SIXTH-FORMERS are choosing the safest routes to the highest A-level grades, leaving, "harder" subjects by the wayside, maths experts claim.
And the Government's new matriculation diploma, proposed in the 14 to 19 Green Paper, is likely to make the situation worse.
The claim comes as thousands of students sit the AS maths exams this month. Nearly a third of candidates failed the paper last summer - more than double the average failure rate for other subjects. Ministers were so concerned they ordered an inquiry. Recent research from Durham University showed that maths was one of the most demanding A-levels.
Exact entry numbers for AS and A2 maths this summer are not yet available, but the evidence suggests that up to half of those taking maths have dropped the subject after the first year. Applications to study maths at university this year fell by more than 12 per cent.
At Beauchamp College, one of the best-performing schools in Leicestershire, the number who went on to take A2 was 86 out of about 140 who took AS last year.
Maths experts also suspect that thousands of able lower-sixth formers chose not to do maths AS because it could spoil their straight A record. Collyer's College, Horsham, has 115 lower-sixth students sitting AS this year, compared to 145 last year.
Head of maths, Nick Robins, said: "We are looking at increasing maths AS teaching time to five hours a week, with all other subjects left at four-and-a-half hours."
The Durham research which compared GCSE results with A-level grades, found pupils who achieved a B at GCSE did better at A-level if they took business studies rather than physics, scoring an average of C as opposed to D.
The least demanding A-levels were photography, art, sociology and computing.
Maths, physics and foreign languages were the hardest. As The TES revealed last week, schools are already jettisoning languages at key stage 4. Professor Carol Fitz-Gibbon, from Durham University's curriculum, evaluation and management centre, said the Government's policy to treat GCSE and A-level grades in different subjects as equivalent was a disaster for maths and the sciences.
"Some students will do maths and science because they love it and many are assured an A grade. The challenge is at the margins. If we lose our students to business administration we are in trouble."
She described the plans for a matriculation diploma, where students receive an advanced award if they achieve two A-levels and one AS-level, as outdated and arbitrary.
The Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education said the over-arching award could provide further temptation for students to aim at subjects which provide the "safest" route to higher grades.
The independent committee told ministers that it was seriously worried about the effects on maths and further maths, which are both seen as difficult A-level subjects.
Universities fear that plans to introduce a "distinction" A grade for A2 exams could deter some students from continuing in education. They have told the Government that it should consider the change very carefully in its revamp of 14 to 19 education.