Factors affecting post-GCSE choices
2.8. It is difficult to analyse the A-level trends
with any great confidence. As Research Councils UK pointed out,
"the decline in the numbers of students studying these subjects
is a very complex process which is not accessible to simple solutions.
In particular, the factors affecting students' choice of subject
... are numerous, and their interactions are not well-understood"
(p 197). However, several issues emerged repeatedly in the
2.9. One such issue is essentially fashionin
particular, the emergence of new subjects that have only become
available at A-level in recent years, such as psychology, media
studies and photography. As Marie-Noëlle Barton of Women
into Science, Engineering and Construction (WISE) noted, "there
is now a huge array of A-levels available and a lot of young people
choose what they call the 'funky' subjects" (Q 151). We do
not denigrate these subjects, but somefor instance psychology,
which is a science in its own righthave clearly drawn students
away from the traditional sciences. Indeed, as the British Psychological
Society pointed out, over 50,000 students sat the psychology A-level
in 2005, which is significantly more than sat physics or chemistry
2.10. An inevitable consequence is the dilution
of the science A-level combinations for which able science students
have traditionally opted. Professor Margaret Brown of the Advisory
Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME) told us that the introduction
of a wider choice of A-levels had had "quite a dramatic effect
in reducing the number of students doing the normal offering of
mathematics / physics / chemistry or mathematics / chemistry /
biology which is down to 60 per cent of what it was in 2001"
(Q 109). However, even if it were desirable to do so, it would
be very difficult to reverse the introduction of a greater choice
of A-level subjects; as Professor Brown said, "once you have
let the genie out of the bottle, I think it is quite hard to say
to students that last year's students were allowed a free range
of choice and you are not" (Q 113). We agree.
2.11. The traditional sciences and mathematics
need not feel threatened by the broader range of A-levels available,
but it is essential that students should perceive them in the
best possible light. One problem here is that science and mathematics
can be portrayed as boring or irrelevant to modern life. This
partly relates to the content of the specifications, but even
more important is the style and quality of the teaching. As the
written evidence from the Science Learning Centres stated, "inspired
teaching is the key to inspiring young people towards the continued
study of science" (p 173).
2.12. It was suggested to us that poor teaching
affects female students in particular, who are seriously under-represented
in the physical science A-levels. The Institute of Physics argued
that "girls are much more likely than boys to be deterred
by poor and uninspiring teachers" (p 57). Similarly, Marie-Noëlle
Barton of WISE told us that "girls are particularly sensitive
to what happens in the classroom" and emphasised the importance
of "gender-free" examples in science teaching (Q 151).
The importance of specification content and good science teaching
are addressed in more detail in Chapters 3 and 4.
2.13. A more serious and fundamental problem
is the perception that the traditional science subjects and mathematics
are more difficult than other subjects, and that it is consequently
more difficult to achieve impressive A-level gradesa point
that was made forcefully by the students with whom we spoke at
Huntington School in York. Marie-Noëlle Barton felt that
this was particularly true of physics: "it is perceived by
young people, it is perceived by a lot of teachers (and I am not
talking about the science teachers but other teachers), it is
perceived by the parents as being a difficult subject" (Q
2.14. Again, it was suggested that the perception
that sciences are difficult affected female students disproportionatelythe
Institute of Physics claimed that girls were particularly liable
to feel that physics was "too difficult and not for them",
another cause of their under-representation at physics A-level
(p 57). There is also a risk that state school students and their
teachers are more likely to be deterred by perceived difficulty
than their contemporaries at private schools, which could result
in an unhealthy social distortion in the science field. We have
already drawn attention to the fact that half of all A-level science
entries come from 18 per cent of schools.
2.15. This issue of relative difficulty has profound
implications. On the one hand, as the Royal Meteorological Society
noted, "students looking forward to university entrance will
be strongly motivated by what they perceive to be their best chance
of obtaining the necessary A-level grades" (p 209). Similarly,
Dr Colin Osborne of the Royal Society of Chemistry told us that
students "realise they have to get a certain number of points
to go to university, so often they choose to take subjects that
are perceived to be (and indeed may be) easier" (Q 105).
2.16. On the other hand, schools, in seeking
to improve their position in competitive league tables, may be
tempted to maximise A-level scores by encouraging students to
choose easier subjects. The Institute of Physics reported anecdotal
evidence of schools "actively discouraging students from
taking subjects that could weaken their league table position"
through lower A-level grades (p 57). If these perceptions are
well-founded, they throw into question the A-level "gold
standard" on which post-16 education is currently based.
2.17. Analysis of A-level results does in fact
suggest that science and mathematics are more difficult than other
subjects at A-level. The figuress below, based on very large samples,
have been produced by the Curriculum, Evaluation and Management
(CEM) Centre at Durham University. Figure 1 shows the predicted
A-level grades in a variety of different subjects for a student
with an average GCSE grade Bthe pattern is similar for
students with different grade averagesand suggests that
the three sciences are some of the hardest subjects. Figure 2
embodies a different approach, a complex comparative formula which
looks at the relationship between each grade achieved by each
individual student and the grades that the same student scored
in his or her other subjects. Following an iterative process,
a "relative grade" is produced for each subject. Essentially,
the higher the relative grade, the more difficult the subject.
Again, the sciences and mathematics are amongst the most difficult
of all subjects.
Expected A-Level Grade(as points) of a
student with an average GCSE Grade B
Source: CEM Centre, Durham University
ALIS Project: A Level subject relative
Source:CEM Centre, Durham University
2.18. The CEM Centre's methodology is widely
if not universally accepted. It produces similar findings each
year which are broadly consistent with data produced using alternative
systems. However, when we asked the Government to respond to these
tables, we were told that "the DfES and the QCA have always
responded to such claims by stating that there is no such thing
as an easy or hard A-level. In terms of UCAS tariff points etc
all A-levels are weighted equally. We have no plans to move from
This is an unconvincing response. The fact that equivalent grades
in all A-level subjects are worth the same number of UCAS points,
regardless of difficulty, goes to the very heart of the problem.
2.19. Students studying science and mathematics
thus appear to face an in-built disadvantage because, in general,
more hard work and/or ability are needed to achieve the same number
of UCAS points as might more readily be achieved in most other
subjects. Clearly, higher education institutions and employers
should be able to distinguish between an "A" in physics
and an "A" in photography, for example. Indeed, Cambridge
University has drawn up a list of A-levels which "provide
a less effective preparation for our courses"including
Business Studies and Media Studiesand advised students
that they should take at least two "traditional academic
subjects" (i.e. those not on the list).
However, students may still be deterred from taking the more difficult
A-levels because of their desire to achieve as impressive a set
of A-level grades as possible.
2.20. This is not a problem with an easy solution,
which is probably why, in the words of the Royal Society of Chemistry,
"the QCA has addressed the issue of standards over time but
has not addressed the issue of cross-subject comparability"
(p 48). Although the QCA does profess to look at cross-subject
comparability, it does not appear thus far to have taken solid
action in light of any findings.
This is a major problem and clearly needs to be taken more seriously
by both the Government and the QCA.
2.21. In terms of a remedy, Professor Brown of
ACME said, "I think there is a temptation to say that we
dumb the subjects down and that is clearly what we must not do"
(Q 103). We firmly agree that "dumbing down" is out
of the questionstandards must be maintained. Dr
Osborne of the Royal Society of Chemistry echoed these sentiments,
commenting, "I am not suggesting either that we should be
dumbing down the sciences or mathematics. What I am suggesting
is that perhaps some of these other subjects should be made harder,
which would not be a difficult task but would be remarkably unpopular"
(Q 105). However, whilst it might appear desirable to seek a common
standard across all subjects, it would in reality be a difficult
if not impossible task to align all A-level subjects with one
single arbitrary level of difficulty. Difficulty means different
things in different subjects, reflecting the various skills and
faculties required of students. Moreover, the growing number of
A-level choices open to students means that accepted, traditional
tests of difficulty have to adapt to an increasingly complex and
2.22. One possibility might be for UCAS or higher
education institutions themselves to extend the approach already
in effect adopted by Cambridge University, and to weight different
A-levels so that, for example, an "A" grade at physics
A-level is worth more points than the same grade at photography
A-level. However, agreeing criteria for establishing which subjects
are harderand therefore should be worth more pointswould
be difficult if not impossible, and could artificially distort
students' A-level choices towards subjects to which they are not
so well suited. Moreover, such an approach could potentially put
them at an unfair disadvantage when seeking employment.
2.23. Nor would the re-introduction of grade
quotas solve this problemindeed, it would probably exacerbate
it. Although the sciences and mathematics appear to be amongst
the "hardest" of A-levels, the percentage of students
achieving A grades in them is generally higher than in other "easier"
subjects. This is largely
because the "harder" subjects tend to be sat by higher
ability students, although there are other relevant factors. Therefore,
the introduction of quotas could mean fewer "A"
grades in the sciences and mathematics, and more in the
easier subjects, which would clearly not be a desirable outcome.
2.24. What these issues demonstrate is that the
"gold standard" of A-levels is now fundamentally compromised.
The presumption that an A-level "A" grade represents
a fixed level of achievement (embodied in an equal UCAS tariff)
is hard to defend. An alternative way to ensure that the assessment
system is an accurate reflection of ability might be to replace
A-levels with a baccalaureate or broad-based system of diplomas,
ensuring that everybody is examined on a mixture of "difficult"
and "easy" subjects.
2.25. This proposal is in line with the 2004
report of Sir Mike Tomlinson's Working Group on 14-19 Reform,
which recommended the development of a broad-based system of diplomas,
available at entry, foundation, intermediate and advanced levels,
which would ultimately replace GCSEs, A-levels and NVQs. Such
a system would not only go a long way towards solving the issue
of cross-subject comparability, it would also ensure that students
left school with a broader and more well-rounded education.
2.26. Whilst the Tomlinson Report is wider in
scope than this inquiry, its central recommendation chimes with
the concerns we have heard that students are being forced to narrow
their areas of study at too early an age. When the perception
that some subjects are "easier" than others is factored
in, the result is that students are in many cases giving up science
and mathematics before they can fully appreciate the opportunities
that qualifications in these subjects can bring. Professor Martin
Taylor of the Royal Society said, "our current A-level system,
when it asks people to choose three A-levels, is implicitly asking
them to choose away from an awful lot of other things". He
added, "the Tomlinson Report had started to look for some
flexibility there, maybe a diploma system, maybe something like
a baccalaureate system, something that was wider and left children
up to the age of 18 not having rejected so many things. I think
that would be quite welcome" (Q 108).
2.27. We agree with the Royal Society. The Tomlinson
Report made a convincing case for replacing A-levels with a diploma
system. In response, the Government's White Paper on 14-19 Education
and Skills stated that "we understand and appreciate the
argument that we should challenge our A-level students further,
by demanding more breadth. But there is no clear consensus amongst
pupils, parents, employers or universities on whether and how
it should be done".
This response ducks the central issue. It is time the Government
showed strong leadership.
2.28. There is good evidence that students
are opting for "easier" A-levels over the sciences and
mathematics, a problem which is compounded by the specialisation
forced upon students by the A-level system. We call on the Government
to replace A-levels, over the long-term, with a broader-based
syllabus for post-16 students. To this end, we suggest that they
revisit Sir Mike Tomlinson's proposals for a diploma system and
also consider the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme.
These systems would allow students to maintain greater breadth
in their studies, giving them more time to choose the areas which
they wish to pursue. They would also result in a more rounded
education and would prevent the damage caused by the perception
that science and mathematics A-levels are particularly difficult.
Importance of high-quality advice
2.29. As long as the A-level system remains in
operation, it is essential that students should receive top quality
advice about the significant benefits of studying the sciences
and mathematics. There is clearly some way to go if this goal
is to be achieved, however; as SETNET (The Science, Engineering,
Technology and Mathematics Network) noted, "a significant
influence on this decline [in science A-level entries] is an insufficiently
wide understanding of the breadth and excitement of the careers
that can be pursued with science, technology, engineering and
mathematics qualifications" (p 215). The Royal Astronomical
Society commented, "most young people have no idea what a
scientist actually does, apart from possibly doctors, vets, and
more recently forensic scientists (from television dramas and
documentaries)" (p 204).
2.30. The key to ensuring that students are fully
informed about the different types of STEM careers before they
choose their A-level subjects is high quality school careers advice,
from both careers advisers and science teachers themselves. The
Institute of Physics (IoP) had serious concerns in this regard,
claiming that "students are not being given accurate careers
advice at a sufficiently early age to allow them to make informed
choices ... careers advice tends to be reactive and does not give
students a full picture of the consequences of subject choices"
(p 58). Similarly, SETNET complained that careers advice was "inadequate
and often stereotypical" (p 215).
2.31. Drawing on a report conducted in 2000,
the IoP noted that science teachers did not see themselves as
a source of advice because they did not feel able "to keep
up with careers information" (p 58) and the Science Learning
Centres added that there should be "better careers information
available to science teachers, who are often the people to whom
turn first when considering whether to opt for
science subjects" (p 179).
2.32. Careers advisers, meanwhile, overwhelmingly
had humanities or social science backgroundsthe IoP noted
that just one in ten of those surveyed had science degrees (p
58). The consequences of this imbalance were illustrated by a
study, highlighted by Marie-Noëlle Barton, which showed that
"90 per cent of careers advisers
did not feel confident
with giving advice about science and engineering careers"
(Q 146). Similarly, Daniel Sandford Smith of the IoP referred
to "horror stories of careers advisers advising students
not to do the sciences because they are more difficult" (Q 108).
2.33. Elspeth Farrar, Director of the Careers
Advisory Service at Imperial College London, made a more general
point about the quality of careers advice offered at school: "the
advice that [is] given to the more able students in schools now,
particularly those that are staying on to do A-levels and thinking
about carrying on into university, is not has good as it has been
in the past". She felt that this was related to the introduction
of the Connexions Service which "very much had its priorities
around the less able students" at the expense of more able
students. She concluded, "I think this has had some effect
on their guidance on going into university, their choice of subjects
and maybe not having as much of a scope or a breadth of ideas
about what they could go on and study as they maybe had in the
past" (Q 146).
2.34. These comments were endorsed by Marie-Noëlle
Barton of WISE, which works to increase the number of women going
into STEM careers. She suggested that "it is almost now a
stigma for young people to go and see a careers adviser from the
Connexions Service, because they deal mainly with young people
who have got drugs problems and so on" (Q 146).
2.35. The importance of improving the provision
of quality information on science and engineering careers was
recognised in Sir Gareth Roberts' seminal 2002 review, SET
for success: the supply of people with science, technology, engineering
and mathematics skills. The review recommended that "the
Government establish a small central team of adviserspossibly
within the new Connexions serviceto support existing advisers,
teachers and parents in making pupils aware of the full range
of opportunities and rewards opened up by studying science, mathematics
and engineering subjects". It also called on the Government
to "review, in three years' time, the progress in improving
pupils' knowledge of the rewards and the breadth of careers arising
from studying science and engineering, and take further action
2.36. The Government initially responded to this
recommendation by pledging to "establish a team that can
help Connexions Personal Advisers and teachers in offering such
careers advice [on science and engineering]". However, when
we followed up this commitment, the department showed considerable
confusion as to whether the necessary action had indeed been taken.
Eventually, we were told that "the Government did not establish
a specific team within Connexions" because it was important
for the service to offer "impartial advice reflecting individual
need". Instead, the department pointed to its work with the
Science, Engineering, Manufacturing Technologies Alliance (SEMTA),
the role of the "jobs4u" careers database and several
This is simply not sufficient.
2.37. When questioned about the state of careers
advice during oral evidence, the Schools Minister, Jim Knight
MP, accepted that "people have this notion that science careers
are being a scientist or being a doctor and they are not seeing
the full range and excitement of things which you can then go
on to do with science A-levels and science degrees". However,
his own explanation of the Government's response to this problem
was vague, and showed little sense of urgency: "we are currently
having some discussion around how we can develop information advice
and guidance as part of the 14 to 19 changes which we are implementing
over the next seven years" (Q 9).
2.38. Other witnesses were unimpressed with the
progress made by the Government in this area. The IoP felt that
"the DfES does not seem to have taken any steps to address
these issues" (p 58). SETNET commented, "we felt that
the lack of any mention in Next Steps of how the provision
of careers information is to be improved and made into a really
effective tool to help increase the interest of young people in
studying science subjects, was a significant gap. We are keen
that this is not overlooked or sidelined" (p 216).
2.39. A potentially invaluable new initiative
to improve the flow of STEM careers advice to students is the
proposed "Careers from Science" website, which is being
put together under the auspices of the Science Council. As the
Chief Executive of the Science Council, Diana Garnham, told us,
the website "will have sections for teachers, careers advisers
and parents ... [it] will build an awareness of the skills studying
science develops, how options are kept open by studying science
and it aims to ensure that students have the right information
to hand when choosing subject combinations". Vitally, it
is a collaborative initiative which will "provide an accurate
picture of the entire STEM landscape and the possibilities it
can offer rather than reflecting a particular organisation's chosen
2.40. Currently, a little less than one half
of the required funding has been raised, with contributions received
from the Royal Society, the Institute of Physics and the Royal
Society of Chemistry, among others. A project manager has also
been appointed. Yet, even though considerably more funding is
required, the Government appear to have failed to live up to their
commitment to "work with the Science Council on developing
a science careers website".
The Royal Society of Chemistry complained that the Government
had "failed to offer any support to realise this project"
(p 48) and Diana Garnham warned, "we consider that partnership
with DfES is crucial to the success of the project and indeed,
a funding partnership with Government is critical for us to secure
the financial commitments already made".
2.41. In general, the Science, Technology,
Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers advice offered in schools
appears not to be of sufficient quality, and the Connexions Service
is not well adapted to the needs of high achieving students. The
Government have largely neglected careers advice in Next Steps,
and this omission should be remedied at the earliest opportunity.
We recommend that the Government act upon the findings of the
Roberts Review by establishing a small central team of advisers
to support existing advisers, teachers and parents in making pupils
aware of the full range of opportunities and rewards opened up
by studying science, mathematics and engineering subjects.
2.42. The proposed "Careers from Science"
website would be a valuable tool in persuading more students to
study STEM subjects at A-level and beyond. In light of earlier
commitments, the lack of Government assistance to the Science
Council is unacceptable. We urge the Government to provide financial
and logistical support to the project as a matter of urgency.
5 These figures only cover those students taking the
A-levels at the age of 18 in England. The 2006 figures were not
available in this format at the time of writing. Back
Written evidence (not published). Back
See http://www.cam.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate/requirements. Back
See http://www.qca.org.uk/3657_7153.html. Back
For example, see http://www.jcq.org.uk/attachments/published/285/1/A-
DfES, 14-19 Curriculum and Qualifications Reform: Final Report
of the Working Group on 14-19 Reform, October 2004. Back
DfES, 14-19 Education and Skills-White Paper, February
2005, p 6. Back
HM Treasury, SET for success: the supply of people with science,
technology, engineering and mathematics skills, April 2002,
p 80. Back
Written evidence (not published). Back
Written evidence (not published). Back
HM Treasury, Science and innovation investment framework 2004-2014,
July 2004, p 91. Back
Written evidence (not published). Back