A new report suggests careers advice plays an important part in encouraging uptake of science subject at A-levels; but we shouldn’t get complacent, there’s still more to be done.
Choosing A-levels can be quite a tough task: for many the decision is based on their future career, while others prefer to take a broad range of subjects to keep their options open.
As the number of pupils opting to study science, technology, engineering and maths is increasing, researchers from the University of York have been looking at what prompts students to select STEM subjects.
Careers advice and science-based work placements are crucial in encouraging greater science up-take at A-level suggests the research report Schools that make a difference to post-compulsory uptake of science.
In schools providing a more comprehensive range of careers supervision and advice, more pupils took physics and chemistry A-levels. Careers advice which encouraged students to keep their options open resulted in fewer entries.
“We wanted to look at factors that influenced pupils’ decisions including particular features of the schools,” said research leader Professor Judith Bennett. “The strongest message to come out is that take-up of physics and chemistry is greater where careers advice and guidance is more comprehensive.”
Work experience opportunities also had an influence on career selection and subject uptake. Schools with an extensive network of employer connections had higher uptake of chemistry and physics. A higher uptake was seen in schools that provided opportunities to interact with the world of work; visits to local industries and universities; encouraged participation in science weeks and science-focussed student-organised societies and careers days.
“We found take-up was better where teachers were more heavily involved in careers advice and guidance and where pupils were able to experience science-based work placements,” said Bennett. “Pupils also appreciate being involved in the selection of their work placement.”
The report also found:
- Schools with higher GCSE grades A-C had a greater percentage of pupils taking chemistry and physics A-levels, as did schools with higher A* and A grades.
- Schools where science was taught separately at GCSE (triple science) saw more students taking physics and chemistry A-levels.
- There was a higher uptake of physics and chemistry A-levels in schools that cater for students up to 18 years of age, than in sixth-form colleges.
- A higher uptake of chemistry A-level in female-only schools.
- A higher uptake of physics A-level in male-only schools.
- Small schools with less than 200 students had lower levels of uptake, especially in chemistry.
The report – commissioned by the AstraZenica Science Teaching Trust – was born out of the concern linked to shortages in projected workforce requirements, strategic global positioning of national economy and a decreasing trend in the uptake of physics and chemistry. In the last 20 years, the percentage of pupils taking A-level chemistry has decreased from 6.8% to 5.2% – for physics, from 6.2% to 3.6%.
The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) agree, citing that more than four in ten employers report difficulties in recruiting enough staff with STEM skills. Although there has been a big increase in the number of students taking STEM subjects, CaSE warned against any complacency, citing international and historical comparisons, and inequalities in gender and school sector.
“Over the past five years we’ve seen a 40% increase in the number of students studying maths, and a nearly 20% increase in those taking physics and chemistry, with the overall number of A-levels being taken has increased by just 7.7%,” said Imran Khan, CaSE director.
“However, we cannot get complacent. Despite physics breaking into the top 10 A-level subjects this year, we’ve only just got back to 2002 levels in terms of entries.”