UK’s A-Level reforms could ‘undo’ efforts to encourage more women to pursue STEM subjects


The UK government’s efforts to increase the number of students taking up STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects could all be undone due to changes in the A-Level qualification, warned experts.

STEM fields are already known for their low representation of women – in the UK, only eight percent of engineers are women.

One of the key factors that leads to such a small number of women entering the profession is due to the poor turnout of young women taking up maths, physics, and computer science for their A-Levels.

With new reforms for the qualification set to be implemented next autumn, academics are concerned that changes to the structure and funding of A-Levels could make the problem even worse.

Peter Main, head of physics at King’s College London, said during a meeting of the Engineering Professors’ Council earlier this month that the new A-Level curriculum for maths, which will be taught from September 2017, was likely to discourage many girls from taking up the subject, thereby affecting their chances should they apply to study engineering or a science subject at university.

“It is almost inevitable that changes to A-Levels will make the gender balance worse,” he said, as reported by Times Higher Education.

Main said that studies have shown that girls are “much more nervous” about choosing subjects such as maths, further maths, and physics.

Under the new system, schools will be paid a flat £4,000 for any student taking three A-Levels, instead of the current per-qualification payments that motivate schools to push candidates to take a fourth A-Level.

At the same conference, Geoff Parks, senior tutor at Jesus College, Cambridge, said that schools may no longer find it economic to teach subjects such as Further Maths, which would be a disadvantage to students, particularly those from lower-income families.

Parks explained that candidates who took Further Maths had far better chances than those who did not when applying to Cambridge.

“Unless they turn this ship around, there will be an acute decrease in state schools doing Further Maths,” he said, adding that this would have a knock-on effect that would “demonstrably harm access to higher education”.

Image via Shutterstock

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