Many a-level maths students are passing their courses with little or no knowledge of basic mechanics, once a key part of the qualification, academics have warned.
The applied maths subject is key to most engineering degrees, but university teachers say students are now coming in with extremely varied levels of knowledge. Mechanics was made an optional subject at maths A- level in the early 1990s, and since 2004, pupils only have to study two rather than three applied maths modules.
Research by Loughborough University has found the proportion of schools offering no mechanics modules rose from 5 to 8 per cent between 2004 and 2006, while the number offering two or more has dropped from 74 to 60 per cent.
Sue de Pomerai, assistant programme leader at the Further Mathematics Network, said there was now a sense of a "lottery" between schools offering one or more modules. The Further Mathematics Network is looking to tackle the problem by establishing 46 centres to provide further maths tuition.
Speaking to a symposium in Cambridge this week, Ms de Pomerai said schools in some parts of the country found it "desperately hard" to recruit teachers with enough knowledge to teach it. "If the teacher comes from a similar background to their students', they might even fear it, perpetuating the idea it is the `hard' part of maths."
Offering mechanics modules as part of further maths was part of the solution, although some schools were stubbornly against it, she said.
"When I was a head of department I had a stand-up row with my head about it. He said `You don't need further maths, it's an elitist subject and universities don't require it'."
Ms de Pomerai said changes to the maths curriculum itself were partly to blame, but abilities of AS and A-level students were now more varied than they used to be, with the widening of university participation. A wider range of A-level subjects was also filtering able maths students away, she said.
The Loughborough research found take-up for mechanics modules had also dropped, as other applied modules, such as statistics, were proving more popular.
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