STEM Matters: #ALevelResultsDay – good news for STEM & diversity, but balance should remain key...

Author : Mark Gradwell | Editor | EPDT

03 September 2019

STEM Matters - #ALevelResultsDay

This time of year (as I write this month’s column in mid-August), it’s hard to avoid the topic of school exam results, with the release of the big two – A-levels & GCSEs – a week apart in August receiving blanket coverage across print, broadcast & online media.

This column was originally featured in the September 2019 issue of EPDT magazine [read the digital issue]. Sign up to receive your own copy each month.

After years of hearing about it, we went through it ourselves as my own daughter sat her GCSEs last year – and a little again this year, with some AS-level results in her lower sixth year. And with fairly substantial changes to syllabus and examination over the last few years, how the results play out (especially from a STEM perspective) is even more intriguing.

Results at these key school stages feed directly into the ongoing STEM skills gap, with certain subjects (usually maths and physics) pre-requisites for enrolling on engineering degree courses, for instance, as well as the lack of diversity in the profession, with gender imbalances remaining particularly evident in some subjects. But are we starting to see the fruits of the good work being done by many organisations and campaigns to raise awareness of STEM careers and study options, and to inspire the next generation of engineers and scientists?...

Well, overall there was good news for STEM subjects at A-level (science, technology & maths), with a rise in the number of entries in STEM subjects of almost 2%, now accounting for around a third of all A-level entries. Computing (+9%) and the sciences (chemistry +10%; biology +9%; physics +3%) fared particularly well, but these gains were offset by falls in design & technology (-5%) and most significantly, mathematics (-6%) – still by far the largest and most popular single subject area. The trend over the last few years is also healthy for most of these subjects – with maths the notable exception. But conversely, humanities saw a drop of 3% in entries, with particularly steep (double digit) declines in English entries.

Experts from both the scientific and arts communities expressed concerns at some of the trends. Professor Sir David Cannadine, President of the British Academy, the national body for humanities and social sciences, emphasised that “…the UK’s future success depends on students from a range of disciplines,” stating that “we will continue to work with our partners in the sciences to make the case for a broad and balanced curriculum, and for knowledge and insights from across the disciplinary spectrum”. He noted that technological developments including robotics and AI “…cannot be looked at through the scientific lens alone – they need the input of those who have studied ethics, human behaviour, culture, the law and more”.

Mark Gradwell, Editor, EPDT

Meanwhile, The Royal Society, Britain’s independent scientific academy, hailed the rise in students taking up science subjects, but also raised alarm over the corresponding fall in arts and humanities. Professor Tom McLeish, chair of the society’s education committee, warned that “education is not a zero-sum game”, raising particular concerns over the drop in English entries. McLeish also advocated for a broad and balanced curriculum.

There was significant news for the gender (im)balance too, with female students outnumbering males in science entries for the first time, as the proportion of girls on science courses rose to a historic high of just over 50% (after a sustained climb from 45% in 2012). This follows a major push to encourage more girls to take up STEM subjects in school, with exam boards and school leaders noting that an increase in female STEM role models, as well as efforts to tackle stereotypes, likely to have increased uptake among girls.

However, the breakout definitely shows there is still work to do. All three core sciences (chemistry, biology and physics) have seen healthy growth in the number of female students over recent years, but while girls now account for more than 50% of chemistry entrants, and more than 60% of biology entrants, in physics the proportion drops to just over 20%. Females also account for only 40% of mathematics entries – and only 30% for further mathematics. And while the number of girls taking computing has grown substantially in recent years, the proportion is still only 13% (albeit up from just 7% in 2011).

And in a further nod to balance, A-levels (or degrees, come to that) are not the only route for students wanting to pursue STEM careers. While overall growth in apprenticeships has stalled since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, numbers for STEM apprenticeships still seem to be growing. And from next year, post-GCSE students will be able to embark on a new path of technical education, as T-levels are introduced, offering students a technical equivalent to more academic A-levels.


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