Heads of Department of Mathematical Sciences

Annual Conference held at 14.00 on 28 May 1996 in the Department of Mathematics, University College London


Chairman Graham Wilks opened the meeting, explained that its purpose was to discuss the health and vitality of mathematics in higher education, and introduced the speakers.

Professor David Crighton (President of the IMA) drew attention to the multiplicity of voices speaking for mathematics and the effects of fragmentation on the relationship between primary and secondary education. Universities needed to make a coherent and unequivocal statement about what they see as appropriate graduate standards in relation to the competition abroad. A wide range of departments, (mathematics, physics and engineering) in both old and new universities had identified common problems in terms of deficiencies in mathematical skills on entry. These were now dominating the HE agenda (they had led to 4-year MMaths degrees for example) and were undermining the status of UK science, engineering and mathematics degrees.

Mathematics was being misrepresented as a non-rigorous subject with reduced emphasis on precision. Pupils were making incoherent A-level choices and schools were moving pupils between different exam boards in order to improve results. As a result, traditional applied mathematics was being devalued at an inappropriate time.

The current rationale for school mathematics placed too much emphasis on:

- investigative discovery as opposed to knowledge acquisition,
- teaching in context,
- numerical problems,
- numeracy as opposed to logic and proof,
- use of computers (obviating the need for technique)
- problem solving.

Conversely, mechanics had lost its privileged position, and presentational skills were neglected.

Prof Crighton concluded that universities were being required to adapt to changes in schools and develop the styles and attitudes inculcated in school mathematics, whereas both should move to restore mathematics as a coherent discipline.

Professor Margaret Brown (Royal Society Mathematics Instructional Sub-committee) drew attention to the problem of student take-up. In the current era of expansion, school teachers themselves were concerned that students who would be better served elsewhere were being admitted to degree courses. International comparisons between British and overseas students were often used to highlight the decline of mathematics in the UK. But not all were valid and not all the valid ones were unfavourable: for example Britain came out top in a survey of problem-solving skills. There was a problem with algebra, partly because of the way it was examined (students were encouraged to opt out) and most importantly, take-up for maths A-level was declining along with Physics. Maths and science were not so well taught in schools as other subjects -'impersonal', 'too difficult', 'intimidating' were typical comments from students with A grades at GCSE O-level who had chosen not to continue with maths at A-level.

Ms Katherine Cross (HM Inspector of Schools) pointed to significant weaknesses in teaching in schools, for example too many pupils in mixed ability streams were learning by reading without adequate staff support, consequently their education lacked challenge and pace. It was harder to motivate them. In sixth forms teaching was geared too closely to exam papers and there was too much learning by rote. She concluded by outlining possible measures for improving the position.

Mr Chris Jones (School Curriculum Assessment Authority) explained that problems at sixth form level were linked with those at an earlier stage. Institutions such as HoDoMS could usefully take an interest in SCAA activities and become involved in such issues as the forthcoming review of the A-level core. One should not underestimate the profound effect of the Cockcroft Report on maths teaching in schools, and GCSEs, modular A-levels, and the National Curriculum were all relevant.

A discussion followed on various topics including preferential funding of maths students, the multiplicity of A-level courses, and the difficulty or otherwise of making mechanics interesting.

Dr Julian Williams (Director of the Centre for Mathematics Education, University of Manchester) underlined earlier comments about the lack of challenge in current mathematics teaching in schools. Universities could help because they were responsible for training future teachers. There were difficult times ahead for A-level maths teaching, with larger classes and less demand for prerequisite GCSEs. Students would do less algebra and practice it less; they would choose what they saw as the easiest option in the modular structure.

A suggestion from Colin Fraser, Aberdeen, who was unable to attend, was to update the video previously produced by the polytechnics to encourage students to undertake mathematics/statistics degrees.

The conference closed with a vote of thanks to the speakers.