Fewer young people are opting for maths and physics at A-level.

IET backs International Baccalaureate to tackle A-level decline

A-level results out today reveal a decline in the number of young people studying subjects like maths and physics which the IET says highlights a need to rethink how the education system is addressing the national engineering skills shortage.

It is calling for more schools and colleges to consider the International Baccalaureate qualification, which makes it easier for students to avoid dropping subjects that are crucial to an engineering career.

Figures from the Joint Council for Qualifications show that the number of people who took maths A-level fell from 92,711 in 2015 to 92,163 this year. Physics dropped from 36,287 to 35,344, and design & technology from 13,240 to 12,477.

The IET is concerned that the continued failure to persuade more pupils to study subjects important for engineering points to a need for more schools to teach the International Baccalaureate (IB). The IB follows a broader range of study, including maths and a science subject, reducing the risk of pupils inadvertently making subject choices at 16 that can potentially limit their career options later on.

IET Vice-President Professor Will Stewart said: "It’s great to see so many young people being rewarded for their hard work with good results today – and that many of them will go on to gain the university places they want. But sadly this year’s results show no increases in students studying subjects such as maths, physics and design & technology, which are the core subjects for an engineering degree and career. If we don’t reverse this trend thousands of young people are effectively closing the door on an exciting, creative career as engineers."

The UK risks stifling economic growth if it fails to produce the engineers it so critically needs, Professor Stewart warned.

"One way of doing this would be if more schools were to offer the International Baccalaureate, which incorporates six subjects including maths and a science, rather than the three subjects students typically opt for at A-level. This would mean that fewer young people would be forced to make choices at 16 that can limit their career options later on.

"The International Baccalaureate provides a broader education for 16 to 18 year olds than A-levels, while still majoring on those areas pertinent to the students’ interests and future needs. This gives young people longer to discover their real strengths and interests before making life affecting choices."

The International Baccalaureate is offered widely within the private sector, but is currently only available at a handful of state schools in the UK.

"There continues to be huge demand for engineers so it is important that young people continue their studies into higher education," Professor Stewart added. "The country needs more people studying science and engineering subjects at university and taking up apprenticeships."

CaSE, the lobbying group that advocates for science and engineering in the UK, said it is vitally important to continue to monitor levels of participation in STEM subjects, and highlighted the continuing disparity in numbers of young men and women opting for STEM-related subjects at A-level.

Although science courses were a little more popular, accounting for 40 per cent of total entries compared with 39 per cent last year, the figure was only 35 per cent for girls compared with 45 per cent for boys. And while chemistry achieved a 50:50 gender balance, only 10 per cent of computing entries were for girls.

Deputy director Naomi Weir commented: "With the policy changes to A-levels filtering through in the next year, as well as Highers in Scotland, shifts in apprenticeship funding and the potential for international talent shifts in light of our changing relationship with the EU, the Government will need to be keeping a close eye on the skills big picture to ensure the UK skills base is in good health in years to come."

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