The report from Her Majesty's Inspectors into the take-up of maths and science suggests that schools may be trapped in a spiral of decline as teachers with little subject knowledge fail to enthuse their pupils.
It coincides with tomorrow's publication of A-level results. The Independent will publish articles guiding students through the maze of university entrance and from next Wednesday, 24 August, will publish exclusive listings of unfilled places from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.
The inspectors from the Office for Standards in Education say that pupils' understanding of maths is weak in half the primary schools, and that many secondary teachers could do much better.
Christine Agambar, the report's author, said: 'Some primary school teachers have a pathological fear of mathematics.' She said it was going to be 'a challenge' to stop the decline.
Most maths and science teachers, says the report, are competent and conscientious, but they are on average less well qualified and have poorer degrees than their conterparts in other subjects.
It says: 'Science teachers frequently lack a sufficiently confident understanding of the knowledge and concepts that make up the school science curriculum to enable them to teach science
Professor Stewart Sutherland, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools, had asked for the investigation into an apparent decline in numbers of pupils taking maths and science at A-level.
The inspectors found that, although numbers had declined, the proportion of students taking maths and science at A-level had remained the same and the average number of science passes for each GCSE pupil had risen.
However, science and maths courses at A-level and university are less popular than other subjects. On average, entries for all subjects have doubled and the entry for English has tripled.
The proportion of A-level candidates taking both maths and science, the traditional preparation for a science degree, has fallen sharply from 27.6 per cent in the early Eighties to 16.7 per cent. A growing number take a mixture of arts and science.
The inspectors say poor working conditions have contributed to a lack of enthusiasm among some teachers: 'Laboratories are in a declining state of repair and ageing equipment is fast reaching an unserviceable condition.'
Mike Tomlinson, Ofsted's deputy director, estimated that it would cost between pounds 50m and pounds 100m to put the laboratories in order. State schools spend pounds 5 a year per pupil on science, compared with about pounds 25 per pupil in independent schools.
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