The Royal Society has just published a report showing that the proportion of students completing full A-levels in science and maths in England is far lower than the equivalent proportion  taking Highers/Advanced Highers in Scotland. This is demonstrated by the diagram below.

The pool of post-16 students feeds the pool of undergraduates, which in turn feeds the pool of graduates. The Society, the CBI and others have regularly pointed out to the Government that there are not enough UK graduates with science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills to support economic growth.

In Scotland, almost 50% of Highers students take at least one science or maths qualification.  Only 28% of English A-level students do the same. In the UK as a whole, only 17% of 16-18 year olds study sciences or mathematics.

So what can we do about this?

One of our recommendations is to reform A-levels in England so that they look more like the Scottish system or have a Baccalaureate flavour to them and allow students to continue longer with science and mathematics post-16. The Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME) suggested something similar last year for maths; this would extend that proposal to the sciences.

Aside from qualifications reform, we need to ensure there are enough specialist teachers available, especially in the physical sciences at post-16 level. This will require funding guarantees from the Department for Education: providing money for the national science learning centres and the national centre for excellence in the teaching of mathematics, as well as to schools, colleges and universities involved in subject-specific teacher education and professional development.

Finally, the Society recommends that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills ensures the new national careers advisory service, planned from September 2011, can provide high quality information, advice and guidance on STEM careers to all school and college students. We are not convinced that it will be able to do so.

If you would like to find out more about the report please email me, Nick von Behr, Education Policy Manager at

Comments are closed.