Thursday morning was a day of mixed blessings for A-Level students and their families across the UK. As results were received and absorbed, reports were circulating that the number of students gaining the top grades of A* and A had fallen for the fourth year in a row but the overall pass rates had increased. 25.9 percent of A-Level papers received the top two grades this year, compared to 26 percent in 2014 and the total number of A*-E grades grew 0.1 percent to 98.1 percent.
The fall in A* and A grades was especially so in science and mathematics. And, despite a rise of 2 percent in the total number of A-Level papers taken this year, the numbers in some STEM subjects fell. For example, the total chemistry papers sat fell by 1.6 percent to 52,644, biology papers dropped by 1.2 percent to 63,275 and physics decreased by 1.1 percent to 36,287.
Funding pressure has also seen subjects with smaller intakes suffer, such as Design & Technology. The recent Sixth Form Colleges’ Association’s (SFCA) annual funding impact survey, stated that 24 percent of sixth-form colleges have had to cut STEM courses as a result of funding cuts since 2011.
As a term, STEM covers a lot of areas and whilst some subjects are decreasing in popularity with students others are growing. For example, Computing saw a 29.1 percent rise in the number of students studying it at A-level, from 4,171 in 2014 to 5,383 this year. Yet this growth is not reflected in the gender split of students choosing to study the subject, with a huge 92 percent of the entrants in 2015 being male.
Such a gender imbalance is concerning, especially when viewed alongside recent analysis of school exam results showing girls outperforming boys at GCSE in STEM subjects but not choosing to continue to study them at A-Level. Research from AECOM found that, in 2014, 72 percent of girls were awarded grade C or above in STEM subjects at GCSE compared to 66 percent of boys. While those choosing A-Level STEM subjects has risen by 19 percent over the past five years, this growth is faster in male than female students. A good example is in mathematics A-Level when the number of males taking the subject has increased by more than 25 percent between 2009 and 2014, compared to a 17 percent increase in females.
This is concerning when compared to UCAS figures showing record numbers of students landing a place at university before results were known – including 27,000 more females than males. More still needs to be done to package STEM subjects to appeal to female students and encourage young women to see the benefits of progressing into the sector. One answer may be to look more closely at the areas where gender imbalance in STEM is not an issue. And we should look no further than ‘top of the class’ Northern Ireland where the number of girls choosing to study STEM subjects has grown and mathematics is the most popular A-Level choice across all students. Top marks.
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