Category Archives: undergraduate bioscience

Is the increase in proportion of students taking A level maths real?

It looks like apparently good news but I’m not convinced that it’s “real”.

 The proportion of A level students taking maths with the core science(s) is increasing according to the  Royal Society report published last week “Preparing for the transfer from school and college science and mathematics education to UK STEM higher education”. The figure below is taken from this report and shows the proportion of students who take core sciences that include biology (B) (alone or with Chemistry (C) and/or Physics (P))  either without maths (in blue) or with maths (in red). This data is for England but a similar pattern is seen elsewhere in the UK. The left hand pair of blue and red columns is for 2005, the middle for 2007 and the right hand side is for 2009.

However, if you add up all the A level students taking one or more of the core sciences (biology, chemistry, physics) or maths there has been no overall change since 2005. Though remarkably the proportion of students who take sciences is much higher in Scotland (~60%) and Northern Ireland (~44%) than England and Wales (34-37%) (this is in table 3.2 of the report).

Now if you put this information alongside the data from the report “Understanding the UK Mathematics Curriculum Pre-Higher Education” by Stephen Lee, Richard Browne, Stella Dudzic and Charlie Stripp of the MEI  ( ) which shows the proportion of students taking A level mathematics as a percentage of the total number of A level entries you see a dramatic dip between 2002 and 2005 (I’ve plotted the data from this report to make it easier to see the changes).

Prof Adrian Smith’s Inquiry “Making Mathematics Count” (published 2004) lays the blame for this dip in A level maths students squarely with the Curriculum 2000 reforms:

 “There is widespread recognition that the Curriculum 2000 reforms which led to a new post–16 structure based on AS and A2 levels have been a disaster for mathematics. The original AS/A2 split simply did not work.”

from “Making Mathematics Count: The report of Professor Adrian Smith’s Inquiry into Post-14 Mathematics Education” February 2004 (

So this makes me wonder whether the Royal Society’s conclusions are just a result of having started from a baseline at 2005. It will be interesting to see if the proportion of students taking A level maths continues to rise or if this is just a correction from the dip seen in 2002- 2005.

Convincing prospective and current undergraduates that biology is a quantitative subject.

One area of strong consensus amongst those teaching maths for bioscience degree courses is the need to convince new undergraduates in the biosciences that maths is important and useful in biology. By extension there is also a need for better advice and influence in schools to show students and their teachers the important roles that maths plays in bioscience, not just statistics as is a common preconception, but maths in general. There is a lot of material on the internet but I guess finding it all is more than half the battle.

 So of the pool of A level students, how many of them have studied science and how many of them have studied maths as well?

 According to the Royal Society’s report released this week  roughly half of those who took one or more core sciences also took A level maths. If you look at those students who studied A level biology (either alone or with another science) only 40% of them also took A level maths. These figures refer to students in England and similar patterns are seen in Wales and Northern Ireland. Interestingly in Scotland students are much more likely to have taken maths alongside science in Scottish Highers.

 [Raw data on p64 of report: 13.3% of 16-18 year olds took one or more core sciences at A level without also taking A level maths whilst in comparison 14.4% took one or more core sciences with A level maths.]

 So it was interesting to see that one of the recommendations in the Royal Society’s report was to move towards a system where students take a broader range of subjects rather than being restricted to (mostly) 3 A levels. If many of the students who currently take sciences at A level without maths could be persuaded to take at least AS maths then this would be an enormous improvement. AS maths introduces students to calculus and logarithms which are two really key mathematical concepts not covered at GCSE. It also reinforces the algebra they learned at GCSE so they are generally more confident and they are more familiar with using scientific notation.

Unfortunately there isn’t any analysis of the numbers of students currently taking AS maths with the A2 core science A level(s) as the report comments that the data relating to AS-levels is unreliable (p49, section

 Hmm… so how many science engineering ambassadors going to schools are biologists keen on maths???