinking with a ridiculously early deadline being set for the introduction of the first five pilot programmes next year. Critical elements of the proposed framework are still unclear and/or are still awaited e.g. the assessment regimes and their management. It is further proposed to have all thirteen programmes in place by 2013. The framework is ludicrously complex with the appearance of a new set of terms and elements such as principal learning, additional and specialised learning, functional skills, personal learning and thinking skills and a dose of work experience for good measure. Already the proposals are attracting criticism because the diplomas have to co-exist alongside GCSEs and A levels. Many schools and colleges have voiced concern that the qualifications will not be recognised once the students have got them (The Times 10/03/07). In addition a number of universities have already indicated that they will not recognise them as an entry qualification. The diplomas will surely fail if employers and universities do not accept them and the evidence to date indicates this could be the case. So all in all the scene is one of widespread confusion and uncertainty on whether the specialised diplomas will succeed – there is even at this stage of development talk that they may be renamed as integrated diplomas. So yet again a major proposed reform of vocational qualifications is ‘doomed to fail’or as some commentators would prefer to say, as a result of government pressure, ‘doomed to succeed’! This is a very great shame and I fear this worthy and overdue development will be seen as yet another false dawn for a very important aspect of vocational/technical education.

Many people, particularly employers, desperately want to see a vocationally and technically-focused curriculum in schools and colleges that is meaningful and relevant. A curriculum that will begin to build the foundations and address the current issues around technical and technician education and training that creates once and for all a more highly qualified workforce for the future.

The role of functional maths

So where does functional mathematics fit into this maelstrom? I ask this question because sadly the subject has now become incorporated into these wider developments. The idea behind functional mathematics grew out of some proposals of the Tomlinson Group, further developed by the Smith Report and then taken up by the government. The genesis of the term itself is interesting: some say a key advisor in government thought of it and qualified it by saying ‘ no other country has used the term’ – that really is a good rationale for the development! The term has in fact been around for some time and its development and use well documented particularly in Europe. Since the appearance of the term functional mathematics a flurry of activity has been focussed on trying to define it, where to locate it in the curriculum, and whether it should be for all learners or just a particular group of learners. It’s a classic example of English educational reform – a multitude of individuals, professional associations and working groups beavering away without any real understanding of what is really required. Such groups and individuals exist in another universe! Couple this with frequent government interference, with their advisers putting forward their own narrow and ill-informed opinions, and you have a recipe for disaster. As a result of all this activity for a critical development, a bandwagon has been created with a great deal of momentum but little idea where it is going and, equally important, what it will do if it arrives somewhere! QCA have avoided defining the term and instead stated:

“The term ‘functional’ should be considered in the broad sense of providing learners with the skills and abilities they need to take an active and responsible role in their communities, in their everyday life, the workplace and in educational settings… Functional mathematics requires learners to be able to use mathematics in ways that make them effective and involved as citizens, able to operate confidently in life and work in a wide range of contexts.” (QCA 2006).

No comment!

Universal application.

The major challenge associated with functional mathematics is that the content must be realistic and derived from the realities of life and the work place and equally important to be applied to those realities. As result an important element in functional mathematics concerns how it can be learnt. Effective and lasting learning will not be achieved through simulation or a pre-occupation with testing and assessment. It is essential that the appropriate contexts for the learning are carefully defined and managed. Functional mathematics must have universal application being available to all learners at all levels including undergraduates. Learners must gain an understanding of functionality both in terms of the ‘how’ and of the ‘why’. Functional maths should also involve such elements of reasoning and problem solving that are necessary. Process and thinking skills must be at the heart of the development. It must not be driven by heavily prescribed assessment regimes and must be relevant and delivered in realistic contexts.

Teacher support needs.

The final challenges facing the introduction of functional mathematics will be those associated with the teacher’s ability to deliver the subject and the availibility of resources and support for them. In order to introduce new curricula teachers have to fundamentally reflect on their teaching styles and practices. Such analysis must include the reasons for what is taught and also why it is taught. Any curriculum experience is not just about the syllabus and how it is interpreted but is also about the teaching and learning styles adopted in the appropriate contexts, whilst maximising the available resources to facilitate effective learning. The most important resources are the teachers and they will need a great deal of support in order to introduce the subject. Sadly there are already insufficient mathematics teachers in schools and colleges and fewer who possess any real experience of teaching to the specifications that will define and figure in functional mathematics.

An interesting quote to finish on:

‘any evaluation of the value of any curriculum experience is its functionality – namely the outcomes achieved’.

QCA please note!

Richard Evans sits on a number of committees looking at the future of maths and numeracy teaching

**References: **
* (1) The Times 10/3/2007 (QCA 2006).
* (2)’Functional skills standards: mathematics’ QCA October 2006.

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