Higher Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects - Science and Technology Committee Contents

CHAPTER 3: The School and Higher Education interface, and maths provision

24.  In February 2010, Sir Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust, stated in a letter to the Rt Hon David Willetts MP, Minister for Science and Innovation at BIS, that "the future of the United Kingdom depends critically on the education of future generations. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) must be at the forefront of education in order for the United Kingdom to address some of the most important challenges facing society ... we owe it to our children to prepare them for an exciting and uncertain future—and education is the most powerful tool to achieve this".[20] We could not agree more.

The mathematical skills gap

25.  A number of attempts have been made to improve maths provision over the years. They include a major change to the curriculum and examination process in 2000 (which resulted in a dramatic reduction in the number of students studying maths).[21] In 2006, the Royal Society argued that the gap between the mathematical skills of students when they entered HE and the mathematical skills needed for STEM first degrees was a problem which had become acute. Two reasons were suggested to explain the gap: first, lack of fluency in basic mathematical skills; and, secondly, the fact that some A level syllabuses allowed topics to be excluded which were relevant to some first degree courses.[22] The evidence we received suggested that the problem remains.

26.  In addition to the skills gap at the school-HEI interface, we also received evidence that graduates were often found to lack the numeracy skills needed to succeed in the workplace,[23] an issue confirmed by employer surveys conducted by the CBI which identified a shortage of students with adequate maths skills.[24]

27.  A number of factors are said to have contributed to this decline in maths skills. They include:

  • too few students choosing to study maths post-16 (although numbers have started to rise in recent years);
  • changes to the curriculum, course structure, examinations and the modular nature of A level provision;
  • a dearth of qualified teachers;
  • poor careers advice in schools; and
  • the fact that some HEIs do not require a post-16 maths qualification at entry to study STEM subjects.
  • Maths study post-16

28.  In 2009, the UK was 28th in the international education league table in maths (based on the skills of 15 year olds), placing it behind many East Asian and European countries.[25] 85% of all students in England give up maths at the age of 16.[26] According to a study in 2010, competitor countries achieve much better results not only in terms of the number of students that study maths post-16 but the level of maths that they study.[27] Table 1 illustrates the results of this research. In a report commissioned by the Conservative Party and published in August 2011, Carol Volderman's Task Force described this situation as "a national disgrace" and said that "unless we improve [post-16 provision] very significantly we will cease to be among the leading economic and academic countries in the world".[28] The Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME) had come to a similar conclusion in June 2011. As a result, ACME is consulting on the development of pathways of courses for continuing maths study.[29]


Students taking mathematics post-16 in 24 countries and states[30]

29.  According to a recent Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills (Ofsted) report, published in May 2012, compared with the 2008 figures, A level entries in 2011 were up by 31% in maths and by 35% in further maths. The corresponding figures for AS were 58% and 120% respectively.[31] This is encouraging. However, given the low baseline from which these figures are derived, we remain concerned about the high number of students who do not continue maths education post-16. Observing that "maths dropped at age 16 is easily forgotten, and skills are not consolidated",[32] ACME was in favour of maths being studied in some form by all students up to the age of 18. The Royal Society made a similar recommendation in their State of the Nation report in 2011.[33]

30.  The number of students taking maths post-16 is insufficient to meet the level of numeracy needed in our society, and the level at which it is taught often fails to meet the requirements for studying STEM subjects at undergraduate level. We share the view that all students should study some form of maths post-16, the particular area of maths depending on the needs of the student. For example, prospective engineering students would require mechanics as part of their post-16 maths, whereas prospective biology students would benefit from studying statistics.

31.  We are aware that on 2 July 2012, the Government proposed a policy whereby those who do not achieve a good pass in English and maths at GCSE will be required to continue those subjects until the age of 18. We welcome the Government's commitment to addressing the problem of too many 16 year olds giving up maths after GCSEs. We do not, however, agree with the Government's proposed solution. In our view, all students to the age of 18, and society more generally, would benefit from them continuing their maths education. It is simply not enough to make post-16 maths compulsory for those who find it particularly challenging.

32.  We recommend that, as part of their National Curriculum review, the Government make studying maths in some form compulsory for all students post-16. We recommend also that maths to A2 level should be a requirement for students intending to study STEM subjects in HE.

A level course content and structure

33.  Until March 2012, the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA) was responsible for curriculum development and setting criteria for qualifications. Since then, the National Curriculum assessments function has been performed by the Standards and Testing Agency (STA). The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) is an independent body responsible for standards, regulation and approving the examination boards' specifications.

34.  A number of Vice-Chancellors told us that not only had their HEIs had to offer remedial maths to those who had not taken A level maths,[34] but such courses were also needed for students who had performed well at A level maths.[35] Professor Brian Cantor, Vice-Chancellor of the University of York, told us, for example: "we have to give maths remedial classes, often even to triple-A students".[36] Professor Sir Christopher Snowden, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Surrey, said: "I think that in pretty much every university the issues over maths skills apply. Indeed, 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".[37]

35.  Imperial College London, with others, was critical of the modular approach to maths because it did "not encourage students to retain knowledge or to think critically about how the various parts of their subject interrelates ... [because] important parts of the curriculum are sometimes not a compulsory part of the course".[38] Ofsted concluded, in its recent report, that "too much teaching concentrated on the acquisition of disparate skills that enabled pupils to pass tests and examinations but did not equip them for the next stage of education, work and life".[39] On the basis of the evidence we received, it appears that a modular approach may not be the most appropriate way to teach maths on the grounds that it discourages teachers from adopting a holistic approach to the subject.

36.  In a speech in March 2012, the Secretary of State for Education, the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, stated: "we need to move away from an expensive and time-consuming culture of proliferating external examinations—modules, re-sits and retakes—towards fewer high quality qualifications overseen and conferred not by commercial organisations but by institutions of academic excellence such as our best universities".[40] We agree, in principle, that it is sensible for HEIs and employers to have a say about the content of school qualifications in general and maths and A levels in particular. However, we question how the Minister's proposed approach will work in practice. Ofqual has already warned that academics "would not have the time to set aside for such activities on top of their academic roles" and suggested that "learned bodies were best placed to provide the higher education sector view because they knew more about A levels than individual academics".[41]

37.  HEIs should interact more with schools in setting up the curriculum, as should employers and other stakeholders, with a view to raising standards. Given that the Roberts Review (see paragraph 57) recommended in 2002 that HEIs and schools should work together to smooth the transition from A level to HE, we find it difficult to understand why HEIs have not made more effort to ensure that the A level curriculum adequately prepares students for HE. Although Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, told us that many HEIs were engaged in setting the curriculum, Professor Malcolm Grant, Vice-Chancellor of University College London, told us: "I do not think that universities have done anywhere near enough to work with the curricula".[42]

38.  Concerns have also been raised that competing examination boards are driving standards down as schools seek easier examinations in order to achieve higher places in national league tables.[43] The Wellcome Trust, for example, suggested that competing examination boards were having that effect "rather than developing the necessary level of challenge".[44] A recent report from the House of Commons Education Committee drew a similar conclusion and recommended a single national syllabus for each subject, accredited by Ofqual, with national subject committees, set up by Ofqual and including representatives from universities, employers and learned bodies, to monitor standards.[45]

39.  We support the Government's efforts to involve HEIs in setting the curriculum and we urge HEIs to engage fully and make every effort to smooth the transition from school to HE, particularly in maths. In order to inform this process, we urge that HEIs work together to establish where the skills gaps are and which areas of the maths syllabus are essential for STEM undergraduate study. We would expect this work to be completed by July 2014.

40.  We support the recommendation by the House of Commons Education Committee that there should be a single comprehensive national syllabus, accredited by Ofqual, to offset the risk that competing examination boards will tend to drive down standards. We would expect the national syllabus for maths to meet the needs of all students post-16 (in accordance with our conclusion and recommendation in paragraphs 30 to 32 above). The proposed national subject committees will be critical to the success of the new scheme. Should the scheme go ahead therefore, we would seek assurance that the HEIs would have a significant role within the committees and that the committees would be given the capacity to be fully effective in ensuring that standards, particularly at A2, are maintained.

41.  The Education Committee recommended that the Government should pilot a national syllabus in one large entry subject as part of the forthcoming A level reforms. We would recommend that maths should be the subject of such a pilot.

Qualified teachers

42.  The shortage of specialist maths teachers has been the subject of many previous studies. Several witnesses told us that the problem remained,[46] and that it was important because, as Professor Cantor said, "you do not teach good maths ... unless you get inspirational teachers".[47] It was also important because of the vicious cycle whereby a lack of students taking up maths A levels would mean fewer studying maths in HE which, in turn, would mean fewer specialist teachers and, as a result, fewer students studying maths. The Department of Education, recognising the role of teaching in increasing the progression of students to A level STEM subjects,[48] has introduced a number of initiatives to increase the number of specialist teachers (such as, golden handshakes and bursaries), but, by their own admission, "the targets set by the previous Government for numbers of specialists teaching physics and maths will not be met".[49] The Science and Learning Expert Group advised in their study entitled Science and mathematics secondary education for the 21st Century: "in order to increase the quantity and quality of specialist teachers we will need to continue to recruit more STEM graduates into teaching, provide excellent training for them and retain excellent teachers within the profession by ensuring that their careers are rewarding in every respect".[50]

43.  We recommend that the Government increase their efforts to boost specialist STEM teacher recruitment. The Government should assess which existing initiatives have yielded positive results and which have not worked, so that resources can be concentrated on those schemes that produce the best outcomes.

Careers advice and education

44.  From September 2012, schools will be responsible for ensuring their pupils have access to independent and impartial careers guidance.[51] In April 2012, the Government launched a national and career-wide careers service through a new web portal, the National Careers Service. (Although it is too early to assess its effectiveness, we note that the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) have already raised concerns: "It is our understanding that there is no framework for this [careers advice] provision and it won't be comprehensively audited. As a result, schools which provide a below-par careers service cannot be quickly or easily identified, to the detriment of their students".)[52]

45.  High quality careers advice to young people is essential to demonstrate to students the benefits of studying STEM. This is all the more important because, according to the Gatsby Foundation, "STEM A levels have the reputation of being harder than most other A levels and this acts as a disincentive for students to opt for them, and for schools and colleges to guide students to take them".[53] The Wellcome Trust, with others, also told us that the quality of careers advice was vital because "subject choices at 14 and 16 can send young people down the wrong path, for example if they miss the qualifications they need for STEM careers".[54] The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) gave an example when they told us how a lack of understanding and knowledge in maths could be a barrier to recruitment to the pharmaceutical industry.[55] Despite its importance, businesses appear unimpressed by the quality of careers advice. According to the CBI, "only 6% of businesses are confident that careers advice is good enough".[56]

46.  We recommend that the Government should direct the new National Careers Service to ensure that appropriate advice is given to young people about the following: STEM subject choice at school and its possible consequences for future study and careers; the choices available within STEM subjects at HE level and beyond and the advantages of pursuing a STEM degree; and, relevant careers advice that highlights the jobs available to STEM graduates both within STEM and in other industries. In order to make STEM careers and subject choices more accessible to students, parents and teachers, we would encourage the Government to use new technologies by, for example, commissioning a STEM careers App.[57]

47.  As well as careers advice, knowledge of careers education for those working with students is also important. According to the CBI, "for many young people, teachers are the first port of call for advice about subject choices and future study or work. But with most teachers having limited experience of work outside the education system, their insights can be restricted".[58] Ofsted told us that "teachers and careers advisers do not consistently have the expertise to advise on the plethora of other career routes in STEM".[59] We have some concerns that the shift to a national careers service will not provide sufficient incentive for teachers to seek to improve their expertise. Schools should ensure that support for careers education through continuing professional development (CPD) is provided to those offering careers advice to students.

Higher education maths requirements at university entry

48.  The number of students studying maths A level dropped by 20% after the introduction of curriculum reforms in 2000. As a result, many HEIs reduced their entry requirements.[60] Although student numbers have recovered, this has not been reflected in a resumption of higher HEI entry requirements. The qualifications and level of attainment needed for entry at HEIs vary significantly, even for the same courses. Figure 1 provides an overview of the number of HE entrants who have maths at A level by degree subject. The data suggest that maths requirements for HEIs at entry are not demanding enough. The ABPI told us that "recent research has found that the vast majority (92%) of bioscience undergraduate programmes did not require the students to have studied maths beyond GCSE, with some institutions accepting less than a grade C at GCSE maths".[61] This could have the potential of severely limiting career choices in the future.


Proportion of HE entrants by subject with or without A level maths, UK 2009[62]

49.  The lack, or low level, of maths requirements for admission to HEIs, particularly for programmes in STEM subjects, acts as a disincentive for students to take maths and high level maths at A level. We urge HEIs to introduce more demanding maths requirements at entry for STEM courses. The proposed change should be introduced within a time frame that would allow current school pupils to adapt their subject choices at school to the new requirements. The benefits of this policy would be two-fold: it would send the right signal to young people about the importance of maths for their future career choices, therefore increasing the number of pupils studying maths at A level; and maths knowledge and skills at university entry are likely to improve. We further recommend that HEIs should work together to ensure that entry requirements for the same course are consistent across different HEIs.

20   The Science and Learning Expert Group, Science and mathematics Secondary Education for the 21st Century, February 2010. Back

21   Royal Society, ACME, Cambridge Assessment, Score. Back

22   Royal Society, A degree ofcConcern? UK first degrees in Science, Technology and Mathematics, 2006. Back

23   ABPI, CBI, Engineering Professors' Council, Medical Schools Council, The Physiological Society. Back

24   CBI. Back

25   OECD, PISA 2009 Results: What Students Know and Can Do-Student performance in reading, mathematics and science, 2012. Back

26   Carol Volderman's Task Force, A world-class mathematics education for all our young people, August 2011. Back

27   The Nuffield Foundation, Hodgen et al., Is the UK an outlier? An international comparison of upper secondary mathematics education, December 2010. Back

28   Op. cit., A world-class mathematics education for all our young people. Back

29   ACME, Mathematical need-mathematics in the workplace and in higher education, June 2011.


30   IbidBack

31   Ofsted, Mathematics: made to measure, May 2012. Back

32   Op. cit., Mathematical need-mathematics in the workplace and in higher education. Back

33   Royal Society, Preparing for the transfer to STEM Higher Education, February 2011. Back

34   QQ 40, 42. Back

35   Engineering Professors' Council, Professor John MacInnes. Back

36   Q 42. Back

37   IbidBack

38   Imperial College London, National Higher Education STEM Programme, Q 42, Q 47, Q 51, Q 226.  Back

39   Op. cit., Maths: made to measure. Back

40   http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-17585199.  Back

41   Ofqual, Fit for Purpose? The view of the higher education sector, teachers and employers on the suitability of A levels, April 2012. Back

42   Q 47. Back

43   QQ 45-47, the UK Deans of Science, the Wellcome Trust. Back

44   The Wellcome Trust. Back

45   Education Committee, 9th Report (2012-13): The administration of examinations for 15-19 year olds in England (HC 141-I). Back

46   CBI, Council for the Mathematical Sciences, Professor Sir John Holman, Imperial College London, Pearson Centre for Policy and Learning, Royal Society of Chemistry, Royal Society, Universities UK, and the Wellcome Trust.  Back

47   Q 50. Back

48   Ofsted. Back

49   Royal Society, Increasing the size of the pool, February 2011. Back

50   Op. cit., Science and mathematics secondary education for the 21st Century. Back

51   Although the statutory duty on schools to provide careers education and guidance has been removed: MyScience. Back

52   CaSE. Back

53   Gatsby Foundation, STEM Careers Review, November 2010. Back

54   The Wellcome Trust, ABPI, University of Manchester, Professor Sir John Holman, MyScience, Universities UK, Ofsted, and the Society of Biology. Back

55   ABPI. Back

56   CBI. Back

57   A software application typically used in a smartphone or mobile device. Back

58   CBI. Back

59   Ofsted. Back

60   Op. cit., A world-class mathematics education for all our young people. Back

61   ABPI.


62   Op. cit., A world-class mathematics education for all our young people. Figure 1 covers only those who have come through the A level route so those with other qualifications, such as qualifications awared by the Business and Technology Education Council (BTECs), Scottish Highers and overseas qualifications, are not included. Back

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