The BBC reported reported Wednesday that many students are being urged or are choosing to avoid high-level mathematics courses because of their perceived difficulty. At the same time, students who wish to be competitive in standardized assessments for college entrance (called League Tables in the UK) are often choosing to stop math education by around age 16 (sophomore/junior level here in the states) to avoid lowering their scores with more challenging coursework
While not exactly the standardized tests that have been the bane of US educators for years, these League Tables score students based on their performance in coursework as well as the "level of the coursework." Thus, high-level science courses carry the same weight as high-level math courses, but are seen as being easier, so students are substituting science for math. Given that the system rewards students for doing well in these science classes, many students are entering university with plenty of science education but utterly lacking in the math background to truly excel in the sciences. Unfortunately, these two fields go hand in hand, and many at the university level are calling for reform (just as in the states, many universities cite a culture of standardized testing where high school instructors teach to a test rather than to fundamental concepts as a reason for underpreparedness). Chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry Richard Pike notes that
"Increasingly, universities are having to mount remedial sessions for incoming science undergraduates because their maths skills are so limited, with many having stopped formal lessons in mathematics two years earlier at the GCSE level."
Dr Pike said: "Mathematics tests set in England by many universities for undergraduate chemistry students in their first term to diagnose remedial requirements are disconcertingly simple."
Here in the States, we quite regularly see students who believe they are "done with math" once basic requirements are met, often before or during their junior years. Yet even community colleges increasingly must provide remediation to bring students to a basic understanding of necessary mathematics concepts. Personally, I think the TI fraction bar is to blame for all of our ills in this area, but that's beside the point. In China, students take a rigorous mathematics curriculum through their final year in secondary education; as usual, we cannot ignore our increasing need to be competitive on a global level.