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Does dropping maths add up?

Cover story Crisis in maths

Earlier this year the ICE's Joint Board of Moderators dropped the requirement of A level maths to study civil engineering at university. With the debate rumbling on, NCE looks at the issues behind the move.

The problems facing civils degree courses can be traced back to the need for students to have A level mathematics. But do civils students really need the breadth of mathematical knowledge contained in an A level curriculum?

With as many as 70% of university civils departments claiming problems recruiting students, the prerequisite for this level of maths is under the spotlight.

This year as many as 50% of A level maths students dropped the subject after many failed the new AS level mathematics exam, now seen as a vital intermediate step between GCSE and A level.

This is likely to have a huge impact on the number of civils degree course applicants.

In response, the Joint Board of Moderators (JBM) announced that it had temporarily waived the requirement for civils students to have maths A level.

The move provoked an angry reaction at this month's ICE Council meeting. 'Fundamentally, civil engineering is about making logical connections, and that is exactly what maths A level teaches, ' said Council member for Glasgow & West of Scotland Alan Simpson.

Some academics agree. 'Professional engineers need to communicate mathematically, verbally and graphically. Without a facility in mathematics, engineers are cut off from the logic of scientific discovery, ' says Bristol University head of civil engineering David Muir Wood.

'An admitted student is implicitly declared capable of progressing to a degree, ' he adds. 'With only GCSE mathematics, ability to cope with the mathematical demands of first year courses in structures and hydraulics is affected.'

Muir Wood continues: 'Construction of appropriate models requires clear mathematical and physical understanding. We cannot rely blindly on the outpourings of electronic black boxes.'

The JBM vigorously defends its decision, insisting that removing the need for A level maths does not equate to a reduction in standards. 'We have not dropped the requirement for maths, just when you get it, ' says ICE vice president for professional development Richard Haryott.

The move is likely to be formally debated in ICE Council soon, but the issue is moving on fast, with the JBM and ICE professional development committee also advocating even more fundamental change: a two-tier degree system.

'There is no doubt that the ability 'to think logically and to analyse' are key attributes of a competent engineer, ' says ICE professional development director Jon Prichard. 'But it could be argued that our insistence on such a high level of maths in the past has to some extent stultified creativity and constrained the diversity of talents needed to put civil engineers back in the driving seat.'

The JBM view is that MEng courses (or BEng courses plus matching section) leading to chartered engineer status must maintain the current standard of maths - be it through A level or university.

But it questions whether more practically based BSc courses, which are ideally suited to incorporated engineers, require that same mathematical standard.

'By generally insisting on A level maths and physics we have imposed a massive filter on the diversity of talent that should be entering the profession, ' says JBM chairman Jim Croll.

'Many universities are looking towards providing programmes through which other talented individuals could be attracted into civil engineering.

Such degree programmes could develop the necessary technical and mathematical knowledge, ' Croll adds.

The idea is even welcomed by critics of the JBM's maths decision such as Muir Wood. 'This would produce a clearer differentiation between incorporated engineers, engaged in implementation of today's knowledge, and chartered engineers competent to design beyond the limits of current practice, ' he says.

Crisis in maths: the facts

A staggering 96% of civils departments say students' grasp of maths is inadequate, with 55% putting their first year students through remedial maths coaching.

For every 20 students starting a degree in civil engineering, three fail to complete the course. Half drop out when they cannot cope with the work or subject matter.

A level maths entries fell to 53,940 this year, down 12% on the 66,247 entries in 2001. The low number of entries is a reflection on the poor performance at AS level in 2001, when 29% of the 57,677 who entered failed.

At AS, the entry in 2002 has increased from 57,677 to 67,268.

At Grade A, there has been an increase from 19.6% to 25.9% and at Grade E and above (a pass) from 71.4% to 77.9%, still below the overall AS pass rate of 86.5%.

Crisis in maths: the AS debacle

The Joint Council for General Qualifications, the umbrella body for the exam boards in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, described the 12% drop in A level candidates as evidence of 'self-selection', whereby under the new exam system students now have the chance to drop subjects they struggled with at AS -level.

'The overall pass rate at grade E and above at 71.4% was much lower than the overall average of 86.6%. It is not surprising, therefore, that the self selection phenomenon is so marked in the A level entries for Mathematics in 2002, ' said the Council's official statement.

The new system was introduced by government in 2001, with the first students experiencing the new system earlier this year.

Under the new system, A level exams are made up of two parts, the Advanced Subsidiary (AS) level and the A2.

Each part is made up of three units. The AS is set at a standard expected at the end of one year's post-GCSE study.

The AS is a qualification in its own right and is certificated.

For the A level award, candidates take a further three units (the A2), including units which test an understanding of the whole course. The A2 is set at a higher standard than the old A level, but is neither graded nor certificated separately. The AS and the A2 combined in a single subject constitute the new A level, set at the same overall standard as the old A level.

While the system worked well for most subjects, maths was a clear exception. The reason is simple, explains ICE professional development director Jon Prichard. Maths was the only subject to have an AS paper before the A level reforms were introduced and the new AS qualification was based on this paper. But this was set at the same level of difficulty as the full A level, a higher standard than that intended for the new AS level.

The JCGQ has recognised this failing, and has put a review in place. But it will be 2005 before any change can be implemented. As a stopgap, an additional AS session in will be provided in the autumn of 2002, 2003 and 2004.

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