Girls and STEM - the 'missing' numbers

There may be concerns about the number of girls choosing STEM subjects at A-level, but tens of thousands more girls (and boys) are studying science post-16 than in the '90s…

MoleculeAs students across the nation sit silently at neatly spaced desks in cavernous exam halls, heads down and pens hurrying across answer booklets, the media has again been discussing the number of girls who will (or won’t) be sitting science exams this summer.

The BBC declared 'Brightest girls' among physics A-level dropouts. The Telegraph tells us Maths and physics seen as 'irrelevant' and too 'male'. And in The Guardian, a university lecturer disagreed that female role models are likely to encourage more girls to study STEM subjects.

With the regular drip-feed of stories lamenting the number of girls studying science, you might be forgiven for thinking that girls are shunning STEM in their droves. But is the situation really as bad as the headlines seem to suggest?

Let’s look at some rough numbers. Based on JCQ figures, in 2012, a grand total of 59,172 students took AS-level physics, and 23.4% of them were girls. The following year, 35,569 students took the full A-level, and the proportions shifted slightly with girls making up 20.7% of the cohort. So yes, as the BBC article suggests, girls do seem to stop Physics after AS more often than boys.

But there’s another side to this story.

The AS-level as we know it today was introduced with Curriculum 2000. If we look at figures for Physics in 1999, before the AS was available, it reveals something interesting.

Total A-level physics entries haven’t changed a vast amount, rising about 6% between 1999 and 2013 (the average across all subjects at A-level is a rise of 8%). But in 1999, we didn’t have AS-levels as we do today (more on this in a minute). So while there are similar numbers taking A-level Physics, in 2012 over 23,000 additional students studied Physics at AS-level – over a quarter of them girls. That’s more than 6,000 girls studying post-16 Physics who weren’t in the system at all before Curriculum 2000.

Similarly, tens of thousands more young people are being exposed to Chemistry, Biology and Maths post-16 than in 1999 (comparisons with Further Maths are somewhat complicated by differences in the structure of the courses pre-Curriculum 2000) – you can take a look at the numbers in the table below.

Science students

So yes, fewer girls do continue Physics through to A-level, and that is something that understandably many stakeholders would like to address, but there are considerably more girls and boys taking STEM subjects beyond GCSE in a way that simply wasn’t possible before AS-levels.

Even if we take into account population growth, the increase still stands – based on government figures, the increase in GCSE-age students in the appropriate years for our two cohorts is around 5%, lower than most of the percentage increases in A-level uptake across the sciences, even before we look at those additional AS-level students.

Whether this trend will continue under the reformed A-level framework is something of an unknown. The new set-up is similar to the Advanced Supplementary levels that were available between 1988 and 2000, in that they are intended as stand-alone qualifications rather than ‘part 1’ of an A-level. However, whereas the old AS-levels were set at the same standard as the full A-level but with half the content, the new AS level will be closer to the current Advanced Subsidiary level, which is intended as the first half of the A-level course and is less demanding than the A2 content. Those older qualifications were nowhere near as popular as today’s AS-levels – in 1999, for example, 2,223 students took Advanced Supplementary Physics, compared to over 59,000 taking Advanced Subsidiary Physics in 2012. The pattern is similar across the other STEM subjects – almost 20 times as many study AS Maths today compared to 1999, and nearer 50 times as many study Chemistry AS.

The AS-level has done a good job of increasing students’ exposure to STEM subjects post-16, both boys and girls. Perhaps students studying the newly reformed A-levels will behave differently to their counterparts in the 1990s, and opt to study for a stand-alone AS qualification. Perhaps they’ll decide to focus on full A-levels instead. Either way, the early years of the new qualifications may mean a shift in the number of students of both sexes studying science post-16 – and possibly a few more headlines.

Anna Nagle


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