‘Fewer women will study engineering’ owing to school exam changes

Work to attract more women into UK university engineering departments will be undermined by ‘beyond belief’ changes to A levels, senior academics claim

November 17, 2016
Female engineer
Source: iStock

Sustained efforts to bring more women into engineering in the UK will be severely damaged by upcoming changes to school qualifications, experts have warned.

Only 8 per cent of engineers in the UK are female, and the low take-up by girls at A level of subjects such as maths, physics and computer science has been identified as a key factor in the small number of women entering the profession.

Moreover, reforms to the structure and funding of A levels that are due to take effect this autumn are likely to make the situation even worse, leading academics have argued.

Speaking at a meeting of the Engineering Professors’ Council on 9 November, Peter Main, head of physics at King’s College London, said the new linear A level in maths, which will be taught from September 2017, is likely to deter many girls from taking up the subject, thereby harming their chances when applying to study engineering or a science subject at university.

“It is almost inevitable that changes to A levels will make the gender balance worse,” he warned UK science and engineering departments.

Research has shown that girls are “much more nervous” about choosing subjects such as maths, further maths and physics, Dr Main said.

With many state schools set to drop AS levels and teach only A levels, many female students may shy away from maths and physics altogether, Dr Main added.

“Maths and physics are sometimes described as the ‘gunslinger subjects’ – students do them because they think ‘we are the clever ones’ and will take the most challenging subjects,” he said, adding that girls were often less confident about their academic abilities in this regard.

“I know our maths faculty are also deeply concerned about the impact on gender of these A-level reforms,” said Geoff Parks, senior tutor at Jesus College, Cambridge, who was the university’s director of admissions from 2003 to 2012.

The A-level reforms may also damage efforts to encourage more students from poor backgrounds to apply to engineering and science courses, said Dr Parks, who holds a PhD in nuclear engineering.

Under the new system, schools will be paid a flat £4,000 for any student taking three A levels, instead of the current per-qualification payments that incentivise schools to push candidates to take a fourth A level. Further maths – a popular fourth A level taken by about 15,000 students, up from fewer than 5,000 in 2003 – may be dropped by many schools as it will prove uneconomic to teach, the conference heard.

“Unless they turn this ship around, there will be an acute decrease in state schools doing further maths,” said Dr Parks, who explained that candidates who took this A level invariably did better when applying to Cambridge, where there were seven applicants per place in engineering.

“If the drop-off in entry [for further maths] occurs at state schools, universities that value further maths will suffer in terms of widening participation,” he said, adding that the change would  “demonstrably harm access to higher education”.

The impact on the take-up of maths, further maths and physics by the new funding model threatened to undo much of the government’s good work on encouraging more people to study science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects, added Dr Main.

“When they are spending money on increasing participation in STEM subjects, to do this is almost beyond belief,” he said.


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