Maths skills don't add up

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
Mathematics students are arriving at university poorly equipped tostudy for degrees,reports Kay Smith.

Secondary school maths courses are failing to equip pupils for degree-level work, subject specialists will be told tomorrow.

Even those with a good Higher pass have to go through basic skills training to ensure they can cope with degree work, according to university lecturers who will make the point at the national conference of the Scottish Mathematics Council in Stirling.

Ian Anderson, the council's chairman, said: "Universities cannot assume students have a good grasp of higher-level maths, even though they come to us with as much as a Higher B pass.

"They can still be very unhappy about certain aspects of the degree-level course they have just embarked on."

Dr Anderson, a lecturer in maths at Glasgow University, continued: "The problem does not lie with the breadth of syllabus covered. If there are gaps in knowledge, we can easily cover that.

"What is more difficult to compensate for is the lack of skills in basic techniques such as algebra, and the lack of ability to think logically, which students are presenting us with. That takes time to build up.

"The pendulum in schools seems to have swung in favour of teaching pupils to be able to express themselves - and away from instilling the precision and rigour required in both numeracy and literacy skills."

His views echo the findings of a national study on the transition between schools and universities in science and technology, published last year (TESS, September 9). It described maths as "the handmaiden of the sciences".

The report stated: "Even well-qualified students appear to have problems with basic algebra. They may not have a good grounding in fractions, ratios and percentages, which makes understanding algebra exceedingly difficult."

The report was published by the Scottish university consortium STEM (School to University Transition in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

It now wants the Scottish Executive to consider, in its current reform of the school curriculum, allowing pupils to practise the skills they learn in pure maths within science and technology subjects.

Allan Roach, emeritus professor at Paisley University and co-leader of the STEM initiative, said: "The blame for the shortfall in maths does not lie solely with teachers. It is the fault of the system.

"We are pressing the Scottish Executive to progress with its reform of the curriculum in a way that solves the problem of the shortfall in maths skills levels. This is about the future health of the Scottish economy."

Although the number of candidates studying Higher maths at school dropped by 7.5 per cent between 2001 and 2005, maths remains a popular subject at university. There has been an 11.5 per cent increase in applications to study pure maths degree courses due to start this October, according to figures from the Universities and Colleges Admission Service.

Applications for maths-related degrees at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh have leapt up by 31 per cent this year.

The university's Professor Chris Elbeck said: "Numbers of applications can fluctuate due to fashion, but the attraction of earning not far short of a six-figure sum as an actuary in the finance industry also entices students."

He added: "Students come into their first year from a diverse range of backgrounds, and they do need an introductory course to bring them up to scratch with the maths skills we require."

Speaking at the conference, Carol Ford, head of Kilmarnock Academy and a maths teacher by training, will agree that pupils are not well skilled in maths.

But she argues: "The fault does not rest with teachers, but with the overcrowded curriculum. There is not enough time left to concentrate on basic skills."

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