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Rise in STEM popularity amongst A-level students

16 Aug 2018

James Tooze reflects on A-level results day in England, Wales and Northern Ireland

As students find out the results of a year or two’s hard work, we take a look at the overall picture of A-levels from today’s data published by JCQ.

What does the data tell us?

While nowhere near as nerve-wracking as actually receiving your results, top-down statistics are a useful tool in teasing out national trends. We are now in to the second year since A-levels and AS-levels were decoupled in England, meaning AS levels no longer count towards A-level qualifications. Despite these changes, AS-levels remain an important part of A-level qualifications in Northern Ireland and Wales. This means it is particularly difficult to compare AS-level trends, so we will stick to A-level statistics.

In good news for STEM subjects, the number of students taking A-level science, maths, computing and psychology all increased in 2018 despite a 2% drop in overall entries.

Indeed in 2018, the STEM subjects represented in the above graph accounted for 41.3% of all A-level subjects taken, part of a steadily increasing trend from 40.7% in 2017 and 39.6% in 2016. Since last year, many of the STEM subjects saw the largest percentage increase in the number of students, with Computing way out ahead of all other subjects, from a low starting point, in increasing by 23% in 2018.

Largest A-level subject proportional increases

Subject% change2017 candidates2018 candidates
Business Studies9.530,02332,867
Other Modern Languages3.19,3869,673
Political Studies2.517,52317,964

STEM gender balance

Further encouragement coming from today’s release is that the number of female students studying STEM subjects at A-level increased in 2018, and the overall increased popularity in STEM subjects was in large part driven by increased numbers of girls studying for STEM A-levels. STEM subjects accounted for 36% of all entries by female students, but this compares with 47% for male participants.

In Biology and Chemistry in particular, female participants made up virtually all of the growth in popularity from last year. Despite these rises, Biology and Chemistry have traditionally been the most popular ‘core’ STEM subjects and stubbornly low female participation rates still occur in subjects like Physics and Computing. In our Diversity Policy Review published earlier this year, we look at more of the background and make recommendations for ways in which Government can use its levers to improve diversity and inclusion in education and the workforce. Doing so is a matter of equality and fairness for individuals and economic and social importance for the UK.

Read our press release from today's results

Read more