Leading maths dons, convinced standards have fallen, have called for an urgent review of maths teaching and syllabuses. The London Mathematical Society and other top academic bodies want the Government to establish a committee of inquiry to review maths curriculums from 5-16 and 16-19.
They say it should make proposals in time to allow carefully considered action by the year 2000 - the end of the five-year moratorium on curriculum change in schools.
The dons, including Dr Tony Gardiner, reader in mathematics at Birmingham, and Dr Geoffrey Howson, of Southampton University, blame the Government for its failure to take an overview and provide support where needed.
Asked about over-use of calculators in primary schools, Dr Gardiner said: "What is missing for primary teachers is clear guidance as to what is good practice and what is potentially damaging practice." He disagreed with Government reports which have traced problems with maths back to primary teaching. "I am not convinced that primary teachers should be beaten yet again," he said. "With clear guidance they can do a decent job up to 11. "
The report, Tackling the Mathematics Problem, noted "unprecedented concern" among mathematicians, scientists and engineers in higher education about new undergraduates' preparation for higher education.
They said that today's students:
* lack the technical facility needed to do numerical and algebraic calculation with fluency and accuracy; * are less able to analyse simple problems requiring more than one step; * have a changed perception of mathematics - in particular, the essential place of precision and proof.
They stressed that even the brightest pupils had these difficulties, and that crucial questions about what skills were most important needed to be addressed by the whole mathematics community.
The dons felt Government quangos like the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the Office for Standards in Education (now conducting an inquiry into A-level and GCSE standards) had been providing misleading reassurance that standards were going up. They pointed out that until 1986, A-level grades were "norm-referenced", so that 10 per cent gained As, and 15 per cent received grade B. The percentages for 1994 were: A, 25 per cent and B, 18 per cent.
"There is no doubt that there has been, in an obvious sense, a devaluation of grades," said the working group, which was set up by the London Mathematical Society, the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications and the Royal Statistical Society.
"The evidence presented to this working group is clearly inconsistent with any suggestion that the much larger proportion of today's students who achieve a grade A at A-level mathematics can in any sense be said to perform at a level comparable to the smaller proportion of the cohort pre-1986."
They said Hong Kong universities now adopted the exchange rate of one Hong Kong A-level point being equivalent to 1.67 UK A-level points.
They were also convinced that market forces were driving down public examinations standards, as schools sought out "easy" exams to help them in the league tables. Other countries, such as France, had increased both standards and numbers in maths, they said.
The dons were highly critical of the national curriculum. "The current system, which aims to cater for different abilities by varying the speed of progress through the same material, must be reconsidered," they said. They called on the Department for Education and Employment to set up a standing committee, with substantial representation from higher education, to provide an overview of all maths education, and to ensure that teachers get sound advice and adequate support. Dr Gardiner made it clear that, although standards were higher in the past, the past did not provide answers to today's problems. In the past, the bottom three-quarters of pupils were ignored, while the best teachers were concentrated in the grammar schools.
The document pointed to the "desperate shortage of properly qualified mathematics graduates at all levels of the teaching system." The coming of comprehensive schools, it said, dispersed well-qualified teachers more widely, but without increasing their numbers.
The dons set out "proposals for discussion", including:
* more emphasis within the national curriculum on important basic topics and the acquisition of techniques which form a foundation for later work. They said the exactness of maths, and its notion of proof should not be distorted and that close attention should be paid to accuracy and clarity.
* making the national curriculum more explicit about basic facts, methods and ideas which are fundamental to subsequent mathematical progress.
* reviewing the decision to allow GCSE grade B on intermediate papers.
* extra in-service training to maths teachers provided by Government.
* universities running appropriate courses to attract potential teachers of maths in schools.
SCAA chief executive Nicholas Tate said: "Many of the issues in the report are already on the SCAA agenda and are being pursued with energy and thoroughness. "