Universities urged to back maths schools

Elizabeth Truss Mrs Truss says maths free schools will help students in a wide range of subjects

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Universities are being urged to support specialist maths schools, amid concerns too few youngsters pursue the subject.

Education minister Elizabeth Truss said universities complained of a lack of students who have taken maths after 16.

England's teenagers were missing out on degree courses and career opportunities as a result, Mrs Truss said.

She urged institutions to address the issue and follow the example of Exeter University and King's College, London which are opening maths free schools.

Addressing the annual conference of the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (Acme), Mrs Truss said the schools were due to open next year.

"We want this movement to spread still further," she told delegates.

"So we're allowing universities to apply to sponsor new maths free schools through a fast-track, simplified procedure, without having to go through the normal competitive application process.

"These schools will not only improve standards in maths teaching, but will equip talented young people from low-income backgrounds with the skills they need to study maths at university."

Mrs Truss said the Office for Fair Access had confirmed that, when universities contributed to the sponsorship or development of maths free schools, this would be considered as one of their activities to widen access to under-represented groups - and therefore as part of their access agreement.

"I hope that this is the start of a new network of world-class free schools, under the aegis of top universities, helping to prepare talented 16- to 19-year-olds from any and every background for the demands of university study."

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said: "This would be a decision for individual universities, but we would support any initiative that succeeds in getting more students from disadvantaged backgrounds to progress to university.

"One of the challenges we face is to raise aspirations and attainment among students from under-represented groups. Such schemes can help inspire students to pursue these important subjects at university."

Low-income groups

Mrs Truss expressed concerns that girls and those from low-income groups were under-represented in maths courses.

She said figures had shown that in 2009, around 330,000 students started higher education courses that required some element of maths, but only 125,000 young people had studied the subject.

"A lot of universities are complaining that they can't find enough home students with adequate maths," she argued.

"Forty-six per cent of chemistry students have not studied mathematics at A-level. For computer science the figure increases to more than 64%. And as a result, English students are missing out."

Ms Truss told the conference of a chance meeting on a train with a German biologist who had talked about new industries opening up in areas such as biomechanics.

"What he had observed is that many of these new areas of biology are effectively closed to English biology students because they require advanced mathematical skills - A-level, at least - and only 30% of English biology undergraduates have studied A-level maths.

"So all of these exciting new areas are not open to our students."

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