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Scottish students receive their exam results

07 Aug 2018

James Tooze reflects on Scottish exam results day.

Results day gives us the perfect opportunity to reflect on the current state of affairs of STEM education in Scotland. Exam results, particularly from Higher and Advanced Higher students, help to give a picture of the latest cohort of students coming through the Scottish education system.

In late 2017, the Scottish Government released its STEM education and training strategy, with the aim to grow STEM literacy in order to drive inclusive economic growth in Scotland. Within the strategy is the desire to enhance and widen the provision of STEM teaching throughout the country and inspire children and adults to study STEM. Although it is never to late to get in to STEM education, schools can provide the environment to inspire future scientists and engineers.

News has circulated this week that education funding in Scotland was some £400m lower this year than in 2009/10, disproportionately affecting secondary school education establishments. The success of an education strategy will not necessarily have a direct correlation to the amount of money available, but it may make delivering on the strategy more difficult. The Scottish Government’s STEM education strategy shows that the importance of growing the domestic STEM skills base is well recognised, we will follow the progress of the aims closely.

What’s the picture on results day?

While days like today are reserved for celebration or disappointment, we can take a top-down view of the attainment statistics for Higher and Advanced Higher students. Unfortunately, 2018 saw the continuation of a trend that has seen the numbers of entries into Higher STEM subjects decrease since 2014. As a proportion of total examinations sat, STEM subjects accounted for just over 28% of entries which is significantly lower than the 32% entry rate of 2014.

Attainment rates of A – C grades also remain lower for STEM subjects than across the board, with Computing and Human Biology experiencing some of the lowest attainment rates of any subject.

It would be unfair for us to speculate on the reasons for these lower attainment rates, however if the Scottish Government are serious about their STEM skills strategy and promoting STEM education this issue must be taken seriously.

At Advanced Higher level, the picture is quite different, with Maths, Chemistry, Biology and Physics comprising four of the five most popular subjects taken up. Indeed, the proportion of students who took STEM subjects at Higher in 2017 who then took the Advanced Higher in 2018 are also amongst some of the highest.

 Higher 2017 entriesAdvanced Higher 2018 entriesProportion of those continuing to study the subject
Art and Design (Expressive)5,36992017%
Computing Science4,47663614%
Graphic Communication4,35152512%
Modern Studies9,3198419%
Business Management9,1174745%
Physical Education9,6724304%

These signs are encouraging, showing that significantly larger proportions of those studying STEM courses continue to take these subjects later in school than in non-STEM subjects. Maths remains the most popular subject to study at Advanced Higher, followed by Chemistry overtaking English for the second spot.

CaSE Executive Director Sarah Main has this to say on results day:

“Congratulations to all students on their results today. It is important to ensure all young people are encouraged and equipped to study science subjects so that there are no barriers to science for those that want to pursue it.”