Maths students fail to get basic sums right

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The Independent Online

Britain's maths and engineering students are being ordered to take remedial maths lessons because they do not have a basic grasp of algebra, geometry or even arithmetic when they enter university.

Britain's maths and engineering students are being ordered to take remedial maths lessons because they do not have a basic grasp of algebra, geometry or even arithmetic when they enter university.

The dramatic decline in standards means that at least 60 university science departments will order this autumn's first-year undergraduates to take extra maths classes to bring them up to scratch.

The deficiencies are detailed in a new report published by the Engineering Council, which is so alarmed by the findings that it is calling for mandatory testing for all maths, physics and engineering students in their first term at university and supplementary lessons for those in need.

One of the report's authors told the Independent on Sunday that many first-year undergraduates' maths knowledge is equivalent to that of a 14-year-old a decade ago.

Dr Trevor Hawkes, a reader in mathematics at Warwick University, said: "We have had to make more and more concessions when they arrive. We have to put them through the mill to bring them up to scratch.

"We give them a diagnostic test and we find many of them cannot do the very, very simple things that even 14-year-olds should be able to do - and this is for our maths course and they are coming in with no less than one A grade in maths A-level."

The report, entitled Measuring the Mathematics Problem, reveals an alarming decline in maths education blamed mainly on a dumbing-down of A-level and GCSE maths exams over the past 10 years. It surveyed 120 science departments and found half of them needed to give remedial lessons.

"There is strong evidence... of a steady decline over the past decade of fluency in basic mathematical skills and of the level of mathematical preparation of students accepted on to degree courses," the report concludes.

It could not come at a worse time. Maths has never been so unpopular with sixth-formers, according to AQA, Britain's largest exam board, with numbers doing maths A-level falling 15 per cent to 68,000 students between 1990 and 1999.

At York University, physics students have been given the same basic maths test since 1979 and the results show a constant performance until 1990, with students scoring an average of about 36 out of 50, followed by a dramatic decline. By last year students achieved an average mark of just 27 out of 50.

Professor Alan Smithers, a former government adviser on the national curriculum and a director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Liverpool, attributed part of the blame to a shortage of quality maths teachers.

"It's a real struggle to get high quality people to come into maths teaching," he said, "and that has a knock-on effect because if you don't have high quality teachers in the sixth form, younger children get to hear about it and opt for alternative subjects and then you don't get the intake in universities."

A DfEE spokesman said: "The Government has introduced a number of measures to raise the standard of maths in schools." He pointed to A-level reforms, the national numeracy strategy in primary schools and Maths year 2000.

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