Alison Wolf

August 27, 2004

Students will go on rejecting maths and science until the incentives for sixth-formers change

If you looked at the British labour market, you would expect 18-year-olds to be queueing up for maths and science degrees. Five years after graduation, it is the engineers, scientists and mathematicians who are pulling in the highest average salaries. (Or, to be honest, these groups plus the lawyers. Some things in life never change.) The one A-level subject that is clearly worth more in future wages than any other is maths. Adults with a mathematics A level earn almost 10 per cent more on average than people who are like them in every other way. And a Teacher Training Agency survey of young graduates found that the group of people who were most content with their jobs were engineers. So what is going on?

I am writing this column as the A-level results come out, in yet another year of record pass marks and top grades. By the time it appears, the media circus will have moved on to another topic, leaving behind the yearly scramble of university clearing. It is a safe bet that prominent among those web listings and newspaper pages of vacancies will be places on science, engineering and mathematics courses. When universities close down entire science departments, the focus tends to be on their research ratings. But the underlying problem is much simpler: not enough students to go round and no sign of imminent relief. In mathematics, the absolute number of A-level candidates fell about 15 per cent between 1996 and 2003, while chemistry and physics A levels each saw their small share in the total drop by almost a percentage point.

This surely matters. It is not just that the rapidly rising wages of the quantitatively trained indicate a real labour market shortage. It is also the importance of having a citizenry that is scientifically and mathematically literate. The Government, to its credit, agrees. But August is a good month to look at the dynamics of a system that enrols so few sixthformers in maths and science, and at whether things are likely to get better.

Explaining sixthformers' choice is actually quite easy. If you are not certain what you want to read at university, the sensible thing is to maximise your chances of high grades. People for whom that means choosing maths, physics and chemistry are few. Anyone who lives around teenagers can think of plenty who drop subjects they value, or like, for this reason. If teaching is poor, this exacerbates the problem, and the supply of good maths and science teachers reached crisis point decades back.

Last year, the Government commissioned a review of mathematics education from Adrian Smith, principal of Queen Mary, University of London. He reported this spring, and the official response has just been published. It includes a full programme to improve the recruitment, training and quality of maths teachers, which is certainly critical. But it has far less to say about tackling incentives, and disincentives, for young people to take mathematics. Smith had plenty to say about those too, but here his recommendations have simply been left on hold.

The excuse, of course, is that policy has to wait for the 14 to 19 education review. One feels sorry for the review's coordinator Mike Tomlinson, who will apparently soon resolve every educational dilemma of the past 30 years, and probably provide us all with cheap, secure and environmentally friendly energy while he is about it. So far, he has kept everything so general that we can all read our favourite policies into the shape of things to come. But there are some worrying signs.

We have been told that the reforms are not going to mean four-year degrees (which I believe: imagine the Treasury's reaction). That, in turn, means that sixth-form specialisation also cannot change much. At the moment, it seems likely that getting one of the proposed new diplomas will simply mean that 18-year-olds have to bank some sort of basic maths, English and science qualification. But they already do that - it is called GCSE. Why will relabelling things, to make them into diploma components, have any effect on the numbers who choose different subjects?

Which brings me, oddly enough, to Laura Spence, who was plastered all over the front page of The Times Higher a few weeks ago. Harvard was especially hard work for her, she said, because she hadn't done maths A level. Harvard requires all science students to do advanced maths and physics; and US students aiming for top universities duly take the relevant pre-college courses. The growing competition for good universities has meant a real increase in the content of many US high-school courses, and in "advanced placement" exams. Here we anguish constantly over qualification structures and marking standards. But surely it is content that really matters.

Alison Wolf is professor of management at King's College London.

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