Reflecting on the STEM subject choices of this year's A-Level and GCSE cohorts

Children begin to form opinions on their careers from as early as 7, and formal assessments like GCSEs and A-Levels play a crucial role in guiding and forming these interests as well as their skills. A broad and balanced science education encourages and nurtures the next generation of science capability – so lets look at the current crop of exam entries.


2021 saw further cancellation of A level and GCSE exams, with teacher assigned grades replacing them. You can read a high-level description of procedure here. This, alongside huge pressure on students and educators has had an understandable and significant impact on results and their spread – so for this piece we will focus on the subjects sat.

CaSE’s top takeaways:

  1. Mathematics remains the most popular A-Level subject, with Psychology and Biology the next most popular STEM subjects.
  2. Five STEM subjects crack the top 10 of fastest growing A-Level subjects - Computing, Psychology, Biology, Physics and Chemistry.
  3. But in comparison to pre-pandemic trends, pick up of STEM subjects seems to slowing.
  4. Male:Female split remains largely static, with vast differences between subjects.
  5. It’s time to look deeper at regional differences in STEM pick up and attainment.

 

Popularity of STEM Subjects (and how that’s changing)

STEM subjects remain a large part of pupils education. At GCSE, ~42% of all exams sat are in STEM subjects, and at A-Level, there has been an impressive rise over the last decade - from 34% in 2010, to 45% in 2021. Mathematics leads the pack as the most popular A-Level of all at 11.8% of all entries, with Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Psychology ~between 5-9% each.


But there are signs this growth is slowing at both A-Level and GCSE. At A-Level, there’s been a levelling off which may be temporary (as seen in Biology, Chemistry and Physics from 2014-17), but remains to be seen. At GCSE, whilst the core curriculum, (Maths, Physics, Biology and Chemistry) has seen a slight increase from 36% of all entries to 39%, non-core subjects like Computing, Social Sciences and Design and Technology have halved, from 8.3% to 4.3%. Despite this, its pleasing to see five of the fastest growing A-Levels be STEM subjects, significantly outpacing the population growth of 0.9% between the 2020 and 2021 cohorts.

 

 

Male:Female Ratio

The story of male and female STEM take up is one of two halves. At a macro level, the balance has never been closer, with 2021 A-level STEM entries breaking into 50.2% male and 49.8% female. Indeed, since 2019, girls have overall outnumbered boys in the ‘core sciences’ of Biology, Chemistry and Physics.

But a subject-by-subject approach reveals a very different picture. Computing (15%), Physics (23%) and Further Maths (29%) have the lowest proportion of female students of all A-Level subjects, with Psychology (74%) and Biology (64%) doing the heavy lifting in rebalancing the divide.

The last decade has seen change, but change that’s slowing. Subjects have either stayed level (Psychology, Maths and Further Maths), or seen increasing female students, with Biology (+7pt), Chemistry (+8pt) and Computing (+6pt), seeing the largest realignments. It’s heartening to see the rise for Computing, but clear that more needs to be done in order to encourage a diverse set of students into our future STEM workforce – something that CaSE work has shown will lead to better outcomes, and help to solve the UK’s skills gaps.

 

Meanwhile at GCSEs, the core sciences continue to get a 50:50 split thanks to them being mandatory for all. However the non-core sciences see similarly large differences in proportion, and in fact in many cases (Statistics, Other Sciences and Design and Tech) have worsened over the past 5 years. This is partly driven by the overall reduction in no. of students taking these subjects, but highlights the potential for early ‘optionality’ of these subjects to entrench gender divides at higher levels.

Beyond this year’s results

Creating a thriving environment for science and engineering education means ensuring schools of all types, from across the entire country have access to a broad array of subjects backed by high-quality teaching and practical experience of science.  

This year, CaSE launched it’s Inspiring Innovation report, exploring how to strengthen science education in primary and secondary schools. We outline tangible measures to;

  • Support a confident and empowered teaching workforce
  • Make science and engineering careers inclusive to all young people
  • Give students experience of innovation and experimentation through hands-on science

To address these problems, we must better understand the challenges that different schools and regions face. We’re pleased to see Ofqual publish some interactive visualisations, allowing you to examine results in counties in specific years. But this must go further, allowing analysis of what STEM subjects are available in different regions and school types, and how this translates to results. We hope to dive deep in to this data when it’s available.

This analysis is based on data from Ofqual and the JCQ – you can find a summary of data here.

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