‘Unacceptably low’ levels of Maths and Physics in England?

MP Liz Truss worries about 'science deserts' in parts of the country. We crunch some numbers to see if there is a geographical disparity in Maths and Physics uptake.

Maths student

The TES writes that sixth-forms and colleges are to be judged by A-level maths and physics participation, as announced by Liz Truss at a speech today at Imperial College London.

Next month, data will be published showing what proportion of A-level students at every school are studying these subjects. Ms Truss is concerned about ‘science deserts’ – areas of the country with low or no science teaching to an advanced level. The new data (released with school performance tables from next year) is intended to reveal areas of the country where uptake is “unacceptably low”, and help boost the number of students studying maths and physics.

So we’ve done a quick and dirty crunch of the numbers (many thanks to Simon here at CERP for his Excel mastery), to see if there is a geographical disparity in the uptake of these subjects, and identify England’s physics and maths hotspots.

We’ve based this snapshot on the figures released by the Department for Education in February this year, relating to A-level exam entries in 2012-13. The tables show subject uptake by region and local authority, so we can get an idea of what proportion of total A-level entries from various areas of the country were in Physics, Maths and Further Maths.

Here’s the broad pattern by region. The Physics uptake for England averages out at 4.12% of total A-level entries (31,908 entries from a total of 773,651), with the South West in the lead at 4.34%, and inner London at the bottom at 3.01%.

In Maths, the national average is 10.41% (80,567 entries). Outer London takes the lead on this one, with 12.93% (with inner London coming in second at 10.74%). Yorkshire and the Humber has the lowest uptake, at 8.41%.

The national average for Further Maths is 1.66% (12,881 entries across the country). Outer London again has the highest uptake, at 1.8% (though inner London this time comes in 7th, at 1.19%), with the lowest uptake in the North West, at 1.13%.

Regional uptake

* Covers all state-funded mainstream schools, academies, free schools, maintained special schools and FE Sector Colleges (excludes independent schools, pupil referral units and other Government department funded).
**England figures include all schools and FE colleges.

Looking at broad areas of the country in this way shows that there is some variation, but it’s not huge. However, if you drill down into the local authority, there are starker differences. Here are the top 5 hotspots – and cold spots – for Physics, Maths and Further Maths uptake across the country.

Top and bottom uptake

This is a very quick look at the figures, and admittedly doesn’t tell the whole story. The size of the student population covered by the different authorities varies considerably, which means direct comparisons are risky.

The local authority in Reading, for example, is responsible for 13 schools teaching 16-18 year olds. It tops the charts in all three subjects, but only had 92 Physics entries, 254 Maths entries and 74 Further Maths. Hampshire, on the other hand, is responsible for 57 schools covering 16-18 year olds. It had ten times the entries in Physics and Maths, and almost five times the number of Further Maths entries – and 20 times the number of A-level entries overall.

The problem with all this is whether we are worried about the proportion of students from various areas taking A-levels in these subjects, or more concerned about the ultimate number of students studying them (and therefore hopefully going on to study STEM subjects at university – something that has been exercising various stakeholders for quite some time).

Either way, is an accountability measure is the right way to drive up numbers? If it does have the desired effect, will it result in students who are really engaged and passionate about the subject, or people who have been pushed towards a subject for the sake of statistics?

There are likely socioeconomic reasons underlying the trend for students in the South to be (broadly speaking) more likely to study these subjects than their counterparts in the North, and Ms Truss herself notes that students at independent schools are almost twice as likely to study Maths or Physics at A-level than their peers at state comprehensives.

But perhaps a measure like this is unlikely to address that imbalance. Recent surges in interest in science among young people have tended to be associated with things that appeal directly to them – whether that be the oft-cited Brian Cox effect, the popularity of the TV programmes like The Big Bang Theory, or contact with inspirational figures from the STEM world. There are a whole raft of initiatives currently desperately trying to tempt more young people towards STEM subjects – girls in particular – and it’s these programmes to inspire, energise and excite students about the sciences and what they can achieve that are perhaps more likely to have the effect Ms Truss is looking for.

Anna Nagle

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