A growing number of students are taking STEM subjects at A-level

Maths top A-level but gender gap remains

The number of students taking STEM subjects at A-level has increased for the fifth year in a row, but a gender gap remains.

The overall pass rate for A-levels fell for the first time in more than 30 years as more A-levels were handed the very highest grade this summer. Just 26 per cent of exams were awarded an A* or A grade, down 0.3 per cent on last summer, but the proportion of A* grades handed out rose to 8.2 per cent, up 0.6 percentage points on 2013.

Maths is now the most popular A-level among students, with 88,816 candidates, after English slipped down to second place amid a 4.6 per cent fall in entries - most likely due to the GCSE English grade controversy two years ago where thousands of students received lower than expected results.

The number of students electing to study biology, chemistry and physics rose by 2 per cent, while those taking maths has gone up by 0.9 per cent and further maths by 1.5 per cent.

“With more and more vacancies to fill, manufacturers will be breathing a sigh of relief that the take up of STEM subjects at A-level has increased for the fifth year in a row,” said Verity O’Keefe, Education Policy Adviser at manufacturers’ organisation EEF.

“However, the overall increase in the take-up of STEM subjects disguises a mixed bag. While we welcome the fact that the number of girls studying physics has increased by 4.7 per cent year-on-year there is still a significant gap between the number of boys taking this subject compared to girls.

“We’re heading in the right direction, but we need a concerted effort between government, industry and the education sector to continue driving students into STEM, but to also close this yawning gender gap.

“The major focus must be on radically overhauling careers provision so that every student – male or female – understands the impact A-level subject choices can have on their future career and is fully aware of the opportunities for those who choose wisely.”

While the number of boys taking A-level maths rose by 1.8 per cent, the proportion of girls actually dropped by 0.7 per cent from last year to 38.7 of the 88,816 students sitting exams. Further maths saw a 1.5 per cent increase to 14,028 students, but just 28 per cent were female.

In physics the number of girls taking the subject increased by 4.7 per cent, beating the total increase of 3.2 per cent, and their progression from AS to A-level physics also increased by 0.8 per cent, but girls still only make up 21.1 per cent of candidates.

Computing saw the biggest rise of any subject with the number of students taking the qualification rising 11 per cent to 4,171, but just 7.5 per cent of candidates were female.

Jayne Hall, IET Policy Advisor, said: “Maths and physics are crucial gateway subjects and vital to the industry and economy as a whole. With recent results from the IET’s Skills & Demand survey showing that only 6 per cent of the engineering and technology workforce are women, action needs to be taken at an early stage by encouraging females into these subjects.

“Students are aware of the importance of A-level maths to starting a career in engineering, but the perceived importance of physics is much lower.

“It is vital that we encourage more students, particularly females, to study these key enabling subjects. Currently, female students effectively rule themselves out of an engineering career at age 14 by not studying maths and physics.  We must change this so that students can make informed subject choices.”

The figures published by the Joint Council for Qualifications also showed a 4.8 per cent fall in the number of students taking design and technology as well as a drop of 9 per cent in the number taking ICT.

"Until 2006, D&T was one of the fastest growing A-level subjects. Since then, however, we've seen a gradual decline in entries,” said Richard Green, CEO of the Design & Technology Association.

"This is yet more evidence that the Government is not doing enough to inspire children to study D&T – one of the few subjects that puts STEM into context, developing creative, problem solving, practical and team-working skills valued by real businesses.

"Russell Group universities see D&T as an important qualification for studying courses like engineering, so the falling number of entries is a certainly a cause for concern – these universities are looking nervously over their shoulders, wondering where future undergraduates will come from.”

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