HC Deb 30 March 1993 vol 222 cc142-3
6. Mrs. Gillan

To ask the Secretary of State for Education what efforts are being made to raise standards in mathematics.

Mr. Patten

Under the national curriculum, mathematics is for the first time compulsory for all pupils aged five to 16. With regular assessment and testing, that will do more than anything to raise the competence of young people in mathematics. As recently as Tuesday, I met representatives of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications to discuss those important issues.

Mrs. Gillan

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Is he aware that the lack of basic skills in numeracy and literacy is estimated to be costing British industry approximately £5 billion per year? Does that not demonstrate the importance of a national curriculum and of regular testing? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that there has been an improvement in mathematic results for seven-year-olds which will eventually have a beneficial knock-on effect for British industry and this country?

Mr. Patten

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her question. I agree that both the national curriculum and testing are bringing about a steady improvement among school children in mathematics, particularly the use of numbers. We need to do more, however; that is why I welcome the fact that the new general national vocational qualifications will do a great deal to help children in perhaps the bottom 30 per cent. of the ability range to perform better, because that is what British industry and business need in terms of training our work force for the future.

Ms Estelle Morris

Does the Minister share my concern about the chronic underachievement of girls in mathematics, with almost three times as many boys taking mathematics A-level? Since the report by Her Majesty's inspectorate four years ago, what action has his Department taken to overcome those problems and what new research has he commissioned?

Mr. Patten

In the past four years, the national curriculum and the new testing regime have been introduced and mathematics continues to be very popular indeed; it is the second most popular A-level subject. Teaching methods for girls as well as for boys are being improved, although I should like work using computers to be balanced by as much use of tables from an early age.

Mr. Patrick Thompson

My right hon. Friend will be aware that specialist subjects such as mathematics, physics and chemistry have often been taught in schools by teachers who were underqualified in those subjects. Can he confirm that, as a result of the Government's initiative and desire to raise standards in our schools, that trend is lessening and we are getting better qualified mathematicians and scientists into our schools to help to raise standards among our young people?

Mr. Patten

I can indeed confirm exactly that. The number of underqualified mathematics teachers is diminishing fast and is currently about 10 per cent. of those teaching in secondary schools. I am also pleased to be able to report to the House that in 1992, the last year for which I have figures available, there was a shortage of 73 mathematics teachers out of the total of about 400,000. That is a good picture for the future of maths.

Mr. Rooker

Does the Secretary of State accept that it is not simply a question of raising standards, but that maths must be made user-friendly? There is a joy in numbers, but in the last decade the climate against science and technology, which were put across as bad and damaging subjects, led to an acute shortage of entrants for technical degrees in some universities. It is crucial to get the message across as early as possible in schools that those subjects are not bad and damaging. Humanity needs mathematics as much as maths needs the humanities.

Mr. Patten

I do not want to alarm the hon. Gentleman, but I agree entirely with all that he has said.

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