150825 Science and Maths A-Levels
  • Back to the A-Level results. I spent so long delving into the A-Level statistics for last Thursday’s To The Point post that I couldn’t make it out in time for today. The above graph shows the proportion of A-Level papers that are either Mathematics (including Further Maths) or one of the sciences (Biology, Chemistry, Physics and what the spreadsheets call “Other sciences”). This year, 12.7 per cent of papers were the former, and 18.3 per cent were the latter. That, in case you don’t have an A-Level in maths yourself, gives a total of 31.0 per cent.
  • The rise of maths and science. Another basic maths lesson: that 31.0 per cent sum is somewhat higher than it was several years ago, but lower than it was last year. Back in 2006, 7.8 per cent of papers were in maths and 15.7 per cent were in one of the sciences, making a total of 23.5 per cent. Last year, 12.4 per cent were in maths and 18.9 per cent in science, making a total of 31.3 per cent. Even with this year’s decline, the overall trend is still pretty striking. Across one decade, maths and sciences have gone from representing less than one quarter of all A-Level papers to almost one third.
  • Nothern Ireland further, England faster. Just as with the A-Level grades we looked at last week, there are variations between the countries of the United Kingdom when it comes to maths and the sciences. Northern Ireland, the country that tends to get the best results, also tends to do more of both subjects (31.2 per cent, this year). England tends to do the least (30.8 per cent). But this doesn’t adequately describe the changes that have taken place over the past decade. England’s total is 7.6 percentage points higher than it was in 2006, whereas Northern Ireland’s is only 2.7 percentage points higher. At that rate, England will soon be in the lead.
  • Academies and tuition fees. Why have maths and the sciences become more popular? Perhaps the differences between the countries of the UK help explain it. England, which submits the vast majority of A-Level papers, has seen the greatest rise in those subjects. It has also been more affected by the Coalition Government’s academies programme and its tuition fees policy. Could it be that academies are echoing politicians and encouraging students to study more hard-headed subjects? Are students taking their schooling more seriously now that a university education costs more? Both explanations seem plausible.
  • On and on. More significant than the explanations are the ramifications. The Times looked at one of them in an editorial (£) last week: with more young people taking maths A-Level, there could soon be a shortage of maths teachers, if there isn’t one already. But it goes further than that, from the numbers of people going on to study maths or science at university, to Britain’s competitiveness in a worldwide marketplace that privileges those subjects. For ministers, as exemplified by this Liz Truss speech from last year, there’s still much further to go. That global race we keep hearing about is never-ending.

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