Royal Society calls for reform of A-level system in England

Download document:

Preparing for the transfer from school and college science and mathematics education to UK STEM higher education - .PDF file.

The Royal Society has called for fundamental reform of the A-level system, leading to the introduction of an A-level-based Baccalaureate or similar qualification.

The new qualification should give students the opportunity to study a greater breadth of subjects, including science and mathematics.

In a new report, the Royal Society found that the current educational system for 16-19-year-old students results in only a small proportion of pupils studying science and mathematics subjects at A-level or equivalent in the UK.

Consequently, too few individuals are able to progress to university science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) degrees, leading to a deficit of STEM graduates available to enter employment in commerce and industry and teaching as specialist science and mathematics teachers.

The Royal Society recommends that the A-level system in England be reformed to encourage more students to continue with science and mathematics as part of a wider range and increased number of subjects at post-16 level.

The Royal Society’s fourth State of the Nation report, Preparing for the transfer from school and college science and mathematics education to UK STEM higher education, assessed participation in science and mathematics in post-16 school-leaving examinations and related issues.

The report found that across the UK in 2009, just 17 per cent of 16–18 year olds took one or more science A-levels or equivalent qualification. Of particular note is the finding that in 2009 17 per cent of upper-secondary institutions in England, 13 per cent in Wales and 43 per cent in Northern Ireland did not enter a single candidate in A-level physics. 

Prof Dame Athene Donald FRS, chair of the Royal Society Education Committee, said: ‘The finding that a significant and increasing number of schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland do not present a single physics A-level candidate defies belief and aptly demonstrates the critical shortfall in science students from which we now suffer.

‘There can be no doubt that the lack of science and mathematics specialist teachers plays a significant role in the decline in participation in A-levels in these subjects, which has the potential to be hugely damaging to the prospects of both the individual student and our nation as a whole.

‘There is a need for action on an unprecedented scale to address this problem if we are to ensure our economic competitiveness in a world that is increasingly dependent on science and technology.’