Report urges better maths education

Too many students are starting science and engineering degrees without studying maths at A-level, according to a report.

Around seven in 10 biology undergraduates, almost two-fifths of those taking chemistry at university and a fifth of those on engineering courses have not studied maths past GCSE level, it found.

Lord Willis of of Knaresborough, chairman of the House of Lords sub-committee which published the report, said he was "absolutely gobsmacked" by the figures.

The report suggests that the level of maths required by universities to study science-based courses is not demanding enough, and is deterring people from taking the subject at A-level. It calls for all teenagers to continue studying maths past the age of 16, and for all students who want to study STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) at university to study the subject to A-level standard.

Lord Willis said: "We were absolutely gobsmacked that 20% of engineering undergraduates do not have A2 (A-level) mathematics, 38% of chemistry and economics undergraduates do not have A2 maths and 70% 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."

The report, which investigated STEM subjects in higher education, says that universities must toughen up their maths entry requirements for science and maths-based degrees.

Professor Sir William Wakeham, specialist adviser for the committee, said pharmaceutical industries 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 added.

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.

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."