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A level science and maths entries grow – but how do we compare internationally?

16 Aug, 2012
Exam Results Day 2001 - Queue

Exam Results Day

It’s A level results day and the good news is that science and maths entrants are up. John Holman and Hilary Leevers discuss what this means for UK science and the skills shortage.

The number of students taking A level sciences and mathematics is up again this year: physics by 5 per cent, chemistry 2 per cent, biology 2 per cent, mathematics 3 per cent and further mathematics 8 per cent. This continues a trend that goes back to around 2004, when the steady decline in popularity of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects over the previous decade began to be reversed – although it was not until 2010 that the proportion of all A levels that were taken in each of physics, chemistry and biology, finally began to rise.

Today’s results also show a rising interest in the Extended Project Qualification, which can provide an exciting opportunity for students to experience interdisciplinary research involving practical science.

Growing popularity for the sciences is important as the economy depends more and more on scientific and mathematical skills not only at graduate and postgraduate level but among technicians, apprentices and indeed at all levels. The speed and strength of the UK’s economic recovery will depend to a great extent on the skills of our workforce, and employment in STEM occupations is projected to grow almost twice as fast as the average for all occupations (1).

The urgent need for more STEM skills has driven a number of initiatives to stimulate the popularity of science often by improving the quality of science teaching – a key determinant of student interest in studying science. Over the past decade, the Wellcome Trust, the UK government and industry have invested more than £100 million in the network of Science Learning Centres that provide professional development for teachers and technicians. These courses are associated with improvements in teacher skills and higher take-up and achievement in science among their students (2). In addition, bursary schemes have been used to encourage more people to train in teaching STEM subjects as a way of alleviating shortages in specialist teachers.

Initiatives to improve science teaching have been supplemented by a growing body of information about the impact of subject choices, including a useful report by the Russell Group emphasising the high-value of STEM subjects, complemented by resources illustrating the wealth of careers that science can lead to. A recent Wellcome Trust survey (3) found that young people felt that having a good understanding of science would improve their career prospects.

It’s good news that the long decline in popularity of STEM subjects has been reversed, but is this enough? Compared with major emerging economies like China and India and China, our growth looks decidedly modest. In China, for example, the number of engineering degrees awarded is expected to grow from 2.6 million in 2010 to 3.6 million in 2015 (1).  The proportion of the UK’s graduates entering STEM courses is already among the highest in the OECD (4), but employers say they need still more (5). So stopping the rot is not enough: we need sustained long-term growth in the number of people choosing STEM.

What about other developed economies, like the US, Japan, Netherlands, France and Australia?  These countries share the same sense of urgency about science teaching. In 2009, Barack Obama committed to moving the US “from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math education over the next decade”.  Japan has expanded its Super Science High schools scheme from 26 in 2002 to nearly 200. France is establishing a network of Maisons de Science et Technologie, modelled closely on our own Science Learning Centres.

It is difficult to compare changes in popularity of sciences between countries, not least because few give the students the level of free choice in post-16 study evident in the UK. This is one of the factors that led to England, Wales and Northern Ireland recording lower levels of participation in upper secondary mathematics education (less than 20 per cent of students) than any other in a recent survey of 24 countries. However, we can try to compare the broad trends in demand for STEM subjects in later education at university. It seems that numbers are stable in France, the Netherlands and Japan, but in Australia a long decline is only just beginning to come to an end. In the US, the numbers taking Advanced Placement sciences are growing strongly, suggesting growing interest in studying STEM subjects at university.

In summary, the UK’s recent resurgence in the popularity of STEM subjects, while not matching the growth in emerging economies, compares well with the other developed countries. Investment by this government and its predecessor in improving school science, supported by the Wellcome Trust, industry, learned societies and other stakeholders, has paid dividends. But when all is said and done, it may be that the very thing developed countries need to improve most – their ailing economies – is the strongest driver for the renaissance in science popularity. Figures for youth unemployment, combined with the investment of time and money demanded by higher education, are convincing students – and their parents – to opt increasingly for subjects that they think will offer them the best chance of a well-paid job: science and maths.

Sir John Holman
Dr Hilary Leevers

Sir John Holman is Senior Fellow for Education at the Wellcome Trust and former director of the National Science Learning Centre.
Hilary Leevers is Head of Education and Learning at the Wellcome Trust.


  1. No Shortage of Talent: How the Global Market is Producing the STEM Skills Needed for Growth Accenture Institute for High Performance, 2011
  2. National Audit Office, 2010
  3. Exploring young people’s views on science education, Wellcome Trust, 2011.
  4. Shaping Up For Innovation: Are we delivering the right skills for the 2020 knowledge economy? The Work Foundation, 2010
  5. Education and Skills Survey, CBI 2011
  6. Is the UK an Outlier? An international comparison of upper secondary mathematics, Nuffield Foundation 2010.
Image credit: Flickr/Krypto
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