Concern over the mathematical competence of students starting degree courses in mathematics, science and engineering has spurred the London Mathematical Society to launch an inquiry into the National Curriculum, A levels and their impact on the needs of universities.
The working group is to be chaired by Geoffrey Howson, emeritus professor of mathematics at Southampton University. Professor Howson stressed that the aim is not to consider the whole of the National Curriculum and that the emphasis "will not be on standards as such but on whether high attainers who go on to do A levels are being set suitable goals".
He said that the group will also examine whether schools and colleges are properly promoting mathematics and its intellectual demands.
"We want to see what can be done to help ease the path of students into science, engineering and mathematics."
Professor Howson said that the problem of students not being adequately prepared mathematically is felt most acutely by engineering and physics departments. Creating time for improving technique on mathematics courses was a little easier than on engineering and science courses.
Another member of the working group, David Crighton, head of the department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics at Cambridge University, has already voiced concern about mathematics in schools and colleges. He believes that the combination of the National Curriculum and the A-level system has allowed standards to "drop very considerably" and that many students are not well prepared for entry on to science, mathematics and engineering courses.
He said his concerns were widely shared in higher education: "A common concern is that there is far too much emphasis on self-discovery rather than the presentation of material as a body of knowledge. Such knowledge is the culmination of the work of very smart people over a very long period of time. It is laughable that pupils can achieve mastery of such work through self-discovery."
Students are also lacking mathematical "fluency". Professor Crighton said that this stems from an overemphasis on numerical problems in applied mathematics, at the expense of technique for manipulation of equations rather than numbers.
"That emphasis falsifies the whole nature of applied mathematics." Much greater attention should be paid to arming pupils with a conceptual framework and understanding of mathematics, he argued.
Professor Crighton will be highlighting his concerns next month as part of a campaign to promote mathematics by the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, of which he is to be the president.