University mathematicians this week urged the Government to set up a mathematics inspectorate for schools to halt a serious decline in students' ability in the subject.
Their call is a key recommendation in a report highlighting "serious problems" associated with maths teaching. The decline in students' ability to handle mathematics is causing difficulties for university mathematics departments and for science and engineering courses on which time to remedy deficiencies is often limited.
The study by the London Mathematical Society and sister bodies, Tackling the Mathematics Problem, says that higher education lecturers are particularly concerned by students seriously lacking in technical fluency - especially the ability to carry out numerical and algebraic calculation with ease. Compared with students in the early 1980s, there is a marked decline in students' analytical powers when faced with simple two-step or multi-step problems. The report says: "Most students entering higher education no longer understand that mathematics is a precise discipline in which exact, reliable calculation, logical exposition and proof play essential roles."
The report calls for an inquiry into the mathematics curricula for five to 16-year-olds and 16 to 19s.
David Crighton, head of the department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics at Cambridge University, says that while the emphasis on problem solving and investigative work in school is "of some benefit to pupils and well meant, it is time consuming and reduces the status of theorems and proofs to rough statements and experimental observations".
Professor Crighton, a member of the LMS working group, says: "The United Kingdom has been led up a backwater in mathematics education from which it must now emerge and regain the mainstream. The evidence for the decline is in front of us now that we have many more international students particularly from the European Union and the Far East. " INSIGHT