Mathematicians alarmed over future of their subject

Further maths A-level is an endangered subject, teachers and academics have told the Government.

A-level reforms intended to broaden the sixth-form curriculum are threatening its future and the supply of mathematicians, physicists and engineers, the Mathematical Association says. Its leaders have written to David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education, saying all those advising 16-year-olds should tell them about the benefits of further maths. Numbers studying it have fallen from 15,000 in the early Eighties to 5,000 and anecdotal reports suggest the new A-level courses beginning in September will accelerate the decline. The association says: "If the trend is not reversed, further maths could be marginalised to large sixth- form colleges and independent schools only, or lost completely ... Its demise would be a major loss, with serious implications for Britain's ... position in science and engineering."

The letter to Mr Blunkett says ordinary A-level maths does not offer a big enough challenge for many of the brightest students. Though the overall pass rate is comparable with that in other subjects, A is the most common maths grade. From September sixth formers will be encouraged to take four or five subjects in the first year of their A-level course, leading to an AS exam. They will then decide whether to drop one or two of these and continue with the rest to a full A-level.

Many schools, the letter suggests, are interpreting the encouragement to provide more breadth as discouragement to pupils to take further maths as well as maths.

Steve Abbott, the Mathematical Association president, said many schools were seeing a welcome increase in the numbers wanting to study AS maths. "The problem is that some schools are abandoning further maths to run extra maths class for those who want to do straight maths at least to AS level. Teachers of further maths are being redeployed to teach maths."

Mr Abbott said that at one big sixth-form college the numbers taking further maths had fallen from 60 to 20. Universities were already reporting that students without further maths A-level were struggling to keep up in physics and some engineering courses.