Britain is the only developed country which allows students to give up maths at 16, a conference organised by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority was told this week. Delegates to the international London conference were warned that continuing this policy would be at the nation's peril.
Professor Margaret Brown of King's College, London, said all students should have to continue with maths up to 19. "We would have to be certain of our position if we were going to go against the rest of the world," she said.
In a conference paper, Alison Wolf, professor of education at London University's Institute of Education, said Britain's approach to maths on vocational courses was also out of step. "Elsewhere, mathematics is universally required, and is taught in separate time-slots." In Britain, there is a powerful movement in opposition to separate maths teaching, and there are often no specific standards or assessment requirements.
In England and Wales, "the current A-level structure provides important incentives to young people to drop mathematics", says Professor Wolf. Maths is seen as difficult, and also as closing off more options than it opens for 16-year-olds. "If one is unsure about career plans, selecting A-levels where one may get low point scores compared to competing applicants starts to look irrational."
Professor Wolf concludes: "What should surprise us, perhaps, is not how few maths A-level entries there are, but how many."
Meanwhile the Education and Employment Secretary, Gillian Shephard, has announced action to raise mathematics standards. In a letter to the London Mathematical Society, which has complained that university entrants are less well prepared for maths courses than in the past, she says she is considering introducing a mental arithmetic test for 11-year-olds in 1997, and she has written to both SCAA and the Office for Standards in Education seeking their advice on maths issues.
The SCAA council last week decided to establish a maths and science advisory group, whose members have yet to be appointed.