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English is now a Modern Foreign Language for boys; Physics is a foreign language for girls too: Grades aside, what do this year’s A level entry trends tell us?

  • 1 September 2020
  • By Mary Curnock Cook

This guest blog analysing this year’s A-Level achievements has been kindly contributed by Mary Curnock Cook, with supporting analysis from Rory Curnock Cook. Mary is a HEPI Trustee, Chair of Council at the Dyson Institute, Chair of Trustees of the Access Project, a Council member at the Open University and a non-exec Director at the Student Loans Company – as well as the former CEO of UCAS. She can be found on Twitter at @MaryCurnockCook.

For the last couple of years, I have blogged on A level results and looked into subject and other notable trends, for example on grade distribution.  This year, for reasons which will be entirely obvious, I’ll leave the grades well alone.  The only usable information contained in the A level results tables published by the JCQ on ‘official’ A Level Results day was the number of entries by subject and by sex, which is what I take a look at here.  Although there were very small discrepancies in numbers of entries between the two published sets of results (algorithm vs CAGs), these were so small as to be immaterial to this analysis.

It’s been a family affair this year so huge thanks to my son, Rory Curnock Cook, for doing the analysis.

Some headlines from the analysis:

  1. Keystone subjects, English and Mathematics, have recovered marginally this year although undergraduate study of mathematical science is still declining 
  2. Girls are still significantly more likely to take A levels than boys and this is reflected in the continuing gap between male and female progression to university
  3. Differences between males and females by subject need addressing.  Why do girls love Biology and hate Physics?  It matters, as does boys’ allergy to English
  4. The proportion of boys’ entries to English (4.5%) is nearly as low as modern foreign languages (3.3% for M and F) which is at least on the national radar, if without measurable effect.  Why no outcry?
  5. Participation in Physics A level shows is it is a modern very foreign language to girls

As has been the case for decades, JCQ publish only the number of entries for males and females for each subject on Results Day.  Our analysis uses a different lens, ‘share of entries’ for subjects, in order to judge subject preference trends more accurately.  In the absence of population data or candidate level data, this is a better way of understanding what’s going on.  

All data is derived from the UK A level results published (and now removed) by JCQ on 13 August 2020.

Overall picture

The slow decline in the total number of entries continues this year.  According to DataHE, the population of 18 year olds, matched meticulously to school year data, dropped by 1.5% this year. Not all of those doing A levels are aged 18, and the share of 18-year olds taking A levels – and the number of A levels they take – can change. Nevertheless, the number of A level entries has generally tracked changes in the size of the 18-year old cohort and this year dropped by 2.6%.

As in previous years, 55% of all entries were from female candidates – 432,000 female entries vs 348,000 male entries.  This means approximately 30,000 fewer young men taking A levels than young women, which of course translates through to university entry, currently showing c.30,000 fewer 17- and 18-year-old men than women accepted.  

English and Mathematics

Last year, there were worrying trends for both English and Mathematics A level entries.  In both cases there has been a slight reversal of trends – but only very slight.  It’s less than a 1 percentage point increase in both cases.  The male share of entries for English is less than half that of females; the female share of entries is roughly half the male share of entries for Mathematics.  (I’m reminded of Gijsbert Stoet’s work where he shows that participation rates in higher education are closely related to literacy which is generally lower for males in most developed countries.)

For Mathematics, there is only a small gap between the sexes for Grade 7 and above at GCSE but there is a catastrophic loss of female participation following GCSEs with only 66% progression to A level compared to 92% progression for males (assumed from Grade 7+ at GCSE).  The small recovery in Mathematics at A level is not reflected in higher level study – there is only a slightly less precipitous decline in placed applicants to the mathematical sciences subject group this year for undergraduate education. 

Source: – 26 August 2020

In English, the performance gap between boys and girls at GCSE already exists with only half as many boys as girls achieving grade 7+.  I remain baffled as to why these inequalities in participation and attainment are not addressed – surely, they must indicate fault-lines in curriculum and assessment?  Participation in English subjects by boys makes it look as if English is a foreign language to them (see MFL below).

The sciences and STEM

Meanwhile, the share of entries to STEM subjects (which include Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Further Mathematics, Computing, ICT, Design & Technology), while marginally up, has barely changed over recent years at 37.5%, despite public exhortations about technical skills gaps.  Nearly a third more young men take STEM subjects than young women, leaving the gap stubbornly hovering above 17% where it has stuck for the past many years.

This aggregate gap hides some interesting data about STEM subjects.  As above, boys are twice as likely as girls to choose Mathematics at A level, but girls are 50% more likely to choose Biology.  Girls are marginally less likely to choose Chemistry but, because of girls’ higher participation in A level study per se, there are 5,000 more female entries for Chemistry.  Meanwhile, boys are four times as likely to choose Physics as girls.  Physics appears to be a modern very foreign language for girls.

Just across the three sciences, Physics, Biology and Chemistry, there are slightly more entries from females although their share of entries remains below the males by nearly 4 percentage points.

Subject Preferences

What the Russell Group used to call ‘the facilitating subjects’ continue to dominate popular subject entries with only a marginal fall of share of entries this year.

Note: ‘Facilitating Subjects’ include: Biology, Chemistry, English (all), French, Geography, German, History, Mathematics, Further Mathematics, Physics, Spanish and other modern languages

The ‘facilitating subjects’ continue to dominate the top 10 subjects for both males and females.

Notable changes from last year include the elevation of Economics and Business Studies over History for males, and a nudge up the table for Psychology for males too.

English and Psychology continue to vie for the number one spot for females, and Business Studies makes its first appearance in the top ten for females (replacing Religious Studies).

Modern Foreign Languages

Modern foreign languages (MFL) continues its slow decline in popularity holding now only a miserable 3.3% share of total entries (vs 3.6% last year).  Spanish has, however, now fully overtaken French as the most popular MFL A level subject for both males and females.

Final Point

While share of subjects gives us a better view of subject trends than just the raw numbers published by JCQ each year, it should be possible for JCQ to publish much more meaningful data using readily available software.  In 2013, in an article for Times Higher Education, I observed that what I called JCQ’s ‘gruesome tables’ seemed from another age. Much has changed in education generally, and in higher education, since then. Yet the tables soldier on into yet another decade. They remain determinedly inadequate for understanding what is going on, to such an extent that I have begun to wonder if that plays a part in their longevity. A proper public data resource would include statistics for people, as well as for exams, covering overall attainment and subject clustering trends. And using properly referenced population data would tell us about A level uptake, attainment and equality. You might reasonably expect to be able to find out if taking A levels was becoming more or less popular – not least because that would alter your reading of the expected grade profile (assuming you have one in future).

A levels remain the dominant path for young people to get to university and they deserve better data than this. If it isn’t JCQ’s job to provide this, then they should share the data more widely (and in a more usable format than the gruesome pdf file) so others can.

1 comment

  1. John Smith says:

    “Physics is my language”
    “How do you communicate that physics?”
    “I have created a physical notation for every part of physics!”

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