Attracting the Best

Getting enough young people to study maths after the age of 16, and then increasing the number of maths students who take up engineering and manufacturing at higher levels is a strategic issue for the UK, as Dick Evans reports

Engineering is vital to economic health, especially in industries such as energy, ecology, defence and security. Many more engineering graduates will be required in future, including increased numbers of incorporated engineers and engineering technicians. How can the best students be recruited to engineering programmes?

There are longstanding concerns about the number of young people studying maths post-16 and those studying degree programmes that require maths, such as engineering and the physical sciences. Insufficient numbers of qualified teachers in schools has led to a decline in the number and ability of students studying the subject after GCSE. Equally worrying nowadays are gaps in the range and depth of students’ knowledge after their studies at school and college. A whole series of reforms to GCE ‘A’ and AS’ levels over the past few years have created more choice for students but have had a negative impact on some strategically important subjects, including maths and physics. Those topics that have gone missing in the current AS’ and A’ level syllabuses are critical in preparing students to study programmes that require a fair degree of mathematical knowledge, skill and competence, such as calculus, complex numbers and matrices.

Filling the gaps

Mathematics in Education and Industry (MEI) is an independent curriculum development organisation which aims to improve the quality of maths education in the UK. MEI has developed additional materials that fill some of the gaps in current syllabuses. It has also established a network of 46 regional centres, providing a supportive infrastructure for schools and colleges. The network has two key roles. The first is to ensure that all students who could benefit from AS and A level Further Mathematics have access to expert tuition. The second is more general – to promote the study of AS and A level Mathematics and Further Mathematics and the study of science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects at university.

Around 1200 schools and colleges are registered with the network, giving them access to tutors, tuition and staff development. There have been some early successes, including an almost 25 percent increase in the numbers of students studying Further Mathematics in England and an improvement in grades.

Wider issues

But the problem still remains that very few students studying Further Maths go on to study engineering at university. Many other areas also require attention, such as the mathematics requirements for the other members of the engineering team such as incorporated and engineering technicians.

A recent conference organised jointy by MEI and the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), called for greater collaboration between MEI and the engineering community, particularly university departments of engineering. But issues raised went much wider than just the quality of maths to engineering programmes. Maths is central to many other subjects that are experiencing problems in recruiting students to post-i6 programmes and this in turn leads to skills shortages in the labour market. The causes of these problems must be picked up and resolved quickly to stop further declines in strategically important areas of the economy.

The MEI Further Mathematics initiative provides an important service, addressing deficiencies in the current maths syllabuses at A’ and AS’ level. Its ultimate success depends critically on continued support by the government and take-up by institutions. And to realise its ultimate aims, the engineering community – including universities and the MEI itself – must establish stronger and more effective partnerships in order to capitalise fully on the undoubted strengths of the MEI materials and expertise.

For more information about the MEI and the Further Mathematics Network and the other services and products offered by MEI go to mei.org.uk.

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