STEM subjects lead the way

The number of entries for different A Level subjects in England makes for interesting reading. The top subject is Mathematics which is way ahead with 90k entries, followed by Psychology (76k), Biology (66k) and Chemistry (55k). In fact those four subjects have been the most popular from 2018 onwards.

STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) have dominated A level teaching for many years. In fact, of the ten most popular subjects, seven (Mathematics, Psychology, Biology, Chemistry, Sociology, Physics and Economics)  are STEM subjects.

This is generally to be welcomed, but with a couple of caveats.

First, exam entries do vary by gender across subjects.  I can’t find the gender data for this year, but from Summer 2021 we can see that more girls took the following subject than boys:

  • Psychology: 75% of entries were by females
  • Biology: 63%
  • Chemistry: 55%
  • Sociology: 75%

But more boys took three of the top ten STEM subjects :

  • Mathematics: 39% female
  • Physics: 24%
  • Economics: 31%

The figure for Mathematics is particularly worrying because Mathematics is a basic requirement for so many STEM degrees. The gender imbalance in those degrees is still quite marked. Physics is also avoided by girls – again this is a significant requirement for further study in most Engineering subjects.

And if we look further down the popularity table at Computing, only 16% of entries are by girls. I find this puzzling, having run A Level and BTEC courses in Computing over many years in the 80s and 90s. I can certainly remember a much higher proportion of girls taking the subject each year, and indeed progressing to further studies or employment in the field.

The fact is that girls consistently outperform boys on most A Level subjects (in terms of A/A* grades) including Mathematics, Physics, Economics and Computing. So why are so many girls still reluctant to take those subjects at A Level?

Second, with a preponderance of STEM subjects in the top ten, Humanities and Arts subjects are being squeezed out. This year English Literature has dropped to 12th position. We are all aware that Music and Drama are in serious decline in schools.

Languages are suffering too. French entries have halved since 2002 from 16k to 8k. German has faired even worse dropping from 8k to 3k. Spanish has increased in popularity (from 6k to 9k) but not enough to halt the overall decline in Modern Languages.

Let’s add into the mix some thoughts from Rishi Sunak. In the context of some fairly sensible, if bland, comments about parity of esteem for vocational and academic studies, he did say that support should be withdrawn for degrees with “low earning potential”. It seems there would be exceptions for degrees in nursing and other courses with “high social value”. He does not explain how “high social value” would be assessed, but my guess is that the creative arts will not feature much. After all most trained actors notoriously earn very little from their craft, and have to supplement their occasional acting work with a variety of casual jobs. The same applies to artists and writers.

There is much to praise in yesterday’s results. In particular we should congratulate a cohort of amazing young people whose education has been seriously disrupted through their GCSEs and on to their A Levels. They have demonstrated resilience, hard work and a level of self-confidence that I don’t remember having at their age. Then there are the teachers – who according to some elements in the media can never do anything right – who have spent the last two and a half years digging deep into their internal resources in order to provide support for their students, with the teaching context varying almost weekly. We owe them enormous gratitude.

However, there are some wider systemic issues that must be addressed as teaching settles back into normal patterns.



* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • Peter Hirst 20th Aug '22 - 1:33pm

    With competition between preferred subjects and those more likely to give a decent job, perhaps there is space for combining them at degree level. So you could have a psychology and computing degree. Pursuing your passion is important and so is obtaining certificates in subjects more likely to lead to significant earnings.

  • The course you take obviously affects your future career and earnings prospects and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that girls are choosing subjects which do not always optimise their career prospects. And I say that as a former sociology teacher ! It’s a free country and if anyone feels a need to study Saxon Poetry for three years, that’s fine. But where that takes you, beyond academia, is not obvious and people need to embark on such courses with their eyes open.
    If you look carefully there are stem courses that you can get on with CCD grades (or less if they like you) virtually guaranteed job on graduation and £40k salary by the time your in your late 20s. Young people (and their parents) need to know this. Money isn’t everything, but as we are about to learn this autumn, it sure helps.

  • Nonconformistradical 22nd Aug '22 - 12:08pm

    @Chris Cory
    Are you implying it isn’t necessary for people to have a rounded secondary education? It isn’t all about careers is it?

    Shouldn’t a student taking STEM subjects also study something e.g. from the arts curriculum? If only in the interest of mixing with people with different educational backgrounds and hopefully improving mutual understanding?

  • @Nonconfomristradical. No, I obviously didn’t make my self clear, for which I apologise. I’m all for breadth at secondary level (otherwise no jobs for sociology teachers !), but my point was that degree level studies need to be undertaken with a degree (no pun intended) of realism regarding ones future prospects.
    I was also gently making the point that we still hear about women being under represented in certain well paid professions, including engineering, but the evidence suggests that the wounds may be to some extent self inflicted.

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