Physics A-level entrants are on the rise – despite an overall drop in student numbers

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Here at the IOP, A-level results day is an exciting time, as we’re keen to know how many students studied A-level physics each year and will hopefully be kickstarting a career in physics – or at least igniting a lifelong interest in the subject.

Last week was the turn of students in Scotland where we saw another drop in entries from 2016 levels. The picture in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, where physics A-level has been reformed, was difficult to predict.

In short, the numbers look positive. After falls in the number of entrants in 2015 and 2016, it was pleasing to see a rise of 3.5% in physics entries on 2016 levels to 36,578. This is the highest number of entrants since 2014 and the second highest number of entrants since 1993, even though the population of 18-year-olds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland has dropped by 1.7% this year.

Looking at the entries into England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the number of entries rose by 3.3% in England on last year, rose in Wales by 3.8 % but in Northern Ireland entries dropped by 8.6%. The graph below shows the entrants in the nations as a proportion of total entrants.

The picture is a more stable when looking at physics entries as a proportion of overall entries. In England, physics entries make up 4.2% of total A-level entrants. In Wales, the proportion is 4.7% and in Northern Ireland it is 4.2%. The Wales figure is particularly positive as this proportion has risen by almost 0.5% since 2016 and is the highest proportion of total entries this century. The changes in A-level physics entrants as a proportion of total entrants are shown on the graph below.

It has been a mixed bag in comparable STEM subjects: biology has seen a fall in entries of 1.2% on 2016, whereas chemistry has risen by 1%. The combined total of entries to maths and further maths has risen by 3.7% on last year. Physics still has the smallest proportion of total entries out of the four, although its proportion of total entries is once again on the way up, as shown in the chart – although the movement is fairly small.

The proportion of girls taking A-level physics has not changed significantly in recent years and is in line with the value from 2010. However, the number of girls entering A-level physics in absolute terms was 7,846 in 2017, up by 2.6% on 2016 and 17.7% higher than in 2010, although the number of boys rose by 18.2% over the 2010–17 period. There is a lot more work to be done in improving gender balance in A-level physics. Our recent Improving Gender Balance report makes
recommendations on how to make improvements on gender balance in A-level physics at a national level.

In contrast to physics, the proportion of girls taking biology is higher than boys, with 61.7% of the cohort female in 2017. In chemistry, girls also surpassed boys in 2017 as 50.9% of the entrants were female, up from 49.9% in 2016. The only subject to have a smaller proportion of girls than physics in 2017 was computer science, where females made up only 9.8% of the 8,299 entrants.

Delving further into this gender data, there are differences in the gender balance of entrants between the nations. In England, the proportion of females was 22%, in Wales it was 21.6%. Northern Ireland has consistently led the UK average with a 28.5% female proportion in A-level physics, but this is still far from being balanced. For comparison, in Scotland 27.2% of entrants into Higher physics were girls in 2016.

See the IOP data centre for more analysis and access to raw data on A-levels and Scottish Highers. Ireland Leaving Certificate analysis and GCSE results are to follow…

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Florence Greatrix

Florence Greatrix

Florence is an IOP policy officer looking at issues relating to the UK leaving the EU. She came to the Institute from the RSC and has an MSc in oceanography from Southampton
Florence Greatrix


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