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Industry excitement as Stem A-level numbers rise

The number of students taking and achieving grades in A-levels related to science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) is on the rise this year, giving the industry hope for the future

The number of students taking science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) A-levels is on the rise, with an increase in the number of students who took A-levels in the three sciences, maths and computing.

The number of candidates achieving high-level grades (A* to B) in A-level computing also rose in comparison to 2017, with 3.3% of students achieving an A* grade, and 39.3% achieving an A* to B grade, up from 37.6% last year.

Data analysis firm Exasol interpreted UCAS data and found that the number of young people studying Stem subjects in the past 10 years has increased by 36.8%. Exasol’s UK regional vice-president, Ravinder Romanay, said the increase in people studying Stem is “encouraging”.

“The data also revealed that the proportion of females studying Stem subjects at A-level is increasing. In just five years, the proportion of women study computing has risen from 6.5% to 11.8%,” she said.

“There have been various government-industry initiatives, and these are clearly paying off. Inspiring the next generation of female talent to take up Stem careers is critical to plugging the skills gap in science and technology.”

The number of students sitting exams in A-level computing across the UK rose to 10,286 in 2018 from 8,229 the previous year, with the number of young women taking the exam increasing from 816 in 2017 to 1,211 this year.

This improvement in the number of young women taking Stem subjects could lead to the UK’s technology skills gap being plugged faster, with many believing that the only way to meet the demand for Stem skills in the UK is to encourage the large percentage of the population who are being excluded from tech to consider it as a career.

Dean Forbes, CEO at CoreHR, emphasised the importance of government, industry and education providers working together to introduce more girls to Stem at a young age and present them with industry role models.

“If we’re to bridge the gender gap in Stem jobs, we need to start with education,” he said. “We can see a slight improvement in the number of girls studying these subjects, but there remains work to be done if women are to be more fairly represented in tech in the years to come.”  

Not only were there more young women choosing to take computing this year, but they also reclaimed the top spot for grades after being overtaken for a brief period last year by male students, which was mainly blamed on the introduction of a new style of exams.

For A-level computing, 64.6% of girls achieved an A* to C grade in 2018, up from 61.2% last year, while 4.2% of girls achieved an A* grade, up from 2.3% in 2017.

For boys, 3.2% achieved at A* grade in A-level computing, slightly up from last year’s 3.1%, while 62.3% achieved an A* to C grade, which is higher than last year (61.2%).

A positive shift

Many in the industry are firmly in the camp that this increase in students perusing Stem subjects is good news, indicative of a shift towards a generation who are more digitally savvy.

“Young people are right to be pursuing their studies in science, maths and computing,” said Carol Holden, vice-president of human resources (HR), Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at Software AG.

“They have truly grown up in the digital world, with unprecedented access to technologies. They are the true digital natives, and as they go on to university, they will continue to grow and develop these skills. In this age of job automation, the next generation of workers will need this training to take their natural technology abilities to the next level.”

But others are concerned that the pace of change is not fast enough when taking into account the adoption and development of new technologies and the looming skills crisis that the UK faces as a result of Brexit.

“The government has recently invested in Stem education, with these subjects now making up 36% of all A-Level entries,” said Sean Farrington, senior vice-president of Europe, Middle East, India and Africa (EMEIA) at Pluralsight.

“Those taking computing grew by 24% this year, with 63% achieving A* to C grades. But to succeed with the ambition to lead the world in new tech like AI [artificial intelligence] and 5G, much more needs to be done.

“If we want to keep up with technological developments in the coming years, we need to encourage thousands more young people, particularly girls, to consider careers in technology.”

More to be done

However, encouraging young people to take Stem subjects is not an immediate fix, with many believing that the curriculum is not flexible enough to get students clued up on emerging skills.

But some advancements have been made, with the number of students choosing to take the ICT A-level this year dropping as the qualification is soon to become obsolete.

Tony Reid, UK and Ireland vice-president of Informatica, said mass disruption caused by technology adoption means the UK needs specialised skillsets that are not currently available.

“The economy needs skills now, not in five years’ time when the curriculum catches up. We as businesses must play our part in making sure young people are learning the right things at the right time,” he said.

This year saw 5,643 students take the ICT exam, down from 7,607 in 2017. The overall performance of male and female students was also worse than last year, with only 56.2% achieving an A* to C grade in comparison to 58.6% in 2017.

In 2018, 64% of girls achieved an A* to C grade, as opposed to 52.6% of boys, but performance was still worse overall for both genders.

The industry sees these changes, such as eliminating outdated subjects like ICT to make way for new qualifications, as a step in the right direction. However, it has also expressed concerns that emerging, in-demand skills – such as those in data or cyber security – are still not being met.

Jordan Morrow, global head of data literacy at Qlik, and Mollie Holleman, UK threat intelligence manager for Cofense, believe the industry should take advantage of the increased interest in Stem subjects to expand on ideas students will have already learnt. This will then encourage young people to learn more about, and grow more interested in, specialisms such as data analysis and cyber security.

For sciences and maths, the number of students taking the three sciences, maths and further maths are all up on last year when taking into account overall student numbers. For biology and chemistry, however, there was a drop in males taking the exam, which was made up by an increase in the number of young women taking these A-level subjects.

As for a focus on developing the creative skills that may be needed for the future of digital and technology, the number of students taking A-levels in media/film/TV has dropped in 2018 to 25,384 from 26,956 in 2017.

As automation eliminates most mundane tasks, many believe an emphasis needs to be put on the unspoken creative skills that the technology industry needs.

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