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Students turning to sciences, figures show

More and more students are studying sciences at A-level but there is concern about the increasing number turning their backs on modern languages.

Results day statistics released by the Joint Council for Qualifications showed physics, biology and chemistry are increasingly popular, and the proportion of students getting higher grades is also rising.

The increase is seen by many as a trend towards students choosing subjects which are considered tougher and more prestigious, especially with the fight for university places becoming more competitive each year.

But today's figures showed a failure to halt the slide in those choosing to study French and German.

French candidates fell 3.4% to 13,850 and just 5,548 students took German, down 3.7%.

Spanish continued to rise in popularity with candidates up 4% to 7,629, but the rise could not prevent overall modern language entries dropping 2.7% to 34,397 this year, equivalent to around 955 fewer candidates.

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, described it as a "disastrous decline".

"This is a result of successive governments underestimating how vital possessing a modern foreign language is to Britain's role globally," she said.

By contrast, the rise in physics, biology and chemistry entries has pleased the scientific world which hopes fresh talent will make it easier for the UK to compete in a global economy.

Professor Sir John Holman, director of the National Science Learning Centre, said the increase in students choosing science was "a sign of the growing realism among young people and their parents about the subject choices that give them the best chances of a well-paid and interesting job".

Prof Holman said sound career advice given early was the key to making sure students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds were steered towards the "most useful" subjects rather than those which seem easiest "but have less value in the increasingly competitive university entrance and jobs market."

Physics showed the greatest rise with candidate numbers passing the 30,000 mark, up 5.2% on last year.

One in 10 (10.3%) were awarded A* and the proportion who got a C grade or above rose from 70.8% to 72.9%.

Charles Tracy, head of education pre-19 at the Institute of Physics (IOP), said staff were "delighted" by the rising numbers and that initiatives to increase participation had paid off.

The IOP still hopes to increase the number of female physics students who are currently outnumbered by three to one.

A spokesman said there was concern that some students, especially girls, do not continue after AS-level, possibly because they think it will be easier to get a higher grade in other subjects.

Just 6,668 girls took physics this year compared with 24,308 boys, although girls achieved more top grades. Some 11.6% of female candidates achieved the new A* mark compared to 10% of males.

The number of students taking biology at A-level rose 4.3% this year to 57,854 with the number achieving a C grade or above increasing from 70.2% to 72.4%, 8% at A*.

Chemistry candidates went up 3.7% to 44,051. There was a one point increase - to 77.2% - in the proportion awarded a C or above of which 9.2% were A*s.

Candidates taking other science subjects rose 9.9% to 3,361. The number achieving a C or above went up from 74.7% to 76.3%, with 9.5% at A*.

Libby Steele, head of education at the Royal Society, said its recent report, The Scientific Century, highlighted the importance of science and technology in ensuring the UK's future prosperity and creating new jobs.

"Continued success in these areas will only be possible with an engaged and informed future generation of scientists, and the Royal Society hopes that the number of students studying these subjects will continue to rise and perpetuate the UK's position as a hub of scientific excellence," she said.