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Maths should be compulsory after 16 - report

Maths should be a compulsory subject for all students after the age of 16, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee says.

A report by the committee has found that many students starting STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) degrees, even those with A-Level maths qualifications, lack the math skills required to undertake their studies.

It has called for all students to continue studying maths past the age of 16, and for all students who want to study STEM at university to study the subject to A-level standard. It has also called for universities to toughen up their maths requirements for entry into STEM courses and get more involved in setting up the maths curriculum.

Lord Willis, chairman of the Lords sub-committee on higher education in STEM subjects said: "We were absolutely gobsmacked that 20 per cent of engineering undergraduates do not have A2 (A-level) mathematics, 38 per cent of chemistry and economics undergraduates do not have A2 maths and 70 per cent of biology undergraduates do not have A-level maths."

"If we are talking about a world-class STEM base, where mathematics is the cornerstone of virtually every science programme, then it is really quite amazing that we have so few students who have studied maths, literally, beyond GCSE and often, not even with a grade A."

Professor Sir William Wakeham, international secretary and senior vice-president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, who was the specialist adviser for the committee said they had spoken to pharmaceutical industries who have "enormous demand" for statistical analysis on the effects of their drugs.

Many of their graduates have studied biological science and "not studied maths from the age of 16 with a minimal level of statistics", he said.

"Employers are rather keen that all of their students should have these kinds of skills," he said.

Sir William added that because of the modularisation of exams, it is possible "to avoid whole subjects in maths, like calculus and still find yourself in an engineering discipline where maths is essential”.

Lord Willis said there were some engineering students that had "virtually no understanding" of mechanics.

A number of university vice-chancellors told the sub-committee that their institution was being forced to offer remedial maths classes not only for those that had not studied the subject at A-level, but for those who had taken it and done well, the report said.

Professor Sir Christopher Snowden, vice-chancellor of Surrey University, told the group: "I think that in pretty much every university the issues over maths skills apply.

"Indeed, this has been an issue now for many years within universities, partly due to the increase in the breadth of maths that is studied at schools but with a lack of depth.

"In some cases, for example, there is a complete absence of calculus, which is an issue in many subjects."

The sub-committee has recommended that the Government should make maths compulsory for all students after GCSE. "We share the view that all students should study some form of maths post-16, the particular area of maths depending on the needs of the student.

"For example, prospective engineering students would require mechanics as part of their post-16 maths, whereas prospective biology students would benefit from studying statistics."

It adds: "We recommend also that maths to A2 level should be a requirement for students intending to study STEM subjects in higher education."

The report also considered the recent changes to the UK’s immigration rules and said it had led to a perception that the UK did not welcome students.

Lord Willis said: “Combined with the increases in tuition fees, this risks damaging universities funding base and limiting their ability to offer higher quality STEM courses. The Government must take steps to ensure international students are not put off studying here."

Gareth James, head of education at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) said:  “From across industry we hear repeated time and again that there are not enough young people with the right qualifications available to take the rewarding and challenging engineering careers that are available now and anticipated over the next couple of decades.

“Good quality qualifications in maths, physics, chemistry, biology and computer science will open many doors to young people but if they want to stand out as potential employees they also need to demonstrate their ability to apply their learning and to have good employability skills such as team working. It is vital that if young people want to have the best chance in the jobs market that they need to research what employers are looking for, to choose their subjects accordingly and gain the sort of experience and skills that will make them appealing.”

The Lords Science and Technology Committee is right to call for urgent action by the government to boost student numbers in these subjects, the IET said.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: "We want the majority of young people to continue studying maths up to 18 to meet the growing demand for employees with maths skills.

"We are reviewing how maths is taught in schools and overhauling GCSEs and A-levels to make sure they are robust and in line with the best education systems in the world."

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