, authored by Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson at the University of Buckingham and commissioned by social mobility charity the Sutton Trust.
The report's most damning paragraph contrasts the performance of English 15-year-olds with their overseas rivals: "In the 2009 Pisa [Programme for International Student Assessment] tests, only just over half as many achieved the highest level in maths as the average of 3.1 per cent for OECD [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development] countries. England's 1.7 per cent has to be seen against the 8.7 per cent in Flemish Belgium and 7.8 per cent in Switzerland. On a world scale, the picture is even more concerning - 26.6 per cent achieved the highest level in Shanghai, 15.6 per cent in Singapore and 10.8 per cent in Hong Kong.The few top performers in England are in independent and grammar schools and almost no pupils in the general run of maintained [schools] reach the highest levels."
This might raise concerns that countries such as Singapore and Switzerland focus on the highly able and neglect the average students, but the top 10 countries that excel in teaching the highly able also trump England when it comes to average achievements in maths.
Physics is in a spin
The problem also extends to physics. When I completed my A-level in 1982, I sat it alongside 55,728 others in the country. In 2006, only 27,368 took the exam. Given the lack of mathematical ability on these islands, I should point out that this is less than half the previous number. This year that figure has increased to 36,701, but that is still only two-thirds of the 1982 level.
Some argue that quality is more important than quantity, but it is generally accepted that today's A-level physicists cover less than their predecessors in a less rigorous fashion, largely because the maths that is integral to physics was removed to tempt those who might be fearful. This ultimately means that we now have fewer physicists knowing less physics.
It baffles and saddens me in equal measure that today we have more money, resources and online tools to develop maths and physics potential than ever before, yet we have taken big steps backwards compared with a generation ago.
There are some ongoing initiatives aimed at improving maths and science education in England, but at best they tinker around the edges and prop up a failing model. Instead, the Department for Education needs to implement a radical policy that rescues our future inventors and cosmologists from oblivion. We could do worse than follow the New York City model, which relies on nine selective, publicly funded high schools to nurture the highest flyers. Most focus on maths, science and engineering; the Bronx High School of Science, for example, can count seven Nobel laureates in physics among its alumni.
We desperately need a similar network of schools, or something even more radical, here in the UK to realise the potential of ambitious young mathematicians and physicists. They deserve to be stretched. Michael Faraday and Sir Isaac Newton must be gathering angular momentum in their graves over the sorry state of A-level maths and physics.
Simon Singh is an author, journalist and television producer specialising in science and maths. His book The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets is published by Bloomsbury
Learning by Bart
Simon Singh has created a classroom resource for A-level students that explores the maths and physics featured in The Simpsons.