Employers warn of maths crisis after slump in student numbers

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The Independent Online

Employers and teachers said yesterday that Britain was heading for an economically damaging crisis in mathematics after this summer's A-level results showed a slump in the number of students taking the subject.

Employers and teachers said yesterday that Britain was heading for an economically damaging crisis in mathematics after this summer's A-level results showed a slump in the number of students taking the subject.

Almost 20 per cent fewer candidates took a full A-level in maths this summer, only 53,940 compared with more than 66,000 last year.

The fall follows disastrous results in AS-level maths last summer, which saw nearly 30 per cent of candidates fail the exam and many drop out. After investigating that fiasco, a government review concluded the exam had been too hard and ordered new tests be developed for introduction in 2005.

Teachers' leaders warned that Britain had already become trapped in a "vicious circle", which would cause the number of maths graduates and potential maths teachers to dry up before the new exams are introduced.

The Confederation of British Industry and the Institute of Directors described the figures as disastrous for businesses and schools at a time when there was already a severe shortage of maths teachers.

Exam statistics released yesterday showed that nearly 4,000 of the 57,677 students taking maths dropped it at the end of the lower sixth form after sitting the AS-level in 2001. While this year's AS-level maths failure rate was reduced to 22 per cent it was still far higher than the AS-level average of 13 per cent.

Meanwhile, of those who studied maths to A-level, 37 per cent were awarded A-grades, up from 29 per cent in 2001.

John Milner, convener of the Joint Council for General Qualifications, which publishes the results, said the decline in entries was disappointing. The results showed "marked self-selection" as weaker candidates dropped out after the AS-level, he said.

Charles Goldie, professor of statistics at Sussex University and chairman of the Heads of Department of Mathematical Sciences, said there was a crisis in schools and higher education establishments.

"One quarter of university maths departments are already under threat," he said. "The Government should be extremely worried about where the next generation of maths teachers is going to come from."

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "The further fall in maths A-level entries should set alarm bells ringing in the DfES. This is part of a vicious circle with fewer maths applicants for university, fewer maths graduates, fewer available to enter maths teaching and a further fall in maths teacher numbers."

Katja Klasson, the CBI's head of employee relations, said: "It is a growing concern that the numbers taking chemistry and maths at A-level have again fallen. This is bad for the economy and for schools looking for tomorrow's teachers."

Ruth Lea, head of the policy unit at the Institute of Directors, added: "We regard this year's development in maths with concern."

Entries to modern language exams also declined. The number of students sitting French A-level dropped by 13 per cent to 15,614 while German candidates declined by 17 per cent to 7,013. Only Spanish attracted slightly more entries this summer

English remained the most popular A-level but there was also a drop in entries there compared with the old A-level, from 76,808 to 72,196.

Overall, 15 of the main subjects saw entries fall and the same number experienced a rise. Several subjects recorded a climb in candidate numbers including physics, economics, history, film studies, classics, law, sport, psychology and drama.

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