`Schools failing to teach pupils basic maths'

`Those who work with maths are at their wits' end'
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Only one in five 14-year-olds knows how to calculate percentages correctly because the national curriculum is failing to provide pupils with adequate education in mathematics, the meeting was told yesterday.

"They don't even need to do the calculation, only to know which buttons to press on the calculator, and only 20 per cent get it right," Dr Tony Gardiner, of Birmingham University, said. Only about a quarter of children aged between seven and eight could successfully solve a problem which in essence involved a simple division by 1,000, Dr Gardiner continued.

"The universities are screaming out, mathematicians and those who work with maths are at their wits' end, but it's impossible to get the powers that be to see something is wrong," he said.

Nor is the decline in mathematical attainment confined to younger pupils. Professor John Hogan, of Bristol University, warned that "students entering university this year to study science, engineering or mathematics know less than they did 10 years ago, have trouble solving all but the simplest one-stage problems, need far more spoon feeding and cannot handle simple mathematical expressions."

The problem is not with students' abilities, but with their attainment, the researchers said. "You have got to take on the Establishment, because they are doing these children an injury," Dr Gardiner said. "If you take any measure which a mathematician would consider significant: it's not included in the national curriculum; it's not tested; and the teachers don't emphasise it. The advice being given to teachers is awful."

In a debate at the British Association on falling standards of mathematical attainment in recent years, Professor Hogan pointed out that "over the past nine months, three separate reports by distinguished independent bodies have all concluded that there is something very wrong with mathematics in schools.

"There is now an urgent need for government and educationalist to work in close contact with professional mathematicians and other end users of school mathematics to produce a curriculum which can equip students to meet the technical challenges of the 21st century." Professional mathematicians had been all but excluded from discussions over changes in the maths curriculum in schools, he said.

Dr Gardiner said: "We are now in the embarrassing position where official reports from HMI, from Ofsted, and from examining boards continue to assert that everything is improving while mathematicians and many who teach mathematics know in their bones from daily contact with students that something has gone seriously wrong."

There has been measurable grade inflation due to relaxation of standards in the mathematics A-level, said Professor Carol Fitz-Gibbon, of Newcastle University. Her group has been administering the same test of basic maths ability and comprehension since 1988 and "against that we can look at A-level grades. For the same level of competence in our tests, the A- levels have gone up two whole grades".

t The world's fishing fleets are pushing up against the biological limits of the oceans to sustain the global marine fish catches, the meeting was told.

John Beddington, of Imperial College, London, said that "many of the poorest countries of the world are dependent on fish" for feeding their populations. "But it is now quite clear that the limit is being reached and the ecology of the world's oceans looks to be threatened."

By early next century there will be a shortfall of fish. Collapsing catches and the dying out of major fish species indicate that current catches are ecologically unsustainable, Professor Beddington warned.