UK Lords Condemn State of Pre-University Math Education

There is more concern that standards in UK schools have slipped woefully low as a House of Lords report blames a modular A-level system — which lets students skip certain critical fields such as calculus — and competition between exam boards to offer the easiest exams as the main reasons behind the collapse in student ability.

For those who suggest that such problems have been overblown, figures show that 70% of new undergraduates reading biology had not completed an A-level in math. This figure is 38% for chemistry and, perhaps most shockingly, 20% for engineering.

Lord Willis of Knaresborough, chairman of the Lords science and technology select committee, said:

“If we are talking about a world-class system, where mathematics is the cornerstone of virtually every science programme, then it is really quite amazing that we have so few students who have studied maths, literally, beyond GCSE and often, not even with a grade A.

“Part of [the problem] is the modulisation of A level, whereby there is no interlinking between the different elements of maths, but it is also because there is a race to the bottom at A-level by exam boards competing with each other about the ease with which students can achieve their grades.”

Nick Collins of the Telegraph reports that even those who have studied math at A-level often find that the knowledge acquired falls far short of the standards required at university and have to take remedial classes in math to prepare for their undergraduate degree. The Vice Chancellor of York University reported to the committee that they usually had to give remedial math classes to the new intake — even those students who had achieved triple ‘A’s at A-level.

Professor Sir Christopher Snowden, Vice Chancellor of Surrey University said:

“I think that in pretty much every university the issues over maths skills apply.

“This has been an issue now for many years within universities, partly due to the increase in the breadth of maths that is studied at schools but with a lack of depth. In some cases, for example, there is a complete absence of calculus, which is an issue in many subjects.”

The committee’s report has recommended that those wish to read a science degree should be required to take a math A-level while those reading subjects in the humanities should be required to take a math AS-level. Those who leave school at 16 to enroll in vocational educational programmes should take math courses to a level appropriate for their chosen vocation.

Lord Willis said: “When you have got the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge saying we have got young, bright, A* students coming in and we have to do remedial maths to get them to engage with engineering and physics, there is something seriously wrong with the system.