HC Deb 13 December 1995 vol 268 cc971-2
1. Mr. Alan W. Williams

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment if she will make a statement on the standard of achievement of young people aged 16 to 25 years in mathematics. [3868]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. James Paice)

Mathematical skills are clearly a key to employability and international competitiveness. Achievements at A-level continue to show year-on-year improvement and are at their highest level ever.

Mr. Williams

When the number of specialist mathematics teachers in schools is down by 25 per cent. compared to 1984, when the number of graduate applications for teacher training courses in maths is down by 22 per cent. and in physics by 41 per cent., and when nearly all our universities now have four-year degree courses in maths, with the first year being effectively a remedial year to bring people up to standard, why does not the Department for Education and Employment realise that there are serious problems in the standards of mathematics of young people, and that that has serious knock-on effects in physics, in engineering and in other science courses?

Mr. Paice

The Government of course recognise the vital importance of mathematics. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State yesterday responded to the London Mathematical Society's worries about that matter in a way that demonstrated that, yes, progress continues to be made. The number of young people with A-level passes, as I said, increases every year as a proportion of the age group, but aspects remain that we need to examine further.

In answer to the hon. Gentleman's direct question, among other things that are happening, the Teacher Training Agency has the power and the ability to use special measures to encourage teacher training in those areas where there are shortages of teachers, which it can use—I hope that it will—directly to help to remedy the shortage of mathematics teachers that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Mr. Congdon

Does my hon. Friend agree that, in order to improve young people's standard of mathematics, it is crucial that primary schools concentrate on the basics of education and get them right? Would that not be helped if all primary schools returned to formal methods of teaching, instead of using some of the trendy methods that have proved so disastrous?

Mr. Paice

The slimmed-down version of the national curriculum, which has recently come on stream, focuses much more on basic mathematics among the core skills. In the letter of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to the London Mathematical Society, she has said that the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority is to introduce a calculator-free test for 11-year-olds in 1996 and to consider the possibility of introducing a mental arithmetic test for 11-year-olds the following year. As my hon. Friend said, that clearly emphasises the vital role of the primary sector in ensuring that all young people receive a good grounding in mathematical skills.

Mrs. Anne Campbell

Do not the Minister's comments conflict with the views of the London Mathematical Society? It believes that mathematical standards have fallen in recent years and it has noticed a marked deterioration in those standards among young people who seek to study physical sciences at university. What do the Government plan to do about that, or are they so complacent that they believe that no action is necessary?

Mr. Paice

The hon. Lady obviously did not listen to my earlier answer.

Mrs. Campbell

indicated dissent.

Mr. Paice

The hon. Lady shakes her head—she should listen rather than gesticulate. I have referred to the letter that my right hon. Friend sent to the London Mathematical Society, which responds at length to all of its concerns. That letter is on the public record and it was included with a press release that was issued at the time. We have clearly responded to the society's concerns.

We do not accept that there is evidence of a full, widespread decline in mathematical standards. We all want standards to rise, and that has been happening. However, as I have stressed several times in the last few minutes, we are keen to take other measures to improve even further the standards of mathematics teaching in our schools at all levels.

Mr. Brazier

I am a graduate mathematician with two children who attend an excellent state primary school. Does my hon. Friend agree that mathematics is a very good example of a subject where early, well-organised testing is extremely important? Does he also agree that, if we are to achieve the highest possible standards in mathematics, the Conservative party's commitment to testing children thoroughly and early, in an objective manner, is extremely important?

Mr. Paice

My hon. Friend is entirely right. In the past few years, we have witnessed the apparent voltes face of the Labour party over testing. It opposed the concept of testing, which is how we shall find out whether young people are progressing and learning the mathematical skills to which my hon. Friend referred. We are now told that the Labour party supports testing—although Labour Members opposed the measures root and branch when we introduced them through legislation in the House. That is the style of the Opposition: they oppose measures only to support them when they realise that they are working. That is the reality with which we must live.