There appears to be evidence of a positive response to the government's call for more young people to take scientific subjects at A level, Voice: the union has said.
GCE A-level students are to be congratulated on their achievements this year. In line with the expectation, based on historical trends, that results will hit a record high this year, there has been an increase in the overall A*-E pass rate of 0.2 per cent, from 97.6 per cent in 2010 to 97.8 per cent in 2011.
Nevertheless, this is a very marginal increase which is barely significant given the scale of A-level awards (over 850,000 across England, Wales and Northern Ireland).
Contrary to expectations, however, the percentage of top grades has remained stable, with 27 per cent of students being awarded A or A* grades. This is only the second year in which the A* grade has been awarded at A-level and, although there has been a negligible increase of 0.1 per cent (from 8.1 per cent in 2010 to 8.2 per cent in 2011), it is surprising that the substantial increase that was predicted, due to students and teachers successfully negotiating this new challenge, has failed to materialise.
However, this global figure masks a difference in performance between boys and girls, as the number of A* grades awarded to boys has increased by 0.3 per cent (from 7.9 per cent to 8.2 per cent), whereas girls' performance has dipped slightly from 8.3 per cent to 8.2 per cent. There was a concern last year that boys were not taking the A* grade seriously, a concern which this year's results may well allay.
So far, then, it is difficult to detect any headline-grabbing news in this year's A-level results. Once one delves into the detail, however, it becomes apparent that there has been a significant increase in the take-up of maths and science at A-level (7.4 per cent for maths, 7.2 per cent for biology, 9.2 per cent for chemistry and 6.1 per cent for physics).
This seems to be a continuation of a longer-term trend which, perhaps, signals that young people (and their teachers) are responding positively to pronouncements from politicians and business leaders that scientific subjects are key to the country's future economic prosperity.
This also fuels the campaign of prominent politicians (such as David Willetts, the higher education minister) and high-ranking universities (members of the Russell Group) who believe that traditional A-level subjects are 'tougher' and should be given priority, with regards to university admissions, over the 'softer' newer subjects, such as media studies, psychology and business studies. Although the validity of this view seems self-evident to its proponents, it overlooks two important facts.
First, the most influential people in society are often those with creative and good communication skills, especially those who are politically aware and media-savvy, and such people are more likely to have a humanities-based than a science-based education. Politicians are a case in point, as very few MPs are science graduates. Without people who can think deeply and laterally, it will be more difficult to produce the innovative solutions which will enable us to overcome the increasingly complex problems facing us in the modern world.
Secondly, it should be remembered that traditional subjects are 'safe' choices for students because these are subjects that have been studied from the beginning of primary school, and so students are familiar with them, have amassed a great deal of relevant knowledge and skill over time, and know whether or not they are strong in these subjects, whereas the newer subjects are often not studied at all before they are encountered at A-level, thus presenting a greater risk to the intrepid students who choose to study them.
This is, perhaps, one of the reasons why there is always a greater percentage of top grades for traditional subjects (44.5 per cent A*-A grades in maths, 31.7 per cent in physics and 34.5 per cent in chemistry) compared with the newer, so-called 'softer' subjects (14.9 per cent for business studies, 8.9 per cent for media studies and 11.7 per cent for psychology).
A particular concern is that thousands of students who have achieved good results will be thwarted in their attempts to progress further because of the uniquely increased competition for university places (as students abandon plans for taking a gap year in order to secure places on undergraduate degree courses ahead of government plans to triple the cost of tuition fees).
As there is still a government-imposed cap on higher education places, with universities being fined approximately £3,500 per student for exceeding their allocated quota of places, there is likely to be unprecedented pressure on the clearing system, whereby students who have not yet been placed compete furiously for the relatively few places still available.
It is regrettable that the government persists in restricting university places when young people who have met all expectations by working very hard to achieve the grades to get into university are denied this opportunity, especially at a time when there are few opportunities for employment. Rather than planning to cut university funding and increase tuition fees, the government should be investing in university places in order to create the skills needed to secure the long-term economic prosperity of the UK.
Many other countries, notably France, Germany and the USA, have a greater proportion of their young people progressing to university, and there is a risk of a brain-drain as some of our young people choose to study abroad in countries which do not have the same caps on recruitment as those levied by the UK government.
There is enormous pressure for young people to gain qualifications and secure the highest grades possible. At the same time, the government is regulating awarding bodies more stringently and requiring them to adapt qualifications to suit the political whims of the day. One sign that cracks are beginning to show in the qualifications system is the unprecedented number of errors which have occurred in examination papers this year.
Whilst the exams regulator, Ofqual, and the awarding bodies themselves are eager to investigate why these have occurred, the fact that they have occurred is bound to call into question the quality-assurance arrangements employed by the awarding bodies, and the extent to which government interference is putting the system under strain.
Whatever the outcome of these investigations, it must not be allowed to detract from the clear message that our young people, in responding positively to all the increasing pressures being put upon them, deserve to be congratulated on their success.
Ian Toone is the Senior Professional Officer (Education) at Voice: the union for education professionals.