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Analysis of 2020 A-level entries

13 Aug 2020

We take a look at STEM-related subject choices of this year’s A-level cohort.

This most unusual year for students meant that exams were cancelled and results were based on teacher assigned grades and a standardization model developed by Ofqual. (If you’re interested to read more you can leaf through the 320 page(!) document here.) Because of this, and the ongoing uncertainty around results, our reflections this year will be focused on the number of students who chose to take A-levels in STEM-related subjects, assessing the trends in entries over the last few years.

STEM subject popularity remains steady

The total number of A-level entries dropped by 3.1% this year across England, Wales and Northern Ireland but this figure is reflective of a drop of 3.2% in the 18-year-old population across the three countries. Maths has remained the most popular subject for students and despite the drop in 18-year-olds the absolute number of entries increased to 94,000.

Core STEM subjects of Biology, Chemistry and Physics saw a small drop in entries this year but still remain amongst the most popular subjects. Collectively, these three subjects accounted for just over 20% of the total A-level entries this year. When including Maths, these four subjects make up nearly a third of all A-level grades awarded. 

The popularity of Psychology continues to grow and indeed overtook Biology to be the second most popular subject this year. The Computing A-level is effectively replacing the ICT A-level, and ICT enrolments have decreased by over 80% over the last five years while Computing students have not increased at the same rate. We will wait to see if these numbers recover over the next few years.

Female entries in STEM increase

Last year, entries in Biology, Chemistry and Physics by girls eclipsed boys for the first time. This year, 51% of students enrolled in these three subjects were female. Psychology and Biology remain the most popular scientific subjects with girls, with girls also accounting for 54% of Chemistry students.

Those subjects with the lowest proportion of female entries, Computing and Physics, have continued to make progress in growing the number of female students. 2020 saw more than 2,000 additional girls studying Physics than 2010, a 25% increase over the last decade. While reforms to the ICT and Computing A-levels mean the same comparison is difficult to make, the number of girls studying Computing has more than doubled in the last five years while entries by boys increased by 90%.

These are undoubtedly small, but important steps to encouraging a larger number of girls to study STEM-related subjects. The UK’s endeavour to become a more research-intensive nation will require more people to come through the domestic skills pipeline and our previous work has shown that a more diverse workforce leads to better outcomes.