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Physics A-level entrants retain a steady course

Image: Shutterstock/Pressmaster
Image: Shutterstock/Pressmaster

Exam results season continues, following last week’s release of the results of Scottish Highers, and yesterday was the turn of A-Level students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to collect their results.

Things are apparently not as advanced as in Scotland, and there were no exciting text messages to be received, just good old paper results, and we hope that plenty of you received good news and good grades – especially in physics.

The picture for A-levels in 2016 is fairly similar to what we learned in Scotland last week, if slightly rosier in terms of the overall fall in entrants. Overall, it represents very little change on the picture in 2015, with most changes being very minor. The number of physics A-level entrants in 2016 is 35,344, meaning the number of entrants to physics A-Level has fallen by 2.6% – the second year in a row in which entries have fallen.

UK physics A-level entrants, 2010–16

UK physics A-level entrants 2010–16

Numbers of physics A-level entrants rose between 2010 and 2014, reflecting a trend stretching back as far as 2007. The number of entrants grew by an average of 4.5% year on year between 2010 and 2014.

Other STEM subject have also seen falls in the numbers of entrants – though not by as much as in physics. Maths fell by 0.26% (that’s both maths and further maths), biology 1%, and chemistry 1.6%.

UK physics, maths, chemistry and biology A-level entrants, 2001–16

A-level physics, maths, chemistry and biology A-level entrants, 2001–16

As a proportion of all entrants, this means that physics in 2016 made up 4.2% of entrants in all subjects. This is roughly the same figure as in 2015. There was similarly very little movement in biology (7.5%) and chemistry (6.2%). Maths entrants (again, both maths and further maths) represented a slightly greater percentage than in 2015, now taking up the greatest proportion of all entrants on record – 12.8%.

UK physics A-level entrants by gender, 2010–16

UK physics A-level entrants by gender 2010–16

The proportion of girls taking physics has remained roughly where it was in 2015 as well. Around 21.6% of all physics entrants in 2016 were girls, compared to 21.5% in 2015. The number of girls taking A-level physics in 2016 is 7,645. The numbers of both girls and boys entering for A-level physics fell in 2016, but the fall was slightly greater for boys – 2.8% compared to 1.8% for girls. The number of boys taking A-level physics has risen by around 14% since 2010, and the number of girls by around 15%.

The number of girls in biology, which sees a majority of girls entering at A-level, rose 17% between 2010 and 2016 compared to just a 3.4% rise in the number of boys. The rise in the number of girls taking maths between 2010 and 2016 was 14% (compared to a rise of 26% for boys). During this time there has been a 23% rise in the number of girls taking A-level chemistry (13% for boys), which has led to the highest proportion of girls in the subject since 2004 – 49.9% in 2016. There were just 63 more boys than girls entering A-level chemistry this year.

UK physics A-level entrants by nation, 2001–16

UK physics A-level entrants by nation, 2001–16

There is now very little difference in the proportion of entrants taking physics A-level in each nation. In 2016, 4.2% of entrants in England were in physics, compared to 4.3% in Wales and 4.4% in Northern Ireland. Physics entrants have fallen very slightly as a proportion of all subjects in each nation between 2015 and 2016, after a slightly greater fall between 2014 and 2015.

Of the three UK nations that sit A-levels, Northern Ireland has consistently had the greatest proportion of entrants to physics. Wales and England have had similar proportions of entrants each year. Overall, however, while the proportion of entrants to A-level physics in England and Wales has returned to the level it was at the start of the last decade, in Northern Ireland it is still below what it was in 2001, and hasn’t risen above 5% since 2003.

UK physics A-level entrants by gender and by nation, 2001–16

UK physics A-level entrants by gender and by nation 2001–16

Finally, comparing each nation in the proportion of girls taking physics, Northern Ireland is still ahead of the rest of the UK. In 2016, 27.1% of entrants for A-level physics in Northern Ireland were girls, compared to 21.4% in England and 20.8% in Wales. By comparison, in Scotland (in 2015), 27.5% of entrants into Higher physics were girls.

On the matter of Scotland, updating the statistics from last week comparing entrants north and south of the border shows that little has changed. The average proportion of physics entrants against all entrants at A-level between 2001 and 2016 in England remains 3.9%, Wales 4.1% and Northern Ireland 4.6%. As we mentioned last week, Scotland continues to see a greater proportion of entrants take Higher physics than the other UK nations do into A-level physics – 5.4%.

Daniel Lee

Daniel Lee

Dan is the IOP’s policy officer
Daniel Lee
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