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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 August 2006, 13:38 GMT 14:38 UK
Maths resurgence follows changes
maths lesson
Changes have been made to try to make maths more popular
Analysis of the fluctuating fortunes of A-level subjects in terms of student popularity is dominated in 2006 by the revival of mathematics.

Entries were up 5.8% to 55,982, while further maths shot up 22.5%, albeit to only 7,270 entries in total.

The resurgence comes after a disastrous period for maths in schools following changes to the curriculum in 2000.

Almost one in three candidates failed AS-level maths in 2001 - twice the rate in other subjects.

As a result, many dropped maths rather than going on to complete the full A-levels.

Entries in 2002 totalled 53,940 - 12,307 fewer than for the old A-level the previous year, a drop of more than 18%.

There were predictions that university maths departments would be forced to close if something were not done quickly.

Prof Adrian Smith, who led a government inquiry, described the changes as "an utter and complete disaster".

A review was ordered, and reforms introduced.

Showing students more sophisticated maths in years 10 and 11 can really turn them onto the subject
Richard Lissaman
Further Mathematics Network

The Further Mathematics Network, funded by the Department for Education and Skills, was set up in response to Prof Smith's inquiry in an attempt to reverse the decline in the number of students taking further maths.

Deputy programme leader Richard Lissaman said the curriculum had been redesigned so pupils could start studying the subject in the lower sixth form.

Increased government investment had also helped the network introduce further maths to more pupils at an earlier age, he added.

"Showing students more sophisticated maths in years 10 and 11 can really turn them onto the subject," he said.

"This is crucially important for the future of country as a whole.

"A high level of mathematics is needed by students going on to degrees in subjects such as engineering, sciences, computing, economics and finance, which are essential for a competitive modern economy.

"Another encouraging feature of the figures is that girls significantly outnumber boys among the new students."

Trend 'bucked'

The head of the Joint Council for Qualifications, Ellie Johnson Searle, said: "The message that we got in 2001 was that it was unmanageable.

I don't think it's up to us to wring our hands and say 'Oh dear me, why are they doing film, media and TV studies?'
Jim Dobson
Exam board Edexcel
"There was no point continuing keeping the A-level as it was with that drop-out rate."

Schools Minister Jim Knight said: "Five years ago maths was thought to be in terminal decline. This year's figures show that we have bucked that trend.

"The improvements are evidence that the policies we have implemented - including boosting maths teacher recruitment and teacher training and consulting maths experts - have worked.

"We are now applying similar approaches to the sciences."

Chemistry entries rose 3.1% and biology 1.7%.

Physics however dropped another 2.7%, prompting a warning from the Campaign for Science and Engineering.

Its director, Dr Peter Cotgreave, said: "We're losing physics students at the rate of around 1,000 every year, and if this trend is not urgently reversed, the UK has no chance of competing in the global economy."

The Royal Society said: "Physics A-level remains on the critical list with no sign of improvement in the patient."

MORE POPULAR SUBJECTS
SUBJECT % ENTRIES
Further maths 22.5 7,270
Media/Film/TV 9.6 30,964
Other modern languages 9.3 7,009
Sport/PE 8.5 21,834
Religious studies 8 18,205
Irish 7.5 329
Music 6.5 10,407
Mathematics 5.8 55,982
Psychology 5.2 52,621
German 5.1 6,204

Media, TV and film studies as a group have made it into the top 10 for the first time, having come from nowhere over the past decade.

Although such subjects epitomise all that is wrong with A-levels in the minds of some critics of the system, Ms Johnson Searle said their popularity should not be derided.

"The issue is about students making choices," she said.

"If we want students to make different choices, such as sciences and modern foreign languages, this is about enthusing them and engaging them.

"Everybody within the system has a responsibility."

Jim Dobson, director of qualifications and standards at one of the main exam boards, Edexcel, said: "I don't think it's up to us to wring our hands and say 'Oh dear me, why are they doing film, media and TV studies?'

"We have to look at what they are doing to attract students and what they are doing well."

LESS POPULAR SUBJECTS
SUBJECT % ENTRIES
Computing -13.9 6,233
Home economics -8.3 1,087
Science subjects -4.6 4,209
ICT -4.5 14,208
Communication studies -2.9 2,114
Physics -2.7 27,368
Economics -1 17,455
Geography -0.9 32,522
General studies -0.7 58,967
Business studies -0.2 30,648

Languages up

Mr Dobson described as a "blip" a 5.1% rise in entries for German, which have been in decline.

Last year, German entries were down 7.7% to 5,901 and French by 4.4% to 14,484, as part of a longer trend.

But this year French was also up, by 1.1%.

Spanish continued to gain ground - up another 4.7%.

Last year's big fall in modern languages at GCSE level, after it ceased to be compulsory, did not translate into this year's AS-level statistics.

Spanish entries rose 7.5%, Germans stayed the same and French declined but only by 2.8%.

Last year's fastest riser, religious studies, went up another 8% this year.

The biggest decline was in computing. The number of entries fell 13.9% to 6,233.

Information and communication technology was also down, by 4.5% to 14,208 entries.

This probably reflects the introduction of new Applied A-levels, which attracted a total of 53,136 AS-level entries in their first year of operation.

Applied ICT headed the list, with 14,413 entries.


SEE ALSO
Maths teaching 'often too narrow'
17 May 06 |  Education
Media studies overtakes physics
18 Aug 05 |  Education
2,000 bonus for maths teachers
28 Jun 04 |  Education
Action plan to rescue maths
24 Feb 04 |  Education

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