Young people across the country will today be receiving their A-level results, hoping that the big brown envelope brings the results they need to go to university, begin an apprenticeship or enter full-time employment.
The number of As (and since 2010 A*s) being granted has increased year on year, reigniting the debate over whether A levels are getting easier or, young people are getting brighter. But, whilst we congratulate the high achievers in all topics and compare the exam papers of today to a decade ago, we must not forget the value and importance that employers place on Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM).
It is widely acknowledged that STEM qualifiers, at whatever level, are in short supply. Key sectors of our economy such as manufacturing which rely on high skills are struggling to fill vacancies because not enough young people are taking up these key subjects.
In 2011 we saw an encouraging increase in the majority of STEM A-levels being taken, with the number of Chemistry A-levels increasing by 8.5 per cent since 2010. There were similar increases in Maths (7.2%) Biology (6.7%) and Physics (5.7%) with only Design and Technology seeing a fall of 0.9%.
But whilst these trends are welcome, we must not become complacent and must push for far higher increases in these key topics. In addition, we need to encourage more young women to take these topics. There remains a stark difference between the number of males sitting Physics A level in 2011 (26011) compared to females (6849), a trend that can also be seen in Maths (49828 compared to 33167) and Design and Technology (10543 and 7706). The only STEM subject where females prevail is Biology (35099 compared to 26942.)
The key question is how can we get more young people to sit these key subjects as well as even up the gender balance?
To start, we must publicise the fact that STEM qualifiers enjoy ample opportunities in a variety of careers where good salaries and progression routes go hand in hand. This information should be published in a place accessible to young people, whether it is presented to them at school, through web-based resources or downloadable by app.
STEM specific careers advice should also run alongside the current careers advice programmes put in place both by schools themselves and by Government, through the National Careers Service. Importantly, those delivering this advice in schools must have experience and knowledge of the industry behind them and content placed on the National Careers Service should come from those currently in the field.
Furthermore, STEM specialists should be invited into and employed by schools to teach on a part-time or full-time basis. This can easily be helped by allowing all schools to employ teachers without Qualified Teacher Status (QTS).Maths should be incorporated in other subject lessons to reiterate its importance and its role in everyday life and future jobs as well as in specialist careers.
Industry must also become more actively engaged, taking advantage of programmes that are helping to broker the relationship between schools and companies such as Primary Engineer and EDT.
We also need to tackle the problem of a gender divide by bringing in more female role models and ambassadors into schools from manufacturing to encourage young females to take on STEM subjects.
By introducing these simple measures, we can help young people make informed subject choices which have huge impacts on their futures. Our economy will also benefit from an increased supply of highly qualified people.
Because, although an A at A-level can be of great value and is recognised by many, there will always be employers who place little value on grades and will seek qualifications with which they are more familiar. For many manufacturers in particular that is attainment in the Sciences, Maths, Engineering and Technology.