Scrap the maths GCSE because it is too difficult for less able students, the architect of the modern exam system has said.
Lord Kenneth Baker, who was education secretary under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, said that school-leavers are entering the workplace unable to do basic sums.
“The level of numeracy at 16 has been a problem for quite a long time,” he said. “What really prompted my interest was speaking to industry people. They want someone who can master numbers, someone who is numerate.”
Lord Baker suggests that the current maths GCSE should be axed and replaced with two separate exams: a Core Maths paper and an optional Further Maths paper for the more able students.
He told The Daily Telegraph: “There’s a huge difference between numeracy and maths. Very often youngsters can fail maths, or not do very well at maths GCSE because they are not very good at calculus, trigonometry or geometry. That’s a pity in my view.
“It would be very nice for youngsters if they could say ‘look I’ve got a numeracy test’. Core maths would be compulsory and further maths should be offered to everyone but they might find it’s not their cup of tea or they can’t cope.”
A Core Maths paper would be a far more “attainable target” for many 16-year-olds, he added. Excusing them from taking the Further Maths paper would free up their time, allowing them to concentrate on mastering numeracy.
“I am not trying to deny anyone access to further maths, no no, no. You mustn’t stop teaching geometry and so on,” he said.
“What I’m trying to do is equip young people with a range of mathematical skills which will help them with whatever job they do.”
Lord Baker, who served as Education Secretary from 1986 to 1989, noted that other subjects were already split into two distinct GCSEs, such as English Literature and English Language.
He said that a Core Maths GCSE could test students' understanding of topics such as volume, time and distance as well as interest charges, debt, loans and mortgages.
He said it would not just be multiplication, division and times tables but also fractions, percentages, proportions and decimals. “All of that will be necessary for their lives, whatever they do,” Lord Baker said. “Basic numeracy is absolutely fundamental. I am really trying to respond to the needs of industry.”
Lord Baker acknowledged that there will be many who “bitterly disagree” with his idea of splitting the maths GCSE, adding: “This is a debate and I suspect it might be quite passionate.”
He introduced the General Certificate of Education (GCSE) over two years, between 1986 and 1988, to replace the O-level and the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) exams.
Lord Baker has previously criticised the most recent raft of changes to GCSEs, calling them “deeply unsettling” and adding that they will leave people “puzzled”.
Nick Gibb, the schools minister, said: “The new mathematics GCSE includes a foundation level and a higher level for those aiming for the highest grades and it is right that all pupils should be taught a wide range of maths skills at this level.
"This more rigorous qualification has been designed to ensure that all young people have the knowledge and skills required to prepare them for employment or further study.”