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 futureand education
is the most powerful tool to achieve this".
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).
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.
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,
an issue confirmed by employer surveys conducted by the CBI which
identified a shortage of students with adequate maths skills.
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
- 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.
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. 85% of
all students in England give up maths at the age of 16.
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.
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".
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
Students taking mathematics post-16 in
24 countries and states
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.
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",
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.
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'
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,
but such courses were also needed for students who had performed
well at A level maths.
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".
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
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".
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".
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 examinationsmodules,
re-sits and retakestowards fewer high quality qualifications
overseen and conferred not by commercial organisations but by
institutions of academic excellence such as our best universities".
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".
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".
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. The
Wellcome Trust, for example, suggested that competing examination
boards were having that effect "rather than developing the
necessary level of challenge".
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.
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.
42. The shortage of specialist maths teachers
has been the subject of many previous studies. Several witnesses
told us that the problem remained,
and that it was important because, as Professor Cantor said,
"you do not teach good maths ... unless you get inspirational
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,
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".
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".
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
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".)
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".
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".
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
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".
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
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".
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".
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.
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".
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
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
Royal Society, ACME, Cambridge Assessment, Score. Back
Royal Society, A degree ofcConcern? UK first degrees in Science,
Technology and Mathematics, 2006. Back
ABPI, CBI, Engineering Professors' Council, Medical Schools Council,
The Physiological Society. Back
OECD, PISA 2009 Results: What Students Know and Can Do-Student
performance in reading, mathematics and science, 2012. Back
Carol Volderman's Task Force, A world-class mathematics education
for all our young people, August 2011. Back
The Nuffield Foundation, Hodgen et al., Is the UK an outlier?
An international comparison of upper secondary mathematics education,
December 2010. Back
Op. cit., A world-class mathematics education for all
our young people. Back
ACME, Mathematical need-mathematics in the workplace and in
higher education, June 2011.
Ofsted, Mathematics: made to measure, May 2012. Back
Op. cit., Mathematical need-mathematics in the workplace
and in higher education. Back
Royal Society, Preparing for the transfer to STEM Higher Education,
February 2011. Back
QQ 40, 42. Back
Engineering Professors' Council, Professor John MacInnes. Back
Q 42. Back
Imperial College London, National Higher Education STEM Programme,
Q 42, Q 47, Q 51, Q 226. Back
Op. cit., Maths: made to measure. Back
Ofqual, Fit for Purpose? The view of the higher education sector,
teachers and employers on the suitability of A levels, April
Q 47. Back
QQ 45-47, the UK Deans of Science, the Wellcome Trust. Back
The Wellcome Trust. Back
Education Committee, 9th Report (2012-13): The administration
of examinations for 15-19 year olds in England (HC 141-I). Back
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
Q 50. Back
Royal Society, Increasing the size of the pool, February
Op. cit., Science and mathematics secondary education
for the 21st Century. Back
Although the statutory duty on schools to provide careers education
and guidance has been removed: MyScience. Back
Gatsby Foundation, STEM Careers Review, November 2010. Back
The Wellcome Trust, ABPI, University of Manchester, Professor
Sir John Holman, MyScience, Universities UK, Ofsted, and the Society
of Biology. Back
A software application typically used in a smartphone or mobile
Op. cit., A world-class mathematics education for all
our young people. Back
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