Math in the UK

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Lost count of gloomy reports about the state of maths in schools and universities? For more than a decade mathematicians have been moaning and the government has responded with inquiries, changes in the curriculum, numeracy hours in primary schools, golden hellos for maths teachers and a plethora of other initiatives in England.

It even, briefly, tried employing a maths graduate as the education secretary - Charles Clarke took a personal interest in the state of the subject until he was subtracted from the department.

Yet today the angriest report yet is published by a group of mathematicians, calling for drastic action to save the subject. Where will the next generation of UK mathematicians come from, asks the group, drawn from university maths departments around the country, learned societies and the government's curriculum watchdog.

At the moment the answer seems to be "from Russia and Hungary". In many university maths departments nine out of 10 of appointments go to candidates from abroad, while the shortage of maths teachers in schools has got so bad that the Department for Education and Skills has stopped collecting the figures.

Tony Gardiner, of Birmingham University, who wrote the report, says there is a consensus among mathematicians about what is going wrong and the fact that the situation is much more serious than the government, schools and universities seem willing to admit.

There is also agreement on the need - outlined by Adrian Smith's report Making Mathematics Count - to boost the numbers of pupils taking A-level maths, the pool from which science graduates (and future maths teachers) will come. Maths has gone from the largest A-level entry to third place as numbers have dropped by nearly half from 80,000 in 1989 to 49,000 in 2002.

A curriculum for the most able 25% of pupils is needed to encourage them to progress to A-level, says the report, which also suggests awarding more university admissions points for a maths A-level than other subjects.

Dr Gardiner wants a national debate. He argues that in the last 15 years or so, "much of our mathematics teaching, and most of our assessment at all levels, have become fragmented - with multistep tasks being routinely reduced to (and assessed as) a collection of unrelated 'one-step routines'".

The upshot, he says, is that maths undergraduates cannot solve the kind of problems that 13-year-olds used to be expected to do.

He adds: "Students in general are no longer required to combine simple techniques in the most basic ways - so they no longer understand that the power of elementary mathematics lies in the integration of simple techniques into larger wholes.

"Modularisation has encouraged this trend, which has reduced school mathematics in England to an unappetising and unchallenging substitute for what elementary mathematics should be."