Wellcome Trust comment on 2015 A-level results

Today students across England, Wales and Northern Ireland have received their A-level examination results. For the first time in over five years, overall science A-level entry numbers have decreased.

With entry numbers to study biology decreasing by 1.2% (64,070 in 2014 to 63,275 in 2015), chemistry by 1.6% (53,513 to 52,644) and physics by 1.1% (36,701 to 36,287), the positive trend of more students taking science A levels has plateaued this year.

This is particularly disappointing given that many other ‘facilitating subjects’ (the academic subjects favoured by Russell Group universities) have increased. For example, geography has increased by 12.7%, English literature by 7.1% and maths by 4.4%.

The Conservative Government stated in their manifesto “we aim to make Britain the best place in the world to study maths, science and engineering” and the Your Life campaign, launched by the Department for Education in 2014, aimed to see a 50% increase in the number of students taking physics and maths A level within 3 years.1

Dr Hilary Leevers, Head of Education and Learning at the Wellcome Trust, commented: "Increasing the uptake of science A levels must be a priority for the Government, and supporting excellent science teaching is essential to reaching this goal.

"We need to better understand which factors are affecting A level choices and, just as importantly, whether students do actually have the choice to study science. We know that science A levels are not available at all schools and colleges. For example, 8% of schools2 do not offer A level physics and around a quarter of respondents to a recent survey by the Sixth Form Colleges Association3 said they had dropped STEM subjects as a result of funding cuts. The 2012 Wellcome Trust Monitor found that 16% of young people felt unable to choose the science options they wanted at school or college. It is vital to ensure that all schools and colleges offer science subjects to be fair to their individual students, but also to secure our future STEM workforce, essential for the growing economy."

The increase in the number of students taking the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) has also slowed, increasing by 1% this year compared to 9.2% in 2014. EPQs give students independent research skills and in-depth subject knowledge separate to their A levels. We hope the numbers of students taking EPQs continues to rise, particularly in hands-on practical science investigations.