Students and Universities - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Annex A


  The Russell Group remains concerned by the long-term decline in pupils taking science and mathematics (STEM subjects) at GCSE and A-level. Numeracy is essential for many undergraduate courses at our universities, particularly in engineering, economics and medicine.

In order to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teaching in schools, Russell Group universities are building strong relationships with local schools and colleges as well as engaging with curriculum reform.

Declining numbers of pupils in "subjects of strategic importance"

    — Students taking "traditional" subjects (physical sciences, maths, languages) at A-level have become worryingly low despite a few recent trend-bucking increases.

    — As the graph shows, although there have been some recent improvements, from 1989-2007 entries have fallen by 28% (maths), 39% (physics) and 15% (chemistry) despite total entries soaring 25%.

    — From 1989-2004, maths entries fell by 40%. Following curriculum changes from 2006-7, the number of candidates taking maths has started to increase.

    — In 2007-8, the number of candidates taking maths rose by 7.5% while science subjects saw increases in chemistry (3.5%), biology (2.7%) and physics (2.3%).

    — However, these numbers remain significantly below their previous levels after almost two decades of decline.

Sector Variation in subject choices

    — Non-selective state school students are far less likely to take key subjects like Chemistry and Physics at A-level.— Only 2.6% of media studies A-level entries are from independent schools compared to 15% of entries on average across subjects.

Non-selective state
entries (2006)
% non-selective
Independent entries
% Independent

Media Studies
All (England)

    — It is overwhelmingly state school students dropping sciences and languages.

    — Independent and grammar school students are far more likely to take traditional subjects, such as STEM, and more likely to get the top grades in those subjects.

    — 60% of modern language A grades come from in independent schools.

Sector variation in STEM subjects

    — A 2006 survey by electronics firm Siemens of 500 students found that 70% of 6th-form pupils believed it was harder to get an A grade in science subjects. For two thirds of those surveyed, the perceived level of difficulty was a key factor in deciding whether to choose these subjects. — While independent schools represent only 7-8% of the total school population, just under half of all science A grades are from those schools.

A-level Attainment in STEM subjects

  Reference: Achievement and Attainment Tables for 2006-07, Department for Children, Schools and Families.

    — The percentage of candidates passing A-level qualifications rose this year by 0.3% to 97.2% while the proportion achieving A grades rose by 0.6% to 25.9%.[298]

    — Between 2002 and 2008, the independent sector saw an increase of 9.1% in the number of A grades awarded—from 41.3% to 50.4%. Over the same period, top grades at comprehensive schools rose by only 3.9 points to 20.4%.[299]

    — 2008 results have shown that some of the biggest increases in A grades awarded were in science subjects—notably Chemistry (up by 1.3% to 33.7% of the total) and Physics (up by 1% to 31.8%). In addition, there were also slight increases in those receiving A grades in both maths (up 0.3% to 44%) and further maths (up 0.7% to 57.5%).[300]

Straight A grades

  Reference: Proportion of 16-18 year old A-level candidates achieving at least three A grades at A-level

    — Nearly 12% of candidates achieved 3 A grades at A-level in 2007-08; 6% achieving 4As.

    — 22% of A-level students come from independent (14%) and grammar schools (8%). These students account for over half (55.8%) of those gaining 3As.

    — This compares to the 45% (or roughly 117,000) of A-level applicants that go to comprehensive schools, of which only 7.6% (9,000) gain 3As. [301]

    — Independent school students are around three times more likely to gain straight A grades than those at maintained schools.

School education and STEM

    — The quality of STEM education in schools can often have a profound impact on retention of students in university. According to a 2007 NAO report "science, technology, engineering and mathematics students are …less likely to continue to a second year of study than students following other subjects." [302] — This attainment at A-levels relates closely to prior achievement at GCSE. The percentage of pupils gaining at least one science GCSE grade C is 47% for mainstream schools, 59% for specialist science schools, 86% for independent schools and 95% for grammar schools.

    — Those studying separate science subjects at GCSE in maintained schools are less likely to gain an A grade than those in independent schools. Independent schools account for a third of triple science entries and gain over 50% of the A* grades, similarly, they account for around 7% of mathematics entries, but over 30% of A* grades.

    — In international studies of school attainment, the UK ranks 13th among 30 countries in reading, 18th amongst 30 countries in maths, and 9th out of 30 in science. [303] Attainment in English, sciences and maths has shown a leveling off since the late 1990s, particularly in Key Stages 2 and 3.[304]

    — In 2007, close to 47% of pupils did not achieve the benchmark of five GCSEs at grades A*-C.

    — In 2005 roughly 80% of physics teachers in independent schools had a degree in physics, compared to only 30% of those in state schools.[305] Almost one in four secondary schools in England no longer has any specialist physics teachers.[306]

    — In 2001, only 6-7% of the cohort entered each of the separate sciences ("triple science") at GCSE. As of 2005 only 27% of maintained schools even offered triple science at GCSE. While this has increased to 32% in 2007, this means that less than one third of state school provided the opportunity to take all three separate science subjects.

    — Science A-level candiates are concentrated in a small proportion of schools, as the Royal Society noted, "science take-up is strongly skewed at present, with half of all A-level entries in science coming from just 18 per cent of schools." [307]

298   JCQ (2008). "Results 2008": Back

299   Achievement and Attainment Tables, Data Services Group, Department for Children, Schools and Families Back

300   JCQ (2008). "Results 2008": Back

301   Department for Children, Schools and Families (2008). "TABLES FOR GCE/VCE A/AS AND EQUIVALENT EXAMINATION RESULTS 2008", Table 1. Back

302   NAO Report, "Staying the course: The retention of students in higher education", July 2007 Back

303   OECD (2006). PISA project: Back

304   Sodha, S. and J. Margo (2008). "Thursday's Child". London: IPPR. Back

305   Smithers, A and P. Robinson (2005). "Physics in Schools and Colleges: Teacher Deployment and Student Outcomes". Centre for Education and Employment Research, University of Buckingham. Back

306   IBID Back

307 Back

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