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Girls take more Chemistry, Physics and Biology A Levels than boys for the first time

15 Aug 2019

James Tooze reflects on the data behind the release.

Today’s A Level results give us the opportunity to assess the state of science education in secondary schools as students prepare to take their next steps. While today is mostly reserved for personal emotion, statistics behind the results have given us something to cheer about.

Science increasingly popular, despite fewer pupils

This year, the number of 18 year-olds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland was down 2.9% from 2018, which means fewer A levels were sat. There was a drop of 1.3% in examinations sat from last year, but despite this drop, the number of A levels taken in scientific subjects increased in absolute and percentage terms. Some of the most increasingly popular subjects included Chemistry, Biology and Psychology.

Subject% change in entries from 2018 to 2019

The only STEM-related subject to see a drop in entries was Maths, and at a higher proportion than the drop in total entries. We have been told that this was expected, as A Levels have been reformed this year to include more Maths within the core teaching of sciences and other subjects. This means it is slightly more likely students had been advised that there was a sufficient level of Maths within their other subject choices. Maths, however, remains the most popular subject at A Level.

Girls outnumber boys in physical sciences

Girls have traditionally outnumbered boys in studying Biology, the second most popular A Level, but 2019 saw a larger number of girls collectively studying Biology, Chemistry and Physics than their male counterparts. What is perhaps equally as encouraging is that this is not a product of fewer boys studying these subjects, just that girls have been taking more of these subjects at a rapid rate.

The number of A Levels in Biology, Chemistry and Physics has increased from just over 130,000 at the turn of the decade to 167,000 in 2019, an increase of 26%. The positives don’t end in these subjects, indeed it is a similar story for other science subjects. Uptake of Computer Science A Levels have almost trebled over the same period, with numbers of girls studying the subject trebling. Psychology is a subject that has long been dominated by female students, and its popularity continues to rise with boys and girls.

The overall numbers don’t necessarily tell the whole story, as Physics and Computing still have some of the lowest proportions of female students. Despite improvements being made, progress is still required in these subjects. Diversity has been shown to enhance the quality of research and the outcomes for companies (just read our Diversity policy review for proof!), not to mention the numbers of people that will be required to fill jobs in the expanding UK science and engineering sector.