reported on the recommendations of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee in regards to STEM education within the United Kingdom. In a report that called for compulsory mathematical education up until the age of 18, and greater university involvement in setting the maths curriculum, the Committee found that many prospective students – even those who had studied further mathematics to an A-Level standard – lacked the basic numeracy skills required for STEM degree courses.
The facility to use mathematics fluently – almost like one would use an additional language – is hugely beneficial in terms of taking science further. To be able to change the subject of an equation or to know from looking at a set of data whether or not it is statistically significant, allows a pupil to get on with the science.Professor Roger Heath-Brown
from the University of Oxford welcomed the recommendations of the report, but warned that such measures might prove difficult to implement. Syd Croft
, President of the United Kingdom Association of Professional Engineers (UKAPE), said that whilst educational reforms would be beneficial, changes were necessary throughout the STEM industry.
This morning, I spoke to Annette Smith, CEO of the Association for Science Education (ASE)
to gauge her opinion of yesterday’s report. I began by asking Smith how she had initially reacted to the recommendations set out by the Committee.
"I wasn’t surprised," she replied. "These subjects have been raised on a number of occasions so it wasn’t a shock to see them being brought up again. I think that the report has actually been very helpful in airing these issues again because it gives us the opportunity to discuss them. I think that there is a consensus appearing in relation to maths at a post-16 level. There remain different conceptions of what this might look like, and I think that these are worthy of exploration."
I went on to ask Smith whether or not she thought that prospective university students were lacking the numeracy skills required to embark upon STEM degrees. As she explained, it is an understanding of higher
mathematics that seems to be holding some young people back.
"When we talk about numeracy, we are talking about basic mathematical capabilities," she explained. "Nobody is saying that they are not numerate. What they are saying is that the higher level mathematical skills necessary to support scientific or engineering degrees, are not always sufficient. Why this is the case is a good question. Is a mathematical A-Level needed to backup different kinds of science degree? I think a consensus is forming that it is neither fair nor correct to advise young people to tackle a science degree without A-Level maths. It used to be the case that if you were studying biology, it wasn’t seen as important to have a background in maths, but nowadays, so much of biology is numerical that you need a good mathematical grounding to study the subject."
Whilst Smith said that she would welcome a greater focus on mathematics in post-16 education, she was keen to stress that this focus must be tailored to the particular needs of the pupil.
"If somebody only manages to scrape through their mathematics GCSE then really, they are not mathematically equipped for life," she said. "I take a slightly broader view of this issue. I think that maths has an important role to play in post-16 education, but I think that it should be maths that is appropriate for the young person. If a pupil obtains a grade D in their GCSE maths examination, it might not be an appropriate course for them to follow. We mustn’t keep flogging away with the same exam until a pupil passes it, because if they do eventually pass it, it will be because they have worked hard and practised, rather than because they are good enough for that exam. To a certain extent, the appropriate post-16 maths education will depend on the other courses being taken by a young person, and also, on whether their basic numeracy skills are up to speed.
"I think that we should look at the breadth of post-16 education in general because it is no good just bolting on a bit of maths. Compared to other countries, the United Kingdom’s post-16 education is very narrow. I always talk about my own experience because it was particularly narrow. We didn’t even take general studies at A-Level in my school. I studied pure maths, applied maths and physics as A-Levels. Of course, this was fine for me as I was studying physics. I was actually quite a good mathematician so this was appropriate. However, I didn’t put pen to paper to write an essay for about four or five years. I think that this can be detrimental to a broad education. I made up for it by reading a lot, but others might not. I totally agree with adopting a greater focus on maths past the age of 16, but we mustn’t neglect the arts.
"We don’t have to force pupils to do English lessons when they are more interested in becoming a scientist. We can take a more creative approach. Many schools have been very interested in extended projects from this point of view, because these build in an awful lot of the ‘soft skills’ that every university and employer is asking for. I think that the situation requires a broader approach than simply bolting on a bit of maths."
Although Smith advocates taking a broader view of this issue, she is adamant that a greater focus on mathematics up to the age of 18 would be benefit science education in the United Kingdom.
"The facility to use mathematics fluently – almost like one would use an additional language – is hugely beneficial in terms of taking science further. To be able to change the subject of an equation or to know from looking at a set of data whether or not it is statistically significant, allows a pupil to get on with the science. Mathematics needs to be taught in a way that will support the sciences. Some mathematicians might argue against this viewpoint because maths is a delightful and wonderful subject in its own right, and they might not want maths to be seen simply as something that enables a young person to progress scientifically."
I interjected by suggesting that whilst some might use mathematics as a scientific tool, this would not prevent others from pursuing pure mathematics for its own sake.
"It absolutely wouldn’t," agreed Smith. "And that goes back to my original point that whilst there should be post-16 maths for everybody, it should be maths that is appropriate for the young person in question."
I concluded our conversation by asking Smith in what other ways she thinks that the government might bolster STEM education within the United Kingdom. She chuckled to herself before replying.
"I think that government should support its subject associations," she said, "but then I would say that. We do want policymakers to communicate effectively with subject associations in order to find out what is going on in schools. Government invests heavily in Science Learning Centres, for example, as a way of providing professional development, but there are a wide range of different schools and contexts within which teachers have to operate. In concentrating on teachers as individuals, and on their professional development, subject associations have a key role to play. I know that this is a plug for subject associations but you did
ask what more government can
do. Government can recognise the importance of subject associations and the experience that they have accumulated over many, many years. As charities, our goals are quite pure. The trouble is that we are quite poor."