AS-level failures add up to disaster

November 30, 2001

Up to 60 university departments that rely on students with maths A levels could be closed because of a huge drop in applications.

Early indications are that 20 per cent fewer students will sit A-level maths next summer. Already admissions tutors are feeling the severity of the impact.

The reason is the high failure rate of the new maths AS level. Almost a third of students who sat the first exam last summer failed. As a result, many thousands have dropped maths in the second year of the sixth form.

Curriculum developer Roger Porkess, who works for Maths in Education and Industry, an independent body, said he expected up to 15,000 fewer students to sit maths A level this summer compared to last year. He called this a "disaster" for universities.

"A conservative estimate is that three departments in every university rely on students with maths A level. With a 20 per cent downturn, we could see the closure of some 60 departments unless something drastic is done in the next month."

At 29 per cent, the maths AS failure rate was double the average for other subjects and far worse than subjects such as English, whose failure rate is 5 per cent. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has set up an inquiry into what has gone wrong and recommendations are thought to be imminent.

But alarm bells are already ringing in higher education. At Leeds University, early returns suggest a 20 per cent fall in applications for maths. This is thought to be repeated in many other universities. "This is very serious and will obviously affect other technical disciplines like engineering and physics," said maths professor David Salinger. "We are hoping this is a one-off blip, but if it turns into a longer term trend things won't be pleasant."

Peter Saunders, of King's College London's maths department, said the new AS-level system, which meant sixth-formers studied three maths modules instead of two in the first year of a traditional A level, was unworkable in its current form. "It has been a disaster and will give university departments a rough time this year. I just hope the reforms that are being thought through do actually tackle the problem."

One solution was to make the A level easier, he said, but a better answer was to change the order in which modules were taken.

Sir Alan Wilson, vice-chancellor of Leeds University, said it was imperative that universities did not become too market-led. "The country needs people with high-level maths skills, and it is the responsibility of universities to ensure these subjects continue to be supported."

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