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Army of students may help teach maths

An army of university maths students could be brought in to teach sixth-form lessons under plans to tackle the crisis in the subject.

With maths losing popularity at school and university, an influential advisory group is suggesting that undergraduates could generate enthusiasm with their up-to-date knowledge of the way maths is used in business and industry.

Students could also help compensate for the chronic shortage of maths and science staff, says Professor Chris Llewellyn Smith, chair of the advisory group on mathematics education representing academics and teachers. The committee, which has influence with Education Secretary Charles Clarke, also says that maths A-level should be scrapped and replaced by a specialist baccalaureate to encourage more to pursue the subject.

The numbers studying A-level maths fell by 6 per cent last year and university departments saw a 5 per cent drop in admissions. Meanwhile the number of maths teachers has halved over the past two decades and as many as a quarter may be inadequately qualified.

The advisory committee is backed by the Royal Society - the body for Britain's top scientists - and is playing a leading role in the Government's maths inquiry, due to report in the autumn.

Professor Chris Llewellyn Smith, the physicist who chairs the committee, acknowledged that employing students might be controversial with teachers, but said they would supplement, not replace, qualified staff. Some would, he hoped, go on to be teachers.

A similar idea involving science undergraduates has already been proposed by Sir Gareth Roberts in his 2002 review of technological skills in Britain, Set for Success.

The advisory committee believes too many students are deterred by the difficulty of maths A-level. New qualifications should focus on aspects of the subject such as statistics, which were likely to be useful in workplaces or other university courses. Able mathematicians could still do a traditional syllabus.

Professor Llewellyn Smith said that plans were at an early stage and schools would be consulted.

But by abolishing A-level they could offer different types of maths courses to sixth-formers of different abilities. "After GCSE it's A-level or nothing," he said. "Students will need some more maths if they want to do a subject like geography or sociology. But A-level maths is too hard for them."

Earlier this week, there was a call to make GCSE maths optional. Terry Bladen, this year's president of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, told its annual conference that the exam was putting students off maths. Instead they should be allowed to concentrate on basic numeracy, he said.

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