Maths chairman attacks standards review equation

November 17, 1995

Christopher Robson, chairman of the London Mathematical Society's education committee, says he is disappointed by the School Curriculum Assessment Authority's reaction to a society report which says that students' abilities in mathematics are falling fast.

The report, published last month, says that many students embarking on degrees that demand a good ability in mathematics are inadequately prepared in the subject. It calls on the Government to establish urgently a standing committee to overview mathematics education from primary school through to university. The body should have "substantial representation" from higher education and ensure that "sound advice and adequate support are provided to those involved in the organisation and delivery of mathematics education".

But in a statement, the SCAA says that its advice to the Government on matters relating to the school curriculum and its assessment is already "informed by the widest possible range of professional opinion" and that it has regular meetings with relevant associations including the LMS and the Joint Mathematical Council to discuss issues related to school mathematics.

Nevertheless Professor Robson, head of pure mathematics at Leeds University, says that the higher education mathematics community "does not feel that it has been genuinely consulted. The report we have published disagrees completely with SCAA's assurance". He added that SCAA's "unwillingness to support a standing committee for mathematics education is exacerbating the problem".

The study, compiled by a working group on behalf of the LMS, the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications and the Royal Statistical Society, says that "serious problems" perceived by those in higher education include lack of technical fluency among students, especially in their ability to carry out numerical and algebraic calculation with ease. And compared with students of the 1980s, there is a marked decline in students' analytical powers when faced with simple two-step or multi-step problems. Another major criticism is that "students no longer understand that mathematics is a precise discipline in which exact, reliable calculations, logical exposition and proof play essential roles".

The report says that most weaknesses observed among students will not be removed as a result of recent changes to the National Curriculum: "They will only be remedied by a far-reaching review and by much improved guidance for teachers."

The report says that while complete agreement among mathematicians is not possible on changes in standards at GCSE, few would dispute the observation that in recent years less emphasis has been placed on the acquisition of skills vital for further study in mathematics, science and engineering such as those involving arithmetic, fractions, ratios and basic geometry. There is a need for an "urgent and serious" probe into pupils' fluency in these areas.

The report working group's concern over the effect of the National Curriculum on students' mathematical ability is highlighted by its call on the Government to set up a committee of enquiry immediately to examine the current curricula in mathematics for pupils aged five to 16 as well as 16 to 19-year-olds. As with the standing committee, the group wants strong representation from higher education on this body also.

SCAA says that SEAC, its predecessor, worked with higher education, industry and the examination boards to specify a core for A level mathematics that must form the basis of all A level syllabuses for examinations from 1996. But Professor Robson says: "There was a core there already and the new core is worse than the previous one from the perspective of higher education. Universities could at least build on the basis of students' exposure to the old version but the new core is less precise."

SCAA says developments at A level and the National Curriculum will take time to work through the system and that university entrants have not followed the whole of the National Curriculum, even in its original form. Professor Robson however asks whether universities "really have to wait ten years before they can say what they are doing at school level is wrong. We have had enough time to assess the changes in the last few years to know that all is not as it should be with the school mathematics curricula."

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