Royal Society calls for fundamental reform of A-level system

15 February 2011

The Royal Society is calling for fundamental reform of the A-level system leading to the introduction of an A-level based Baccalaureate or similar qualification, in a new report published today (15th February 2011).   The new qualification should give students the opportunity to study a greater breadth of subjects, including science and maths.

The Royal Society’s report 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.  As a consequence, too few individuals are able to progress to university STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degrees.  This leads to a deficit of STEM graduates available to enter employment in commerce and industry and teaching as specialist science and maths teachers.  The Royal Society recommends that the A-level system in England must be reformed in order 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. 

Professor Dame Athene Donald FRS, Chair of the Royal Society Education Committee, said: “At a time of economic uncertainty, when science and scientists can play a key role in revitalising the UK’s financial outlook, it is deeply worrying to find that numbers of A-level science students are at such low levels.  It should be a top priority for the Government to reform our education system, reinvigorate science education and inspire the next generation of students to commit to scientific study from school to university.”

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.  It provides the first ever UK-wide investigation into combinations of science and mathematics subjects taken by students completing full A-levels and Scottish Highers/Advanced Highers. The report found that across the UK in 2009, just 17% 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% of upper secondary institutions in England, 13% in Wales and 43% in Northern Ireland did not enter a single candidate in A-level Physics.  This news comes at a time when the importance of science and scientists to the UK’s economy has been highlighted by Government and industry. 

Professor Dame Athene Donald FRS added: “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.”

The report investigated the reasons for the low number of science and mathematics school students and concluded that a number of factors were involved, including:

  • too few specialist science and mathematics teachers (resulting from too few STEM graduates and thus part of a self-perpetuating cycle relating back to the number of 16-19 year olds studying science and maths)
  • insufficient or under-utilised continuing professional development for specialist science and mathematics teachers
  • inadequate information, advice and guidance (IAG) provided to pupils leading to poor post-16 qualification subject choices unsuitable for progression to STEM degrees

Recommendations from the report included:

  • Devise and deliver an A-level based Baccalaureate or reform A-level and equivalent qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to allow students to study more science and mathematics alongside other subjects
  • Ensure that in the reform of the Scottish qualification system, Intermediates, which have proven effective in helping to maximise the number of students progressing to Scottish Highers, are replaced by a similar and equally successful option. 
  • Action to improve the IAG provided to pupils to ensure that they can choose the science and mathematics qualifications best suited to ensure their eligibility for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) first degrees.  This should include ensuring that the new careers service to be launched by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in September 2011 is adequately equipped to provide high quality and easily accessible IAG on STEM careers. 
  • Review the diversity of A-level and equivalent qualifications provision
  • Entitle all science and mathematics teachers to subject-specific continuing professional development (CPD) and maintain funding to the National Science Learning Centre and National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics

In the production of the report, data from each of the UK nations regarding the combinations of science and/or mathematics subjects individuals took in post-16 school-leaving examinations (GCE and VCE A-levels and Scottish Highers/Advanced Highers) in the years 2004/05, 2006/07 and 2008/09 were analysed in detail.  This data was used to assess the numbers of students taking science and/or mathematics A-levels or equivalent mainstream combinations and the fraction of this pool that is qualified for entry to first degree STEM courses.  Further analysis in terms of gender, institution type and attainment was also undertaken. 

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