Guest blog by Dr Sarah Main
Director, Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE)
These summer weeks are known to many as a nail-biting time for exam results. As well as carrying great meaning for individuals, the results reflect trends in education choices and outcomes on a national scale. This year’s results have revealed the consolidation of trends that provide both cause for encouragement and concern.
The Government has set its stall by economic growth, and business leaders have been saying they need more science and technology skills in the employment market for some time. Development of those skills starts at school age. A-level results this year have shown the number of students choosing to take maths and science subjects increase again, such that the trends over the last five years show a remarkable shift in students choosing to take these ‘high value’ subjects at a time when uptake of other subjects has remained relatively flat.
CaSE welcomes this sustained rise at a time when industry and academics are saying that the UK needs to boost science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills. Confirming the concerns of industry, the latest survey by the CBI showed that
“39% [of firms] are struggling to recruit workers with the advanced, technical STEM skills they need – with 41% saying shortages will persist for the next three years.”
These young people will form the pool of talent that the UK needs to drive innovation and support our great strengths in research and technology in the coming years. They will provide the skills that industry requires and, no doubt, they will generate discoveries and applications that we cannot even envisage. It is an exciting time to put their skills to new use.
However, the appeal of maths, physics and computing to girls appears to remain doggedly low.
We are at risk of losing some of our brightest talents before they have even started on the road to discovery. It is simply astonishing that only 245 girls took A-level Computing in the whole of the UK (6.5%) compared to 3513 boys (93.5%).
In fact Computing, Information and Communications Technology, Physics, Maths and Further Maths number in 6 of the top 8 subjects dominated by boys.
In Physics, boys continue to dominate the subject comprising 80% of entrants. The number of girls taking A-level Physics this year is up by just 18 (+0.2%) students, compared to an extra 1042 (+3.8%) boys. This issue was highlighted by a recent report by the Institute of Physics which showed that almost half the schools in England sent no girls on to study A-level physics in 2011. This is despite the fact that girls do well at physics in large numbers at GCSE and those that go on to take A-level Physics outperform their male counterparts in achieving A grades by over 5%.
Biology remains a popular A-level choice for girls and is the only subject in which girls are in the majority (58%). The good news is in Chemistry where we are delighted to see a significant upturn of 6.7% in the number of girls taking the subject raising the proportion of girls to an almost equal 47.9%.
There is a jigsaw before us: a drive for innovation and STEM-based industries to grow the UK economy, those industries requiring a more STEM-skilled workforce, and an education profile that shows that in subjects like physics and computing, the female half of the population is largely missing from the A-level classroom.
To increase skills in the workplace we could look to increase diversity in the classroom.
So, for a future smart-economy with a gender-balanced, talented and STEM-skilled workforce, lets entice all students, male and female, to see maths and science as a fruitful and positive option.