Reform of the A-level system in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is needed to boost the numbers of students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) at university, the Royal Society has warned.
In its latest report, the society called for the introduction of an A-level based baccalaureate that would allow students to take a wider range of subjects post-16. The report said too few youngsters were taking the two science subjects plus maths required to study many STEM subjects in higher education with usually just three A-levels taken. A new baccalaureate qualification would give students the chance to study more subjects, the society said.
The report also warned of a “self-perpetuating cycle” in which low numbers of science graduates – UK universities produce fewer than 10,000 home graduates in science and maths – led to not just a lack of skilled workers for industry but also a lack of teachers specialising in the two subjects. The report said: “Given that higher education institutions tend to want STEM undergraduates to have taken more than one science subject (excluding mathematics), and that many students would welcome being able to take a wider range and number of subjects at A-level, it is clear that A-levels are not fit for purpose.”
The situation in England and Wales contrasted unfavourably with Scotland, the report said, where some 49.7% of post-16 students took Higher science in 2009, compared with 27.7% of students taking the equivalent A-levels in England and 26.6% in Wales. The Royal Society said students had more choice in Scotland, tending to take five subjects at Higher level.
The Royal Society report comes in the wake of a recent study by Engineering UK that said that 500,000 new engineers and technicians would be needed over the next six years. Worryingly, the report also found that a significant proportion of secondary schools in England (17%) did not enter a single pupil for A-level physics. In Wales the figure was lower, at 13%.
Professor Dame Athene Donald, 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 report said that students were receiving inadequate advice about post-16 qualifications leading to them studying subjects that were unsuitable for progression to STEM degrees at a time when the government’s education bill wants to remove the obligation for schools to provide general careers advice to students. Engineering bodies have warned that the subject risks “invisibility” at school level.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is set to launch a new careers service later this year. The Royal Society called on the department to ensure the service provided high quality and accessible guidance on careers in STEM.