Memorandum submitted by UMIST
Pupils' perceptions of maths and science at
secondary level may be influenced by their experience at earlier
stages in the education process, for example in primary school.
In order to offer students an excellent all-round education at
an early age, the enthusiasm of teachers is paramount. The pressures
exerted on primary schools to improve league table positions may
result in less enthused teaching and a more blackboard-based style.
Pressure on pupils at this stage may affect their enthusiasm towards
subjects considered difficult at a later stage.
The maths and science curricula are now taught
in a practical rather than theoretical style at primary level
in order to enthuse and encourage pupils. Maths and science weeks
are offered by local education authorities to those teachers keen
to improve skills in those areas. Teachers at primary level are
subject to the same pressures as those in secondary schools with
lack of funding, large class sizes and constant pressure to improve
performance. Additional pressures are exerted with mixed ability
classes where students with a range of abilities are taught at
Primary teachers have found that their students
lose enthusiasm for subjects upon transferring to secondary level.
This may be due to a change in teaching style from more practical
based learning with greater pupil involvement, to theoretical
teaching. In addition, there is some overlap in the subject material
studied in the final year of primary school and the first year
of secondary school. Those students enthused by a certain subject
at primary level may lose motivation if they encounter a high
level of repetition.
Feedback from secondary schools has indicated
that the pass rate for students taking three separate science
subjects is lower than for those taking combined science at GCSE.
It is generally understood that, when studied separately, science
GCSEs are considered difficult. As a consequence it is possible
that schools may introduce streaming for pre GCSE students in
order to encourage only the most able students to continue to
study three separate subjects. Those achieving good grades in
a combined science GCSE may then be encouraged to go on to study
science at "A" Level, but there is a risk that the gap
in skills may result in lower examination performance and decreased
motivation on the part of the student.
Pressure to maintain or increase league table
status may result in fewer students being encouraged to study
science, which is considered a more difficult subject and may
also have a lower pass rate than other subjects.
Science is an expensive subject to teach. Lack
of funding results in lack of decent equipment and ill-equipped
laboratories, which has a direct impact on the teaching and learning
process. It has also been suggested that the amount of time spent
teaching science is far less than for other subjects.
Range of subjects
It was felt by more than one tutor that the
number and range of new subjects introduced to the school curriculum
has introduced greater competition between subjects. Traditional
science subjects have suffered as fewer pupils have opted for
them, the majority choosing the more "exciting" subjects
such as psychology and IT.
Specifically in chemistry, there
appears to have been a lack of teaching in terms of basic knowledge,
with too much emphasis on the ability to systematically name organic
compounds, and very little teaching of chemistry fundamentals.
From a practical point of view, there
does not appear to be much in the way of laboratory classes at
"A" level or before. Whether or not this is a cost or
safety measure, it effects recruitment, as students feel that
chemistry is a "dry" subject. Feedback indicates that
practical work is probably the most interesting part of the curriculum
and as this diminishes, the number of students choosing to study
science will also diminish.
Many members of staff in higher education
have suggested that the standard of "A" level students
is slipping generally. Assuming that the population is not becoming
less able, the curriculum and examination systems must be the
root of the problem.
For biology examinations, different
boards and biology classifications cover very different topics
within biology to differing depths. This makes it very difficult
to pitch teaching levels for first year undergraduates. Inevitably
some students will be bored by repetition, but the material must
be presented in order to include those who have not studied it
Students often show a lack depth
of understanding in maths and related subjects. The choices and
distribution of modules for AS and "A" level may be
such that some students will not have studied modules directly
relevant to their courses of study for periods of up to 21 months.
The placing of a qualification in
the penultimate year of school is a laudable aim and the principle
has been seen to work (eg in Scotland). However, it seems necessary
to take advantage of all available time including the period immediately
following the GCSE examinations.
The GCSE and "A" level
syllabus have been brought up to date considerably in the past
few years. The problem lies with the fact that teachers themselves
may not have been taught the most recently discovered areas and
therefore have problems teaching the more up to date material
to a satisfactory standard.
In general, GCSE and "A"
level material is far too focussed on passing examinations and
providing students with the information required for the student
to pass their examinations, rather than fostering and satisfying
a spirit of curiosity and enquiry in them.
Science teaching in schools is largely
carried out by non-specialists.
In the short term, issues are dominated by curriculum
2000 and the new "A" levels. The situation for mathematics
is crucial for many other subjects where maths is a required pre-requisite.
It would appear that many pupils have been dissuaded from progressing
to the A2 stage by problems experienced in the AS stage.
For many students, maths is considered a "difficult"
"A" level, particularly when compared with other "A"
level subjects. The content of AS maths is as voluminous as "A"
level Maths and therefore attracts fewer students.
The approach to the problem differs for the
two groups of students involved. The most able and interested
pupils will probably need different treatment from the competent
The most able and interested students
are able to work out for themselves the links between the various
scientific subjects and the world in which they live. They will
be able to think in terms of the basic principles of the subject
and any attempt to make a subject more "accessible"
may involve a lack of proper communication between the fundamentals
of what is taught and what is explained.
For the "average" student,
introducing some special sections showing the relevance of the
subject in the real world may have some merit. However, introducing
an extra topic leaves less time in the curriculum for other things.
It is felt that combining the two approaches would prove a challenge.
The general academic standard of
students appears to have dropped steadily over the past 10 years.
The greatest change noted coincided with the implementation of
The problem solving ability and the
ability to think laterally is all but non-existent in the majority
In mathematics, the problems are
well documented1, 2. Students with reasonable "A" level
grades are experiencing difficulty with calculus and statistics.
Simple mathematical operations such as rearranging or simplifying
equations are also a problem for an increasing number of students.
A study carried out recently by the admissions officer for the
maths Department at Leeds University indicated that the skill
level of someone with an A Grade at "A" level Maths
in 2000 is equivalent to a D in 1990.
As courses in mathematics are demanding
in content, time constraints induced by additional workloads can
mean that students miss out on extra curricular activities. This
makes the subject more of a burden and therefore less enjoyable.
Science is perceived to be hard and irrelevant
to daily life, and scientists are seen as poorly paid in comparison
to investment bankers.
1 London Mathematical Society, 1995, Report: Tackling
the Mathematics Problem.
2 Engineering Council, 2000, Report: Measuring the