House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology published report

Higher Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics

(STEM) subjects. Some of the recommendations:

41. The Education Committee recommended that the Government should pilot a national syllabus in one large entry subject as part of the forthcoming A level reforms.

We would recommend that maths should be the subject of such a pilot. […]

32. We recommend that, as part of their National Curriculum review, the Government

make studying maths in some form compulsory for allstudents post-16. We recommend also thatmaths to A2 level should be a requirement for students intending to study STEM subjects in HE.39. We support the Government’s efforts to involve HEIs in setting the curriculum and we urge HEIs to engage fully and make every effort to smooth the transition from school to HE, particularly in maths. In order to inform this process, we urge that HEIs work together to establish where the skills gaps are and which areas of the maths syllabus are essential for STEM undergraduate study. We would expect this work to be completed by July 2014.

48. The number of students studying maths A level dropped by 20% after the introduction of curriculum reforms in 2000. As a result, many HEIs reduced their entry requirements. Although student numbers have recovered, this has not been reflected in a resumption of higher HEI entry requirements. […]

49. The lack, or low level, of maths requirements for admission to HEIs, particularly for programmes in STEM subjects, acts as a disincentive for students to take maths and high level maths at A level.

We urge HEIs to introduce more demanding maths requirements at entry for STEM courses.[…]

Consultation and report from the Select Committee is commented on in these newspaper articles:

The TelegraphTop universities forced to introduce remedial maths classesTop universities are being forced to give remedial lessons to maths students as A-levels and GCSEs have failed to prepare them for the rigours of degree courses, an official report has found.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/9420771/Top-universities-forced-to-introduce-remedial-maths-classes.html

The IndependentMake maths compulsory for all students until the age of 18, leading scientists urgeExperts bemoan system that leaves many school leavers ‘bewildered and bamboozled by numbers’

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/make-maths-compulsory-for-all-students-until-the-age-of-18-leading-scientists-urge-7966272.html

More responses in the media: BBC

A paper in THE, with interesting comments: Sum of our fears: peers decry maths standards, by Paul Jump.

Compulsory maths lessons until 18 would be a miscalculation, a comment by Matt Parker in EducationGuardian.co.uk.

[…]

The House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology has recommended that action be taken to ensure that students’ understanding of mathematics is far more thorough by the time they leave school for university.[…]It’s important to ask which are the pupils who will be most affected by making post-16 maths compulsory. It’s not the gifted mathematicians-in-the-making. It’s not the students who need maths as a prerequisite for future employment or studies. It’s not those with pushy parents who think they should study maths for the sake of it. They already opt-in. It’s those who exit the maths classroom when they get the chance that we really need to think about.I’ve taught classes of year 10 “bottom set” students who would drop maths in the blink of a pi if they could. I will never forget their weary, resigned faces as I embarked on teaching them how to calculate the area of a circle knowing full well they would fail at it again, for the fourth year in a row. These pupils have been unsuccessfully subjected to the same maths content since year 7 and they still have one more depressing lap of it in year 11. Goodness knows if they will survive another two compulsory years of the same.[…]More media comments:

Alice Udale-Smith in The Guardian, Why maths should be compulsory for all A-level students

Martin Stephen in The Telegraph, Forcing kids to study maths after 16 is a recipe for a riot

1) I think my main thought with what I have read so far in the Report (Chapters 3 and 7) is ‘so what?’. In as much as I have been fairly directly involved, I seem to have heard/read a lot of these things before – about standards, about international comparison, about teacher supply, about different study pathways, etc. I have known this a lot for M, and in general my professional colleagues have enlightened me (or confirmed my prejudices) about S,T, E as well.

2) M has a special place in all this, which may not have been advantageous to our subject. There is a thriving market for ‘telling them only what they really need to know’ , particularly in Engineering, where certain old-style opinions have great longevity. I used to despair here about this, but now my despair is no longer ‘official’.

3) There are several references to Imperial College London here in this report. I cannot take praise or blame for any such specific opinions, since I was not consulted – at least not directly. I do actually agree with most of what is quoted, as it happens. I was retired last September – despite or because of my opinions about this College and the wider world in general. I have been fighting most of these battles for decades – and it seems so, to all concerned.

4) In para 35 modularity gets a kicking, justifiably in my view.

5) In para 39 there is the hope that HEI involvement in curriculum+ will be much increased. As things stand I think this is a rather forlorn hope, although this may not be the situation across the whole sector. RAE, REF, etc have changed the university landscape markedly from a teaching commitment point of view. Of course HMG would like to think that vastly increased fees and satisfaction surveys will restore the balance – some hopes!

6) Para 43 contains the usual exhortation to improve teacher supply –which is a real problem for all STEM in the state sector. I have been reading this for decades and a much greater stimulus is required than is proposed here, although we have tried our modest best at a local level.

7) In para 261 the hope seems to be that the competitive market for incoming students will not apply in such a core subject area. Getting consistency across HEIs – and a t a higher level of achievement (whatever that is defined to mean) – smacks of trying to get water to run uphill , and therefore not without a considerable push!

8) Para 277. Here is a direct reference to the effect of REF – sheer pie in the sky, despite various pieces of lip service paid to this in official documentation!

9) Para 279. The real difficulty with ALL the attempts to measure teaching quality and student satisfaction is that of defining a level playing field, so that the results are representative in quality and in numbers across the sector. As things stand the media then apply their own bias in all the weightings, supposedly sometimes for non-political reasons, although I have not often spotted those! The definition of students as ‘customers’ has been really insidious here. Students think that they are purchasing the result, without the means being properly and uniformly specified.

10) Para 281. I have some sympathy with the idea that professional accreditation provides a way forward on standards – although it is not clearly helpful as yet with Mathematics. The QAA has had considerable ‘limitations’ in providing any maintenance or slipping of standards. That is putting it very mildly!

11) Para 283. We have all complained in HE about the grade inflation in GCSE, AS, A levels – although curiously there is not much in Baccalaureate etc. However the competitive market with its league tables has produced the same in degree class levels, so that they can now hardly be trusted, at least without a lot of salt! The Pass degree went some time ago, The Richard is now following it, and shortly no doubt the Desmond will go too. At the same time as some disciplines are awarding 85+% Firsts and Upper Seconds, the demand is now for a ‘super’ or (for the cynics) an ‘old style’ First. At Imperial we are being moved towards a ‘Dean’s List’ where the position of the apostrophe is moveable… This is all very American – for a reference on the ‘delights’ of US shenanigans I refer you to the book ‘Grade Inflation’ by Valen Johnson – this is about the US Ivy League mainly, but all are on the same slippery slope as the State universities have sharply rising fees too. This is already with us of course… Of course Graduate recruiters are said to regard all institutions as equivalent standard in what they choose to award. These percentages are also regarded as direct measures of the Quality of Teaching…

12) Para 295-7. Well even the politicians seem to be worried about this effect of visa restrictions. Who knows there may be some change soon. This will be on ‘contribution to the economy’ grounds no doubt, but in any event much of the damage has already been done, and will take some considerable time to repair [q.v. Mrs Thatcher and full fees for Commonwealth students back in the 1980s].

13) I find it difficult to comprehend how the effects of vastly increased home student fees on Masters and PhD aspiration were not anticipated – even with those not possessed of ‘two brains’. I agree with the statement that ‘little is known’ because of course it has not hit home fully as yet. However those of us of a pessimistic persuasion fear the worst.