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  • Judith Skiming

Are we finally closing the gender gap in the A-level Sciences?

It was reported this summer that the number of female students taking exams in A-level sciences overtook males for the first time ever. This is the culmination of decades-long efforts to encourage the take-up of STEM subjects by girls entering sixth form. The entries for the sciences (Biology, Chemistry and Physics) continue to rise, reaching 20.9% of all A Levels (167,244) up from 19.2%, continuing the strong trend in recent years. Chemistry entries were up by 9.2%, Biology, up by 8.4% and Physics up by 3.0%.

In these sciences, this year female entries have overtaken male entries, reaching 50.3% (compared to 49.6% in 2018) for the first time.

This is great news for improved gender balance in science, technology and engineering industries, as the gender gap starts young. The news appears to bode well for the future, but if we dig a little deeper we can also find some less reassuring statistics. Female students outnumbered males in terms of A-level science entries; however this measures only the raw numbers of those who sat the exam, not the gender dynamics of the outcomes achieved. In 2019, the gender gap in terms of achievement is actually growing at A Level, rather than shrinking. The subject I teach, chemistry was particularly pronounced in terms of the gender differential. According to figures released by the Joint Council for Qualifications, 30.7% of male chemistry students achieved grade A or A*, compared to 27.7% for the female cohort.

There is still much more that needs to be done in terms of encouraging girl’s participation, progression & achievement in STEM subjects. A future Labour government needs to start with the basics – funding and investment. A recent report in May 2019 by the Education Policy Institute showed that funding for sixth forms and Further Education colleges was down by 16% since 2010. Average teacher wages in the sixth form sector has also fallen from £33600 in 2010/11 to £31000 in 2016/17. This is not helping to recruit and retain qualified teachers with specialisation in science and mathematics who can positively influence girls’ performance and engagement with STEM education. Research has shown that female STEM teachers can often act as positive role models. Labour needs to have a programme which incentivises female teachers to specialise in STEM A-level teaching.

Inadequate funding has also impacted the delivery of STEM subjects massively due to the fact that they often need specialised equipment, chemicals, laboratory facilities or computers. The increased emphasis on practical work in the new A-level Science syllabuses mean that there is a greater need than ever to be able to facilitate practical work, however this is becoming increasingly difficult with lack of proper facilities and contact time. In a recent survey, the Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA January 2019) showed that 81% (of 271) were teaching in larger classes and 46% had reduced delivery hours of individual courses. Again research has shown that larger class sizes impact more negatively on female educational outcomes than male. Depressingly more than a third of the institutions (38%) had actually dropped STEM courses due to funding pressures.

Labour’s National Education Service needs a bold policy programme aimed at dispelling gender stereotypes. This cannot just be targeted at sixth formers, it needs to start during the Early Years and continue throughout the whole education system. 

Teachers should be trained to encourage interest in STEM careers from an early age and we need to develop curricula and learning materials which promote girls’ interest and engagement in STEM subjects. Parents also need to be educated and made aware of the opportunities for their daughters within STEM education and careers. Scholarships and financial incentives should be made available to encourage more female students to pursue STEM apprenticeships or University courses.

Today only 28% of the world’s researchers are women. There is a huge untapped resource that is not currently being used to solve the many scientific, technological and climate related challenges of our time. Any Labour policies promoting gender equality in STEM education and specific measures for the advancement of women will surely benefit society as a whole.

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