PUPILS will have to achieve top grades in maths GCSE before they are allowed to study for AS-level, under new proposals from the Government's exam watchdog.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is struggling to resolve issues raised by last summer's disastrous results when a third of pupils failed maths - double the rate for other subjects.
It is proposing that no one should progress to AS-level unless they have a B grade at GCSE, cutting the pool of eligible students by more than two-thirds.
The proposal would set maths apart from every other curriculum subject, where a C grade is the base line for further study. It is also a tacit recognition by officials that post-16 maths is harder than other subjects.
As The TES revealed last week, schools report upper-sixth maths classes being halved as teenagers drop the subject for "easier" options. Applications to study maths degrees at university this year are down by more than 10 per cent.
Now the QCA has produced draft guidance for the AS and A2-level which states: "Students embarking on AS and A-level study in mathematics are recommended to have achieved at least grade B in GCSE mathematics or equivalent."
While the proposal could help to cut the failure rate, it would substantially reduce the number of students eligible to study maths in the sixth form.
Last year half of pupils - about 345,000 - achieved an A* to C at GCSE, while only 28 per cent were awarded A* to B. About 65,000 students go on to study A-level each year.
The grade B requirement also runs counter to one of the prime purposes of AS - greater breadth of study. Teenagers may decide against spending a year studying maths to complement or contrast with other subjects.
Doug French, chair of the Mathematical Association teaching committee, said: "A minimum B grade makes maths look automatically harder and will put students off straight away. Maths should be seen as being as accessible as any other subject."
Chris Belsom, a member of the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education, said it would not support any move that was likely to reduce the take-up of maths post-16.
Some maths experts claim the three-tier maths GCSE produces pupils who are ill-prepared for further study. A grade C on the intermediate paper (covering grades B to E) can be achieved with just 45 per cent of the marks. The QCA will begin a two-tier pilot in September.
Consultation on the authority's draft AS and A-level guidance will begin in September and changes would come into force in 2004. Other proposals include a requirement for students to study four pure modules and two applied modules.
The balance at the moment is 50 per cent of each. It is argued that this option would give students more time to get to grips with difficult content.
Students sitting exams this summer have the chance to take one of the three AS-level modules in the autumn, following the QCA's inquiry into last year's maths crisis. The extra opportunity will only be available until the watchdog's new proposals come into force.
Many maths experts want to see restrictions on the use of calculators and formula sheets lifted, but such a move could lead to accusations of dumbing down.
Anecdotal evidence from students taking maths AS-level this year suggests teenagers are still struggling to cram the increased content of the syllabus into what is effectively two terms of teaching.