Unions hit back after House of Lords report (pictured) criticised numbers of technology, engineering students without A Level maths

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Unions have hit back at what they say is the lack of an active industrial strategy and Conservative threats of a ‘two-tier education system’, after a House of Lords report (pictured) criticised the numbers of students beginning technology and engineering degrees without Maths A Levels.

The Science and Technology Committee said a high level of numeracy is of increasing importance to employers particularly in hi-tech industries.

Peers on the committee say they were shocked to discover that many students starting STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] degrees, even those with A-Level maths qualifications, lack the maths skills required to undertake their studies.

Prospect Head of Research Sue Ferns said the union supported the committee’s findings that STEM students face a ‘triple whammy of higher fees, lack of student finance and the decline in the number of overseas students’.

She welcomed the proposal to set up an expert group to consider the supply and demand of STEM postgraduate provision in the UK, involving employers.

But she said: “Alongside attracting new entrants, access routes need to be opened up to people who already have high-level STEM skills.

“For example, the government must address under-representation of women and black and ethnic minority groups in some STEM disciplines, something that this report does not address.

“For this reason, the expert group should also include representation from employees as well as employers.

“We also welcome the call for a single body to provide real-time data analysis and a commentary of where STEM shortages exist. Such a body must have Cabinet-level cross-government authority in order to make a difference.

Prospect has been calling for this for many years in the light of the fact that the government does not even know how many scientists or engineers it employs, or their areas of expertise.”

The Lords’ Technology Committee recommends that maths should be compulsory for all students post-16.

They also call on universities to toughen up their maths requirements for entry in STEM courses and get more involved in setting up the maths curriculum (see graph).

However, critics say the current climate of cost-driven closures, cuts and privatisation would not help to attract a new generation of scientists.

NUT general secretary, Christine Blower said:“Yet again we are seeing the exams season hijacked by doomsayers, criticising not just the system but undermining the achievement of hard working students.

“As we have long advocated, if young people are being encouraged to stay in education until at least 18 years of age then we need to look closely at the range of courses available.

“Of course it is important that all young people leave school with maths skills, but there is also a demand for a qualifications system which can address the need for mathematical skills for all while accommodating the more specialist skills required to access STEM courses at advanced level, degree level and beyond.

“The NUT supported the 2004 Tomlinson Report’s recommendation of an overarching diploma system, which would have addressed some of these issues.

“The review of the National Curriculum for secondary schools, when it eventually reports back, may well address this.

“Our optimism is not encouraged, however, by recent stories that Michael Gove’s planned reforms to GCSEs will mimic the two-tier system of the past.

“This will only serve to lower aspirations and exacerbate inequalities in society, with even fewer young people having the opportunity to study maths or STEM subjects to a high level.”


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