Could do better

Analysis of A-level results reveal that maths and physics pulled a smaller share of total entries than last year

Engineering companies faced with mounting skills shortages could be forgiven for believing that last week’s headlines extolling the swing by A-level students towards science were a sign of better things to come. Closer analysis of the results paints a far less optimistic picture, however, and shows mathematics and physics attracted a smaller proportion of total A-level entries than last year.

Overall the number of students entering A-levels rose by 5.2%, bringing the total to 776,115 compared with 739,183 last year. Within this increase is a slight recovery in the number taking traditional science subjects. Biology entries for example rose almost 9%, from 51,895 to 56,534, and chemistry entries climbed from 40,555 to 42,456.

Maths and physics showed a modest rise but their overall share of entries was down. The good news is that in maths more than a quarter of candidates gained A grades.

Across the board there was no increase in the number of students attaining A grades (16%). The main gains in grades B and C reflect the modular approach to exams. Interestingly, maths, physics and chemistry are the only subjects which are still all based on terminal exams.

Vince Harris, director of education, innovation and employment affairs at the Chemical Industries Association (CIA), while encouraged by the increase in the number of candidates taking A-levels, and especially by the higher number taking and achieving good grades in chemistry, comments that ‘there is still concern about physics and mathematics’.

Ann Bailey, head of education and training affairs at the Engineering Employers’ Federation (EEF), echoes his views. ‘Good though these results are, we recognise that mathematics and physics attracted a smaller proportion of the total entries than last year.’

She believes that ‘one factor behind this might be the under- investment in school resources. In order to attract more bright students into the sciences, we need more investment in laboratories and equipment as well as a better flow of good science graduates into teaching.’

Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, has also called for more investment in school laboratories.

Overall, however, Bailey is much more upbeat in this, the Year of Engineering Success. She is ‘pleased’ the decline in the number of people taking A-levels on the whole has been stemmed. ‘In particular, it is encouraging to see a reversal in the downward trend in the number taking physics, which this year showed a 2.2% growth.

‘With all science subjects and mathematics showing a positive increase in the percentage of students achieving A grades and A to C grades, we are seeing an upward trend in quality in a growing science cohort. This can only benefit engineering, which requires more high calibre students to meet the considerable change in the skills profile of the sector.’

Last week’s results also brought the whole future of the A-level system back on the agenda. Minister for higher education, Baroness Blackstone, has made it clear that while A-levels are not under threat, there will be changes to the curriculum.

Harris at the CIA welcomes the possibility of A-level candidates taking more subjects in a baccalaureate style examination, although it should not be at the expense of depth. ‘Whatever is finally decided, and we don’t yet know what the Government’s proposals are, there will be consequences for university degree courses which must be taken into account.’

Last week also saw a Government U-turn on tuition fees for gap-year students offered university places for next year. The 19,000 applicants will now be exempt from the £1,000 fees – a move which is expected to cost the Government at least £19m.

Up to last week, the Government had insisted that from 1998 all students would have to pay fees and lose entitlement to maintenance grants even if they had agreed places before the charges were announced.

Industry argued that this would have had an adverse impact on students who had already elected to use a gap year to gain industrial experience. The EEF estimated the policy would have seen work placements fall by a fifth as students scrambled for places for this year.

Some 550 students should be participating this year in the Year in Industry work placement scheme for gap-year students. The scheme is a registered charity, supported by the EEF, the Royal Academy of Engineering and by the Gatsby Trust.

Graham Mackenzie, EEF director general, says that students who participate in the Year In Industry not only learn a great deal about industry and business, but also attain above average academic achievements on return to their studies. They also make a significant contribution to the businesses where they are placed and most companies use the scheme to spot future talent.