THE loudest complaints about maths standards in Britain have come from the universities, not only the maths departments but also the physicists and engineers. Entrants these days do not have the basic skills university teachers used to be able to take for granted, they claim.
There are several reasons for this. Pressure to increase graduate numbers and widen access means students who would not have entered university before are doing so now. Most of these students will have only one maths A level, whereas 20 years ago they would have spent twice the amount of time taking double maths.
But the third and most crucial reason for declining standards, the universities say, has been changes in the A-level syllabuses. Which is ironic, because the reason why syllabuses were broadened in the early 1990s was in order to try to halt the steep decline in 16 to 18-year-olds stuying maths by making it more interesting and accessible.
This strategy worked and the numbers taking maths A-level have since remained steady. But the consequence, say the universities, most forcefully in a report by the Engineering Council published earlier this year, is that even 18-year-olds with high A-level scores now need to be given "remedial" maths teaching when they start university.
A study by Warwick University, where engineering students mostly come in with double maths and an average of 29 A-level points (30 points = three A grades), shows that as A-level scores have gone up, student performance on entry tests has gone down. Another study from Coventry University, which also tests its new engineering students, shows that 18-year-olds coming in with a C-grade in maths now score worse on that test than students in 1991 who only had an N grade.