HORROR stories about maths are a hardy perennial. Last week, the week of the A-level results, was unusual in producing only two: that England's maths teaching is grossly inadequate, and that the decline in maths A-level entries continues remorselessly. Is England uniquely bad? Do we need to worry, and are things likely to get worse or better? To which the answers are: no, not uniquely bad - but very seriously so; yes, we do need to worry; and we had better act fast or things will get very much worse.
International comparisons of maths achievement provide plenty of examples of England "lagging behind" Korea or Germany - but also of areas where English children perform relatively well. If we simply look at the rankings produced by standardised international testing, English performance looks fairly unimpressive, but hardly uniquely bad.
However, rankings are not really very informative. If everyone's scores are very similar, coming near the bottom may mean nothing at all. Coming two-thirds of the way up, but with a big gap between you and higher scorers, may tell you something far more important. Ultimately what matters isn't being "top nation" but whether your students are properly equipped. On this measure we are doing very badly indeed.
Many countries monitor student achievement systematically, but England's system, run by the "Assessment of Performance Units", was shut down in 1989 by the Government, on the grounds that national curriculum testing made it redundant. As a result, we have no reliable national information about recent trends in maths achievement.
However, we do know that many people cannot carry out everyday mathematical operations correctly. High proportions of students in further education have serious problems with the mathematics their courses require: and many universities have simplified their first-year maths exams to take account of students' entry levels. It is ultimately irrelevant whether this reflects rising enrolments, changing courses, or actual decline in standards. Mathematics education is clearly inadequate; and our current system of education and teacher training guarantees that there will be no improvement.
England is unique in the opportunities it offers students to avoid mathematics. The process starts well before A-level. GCSE offers three alternative syllabuses and papers. To get an A or B grade, you have to sit the "top" paper. However, with a far more restricted maths of the middle option, you can still get a C: and for many people, that is the crucial grade. With a C in maths they will be expected to study three A-levels, or the more prestigious vocational awards. A C grade is also decisive for much of higher education - including teacher training.
Certainly, one can argue that it is better to master a more restricted curriculum than to half-digest a more advanced one. But in every other industrialised country students who have followed a limited syllabus continue with mathematics after 16. The vast bulk of these English students will not. Among them are many of our future primary school teachers.
England is also unique in the final choices it imposes at 16. Increasingly, students choose to …