Drift from sciences causes concern: Donald MacLeod looks at why an increasing proportion of students opt for the arts at A-level

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The Independent Online
THE THOUSANDS of school leavers waking up to their results today need no reminding that all A-levels are a sweat. But are some tougher than others?

Once again, today's results show that candidates are moving away from science - a trend that will provoke breast-beating about the need to nurture more engineers and scientists if we are to avoid turning into a backward economy. But, as politicians and industrialists lament, it seems that young people are making a rational decision when they opt for English literature in preference to physics.

Decisions on what subjects to take in the sixth form are based less on the syllabus than on how the students in the year ahead are coping.

It is unlikely that any pupil has waded through the figures produced by the School Examinations and Assessment Council; but if they did, they would find that a noticeably higher proportion of candidates fail in science subjects.

Across the board, today's results are better than they have ever been - but they do not buck this recent trend. The percentages gaining an A or B grade are similar between arts and sciences - although the Institute of Physics believes that it is more difficult to gain an A in physics than, say, French.

This summer 30.6 per cent of physics candidates secured A or B grades, compared with 28.8 per cent in English; the figure for chemistry was 34.4 per cent, in French 34.7 per cent. When it comes to flunking, the chances are higher in sciences: 24.2 per cent failed mathematics; biology 22.4 per cent; physics 21.5 per cent; and chemistry 19.6 per cent. On the arts side, casualties were substantially lower: English 13.6 per cent; French 13.4 per cent; history 17.9 per cent; and geography 18.5 per cent.

Professor Alan Smithers, at Manchester University's School of Education, believes that science A-levels are 'a risky investment of time'. He advocates courses broken down into units so that students can put a toe in the water and chalk up credits as they go along.

One problem is that rapid advances in scientific knowledge have been incorporated into A- level syllabuses, while the conservatism of examination boards and teachers leaves the old stuff in place.

As a consequence, A-level science students have to learn more. Biology students, for instance, are still having to mug up on taxonomy (the classification of organisms) and lists of bones, while getting to grips with advances in genetic engineering. But King Lear is not a word longer.

It is in the excitement of the latest scientific work that the Institute of Physics sees the salvation of the subject in schools and universities. That requires teachers who can understand and enthuse about it.

The dearth of good science graduates going into the classroom has had a depressing effect on children's enthusiasm, and many who might have done well in physics or chemistry are taking subjects like economics or business studies instead.

In the short term, the recession is helping to ameliorate teacher shortages: schools surveyed by the institute report an increase in good applicants for physics posts.

Derek Filer, director general of the Engineering Council, is hopeful for the long term too, because all children will, under the national curriculum, be required to study maths and science to the age of 16. That will eventually produce more engineers, he believes.

----------------------------------------------------------------------- Provisional A Level Results - June 1992 (UK candidates only) ----------------------------------------------------------------------- Percentage of subject results by grade. The 1991 results shown in brackets are final. The 1992 results are provisional (percentages have been rounded to add up to 100) ----------------------------------------------------------------------- % of candidates gaining grade Number A B C D E N U Sat ----------------------------------------------------------------------- Art & Design 12.7 18.0 21.8 20.6 14.8 8.2 3.9 33,644 subjects* (11.1) (17.4) (23.0) (23.1) (15.5) (7.4) (2.5) (31,195) Biology 12.4 15.2 16.5 17.4 16.1 11.2 11.2 48,707 (10.8) (13.9) (14.8) (16.6) (16.7) (13.1) (14.1) (46,607) Business 5.7 13.7 18.0 21.9 17.8 11.8 11.1 19,134 (4.8) (12.5) (18.9) (23.0) (18.6) (11.9) (10.3) (15,378) Chemistry 16.1 18.3 16.2 15.8 14.0 9.6 10.0 42,695 (15.9) (18.1) (14.8) (15.2) (13.8) (10.1) (12.1) (44,440) Classical 20.4 21.8 21.4 16.4 10.1 5.3 4.6 8,341 subjects (20.6) (21.4) (22.0) (9.7) (9.7) (5.3) (5.5) (7,897) Computing 8.1 11.9 17.3 20.7 19.6 12.4 10.0 9,158 (7.4) (11.8) (16.0) (20.9) (19.1) (13.9) (10.9) (8,365) Economics 11.8 14.8 15.1 16.5 16.1 11.5 14.2 40,194 (10.9) (13.8) (14.3) (16.5) (16.6) (12.0) (15.9) (43,160) English 11.2 17.6 20.0 21.0 16.6 8.1 5.5 86,685 (9.9) (16.5) (19.7) (21.9) (17.6) (8.9) (5.5) (79,187) French 17.5 17.2 19.1 18.4 14.4 8.1 5.3 31,254 (16.6) (16.8) (19.1) (18.3) (14.9) (8.6) (5.7) (30,794) General 10.2 16.7 13.2 15.6 15.9 12.5 15.9 53,651 Studies (10.1) (15.9) (12.9) (15.4) (15.3) (12.7) (17.7) (52,085) Geogaphy 11.7 16.7 18.1 19.6 15.4 9.6 8.9 45,603 (10.6) (15.0) (18.5) (19.2) (15.9) (10.9) (9.9) (43,586) German 20.2 18.6 18.6 16.7 12.6 8.3 5.0 11,328 (18.9) (19.0) (17.9) (16.8) (13.9) (8.0) (5.5) (10,583) History 11.5 17.1 19.1 19.2 15.2 9.1 8.8 46,680 (10.7) (16.5) (18.3) (19.4) (15.4) (9.4) (10.3) (44,034) Home 8.5 14.6 19.0 20.6 18.1 9.2 10.0 3,503 Economics (6.9) (11.9) (18.6) (18.9) (18.1) (11.6) (14.0) (3,654) Mathematics 20.0 14.6 14.2 14.0 13.0 10.1 14.1 72,357 (18.5) (14.7) (14.2) (14.1) (13.2) (10.1) (15.2) (74,972) Music 15.2 18.4 22.4 19.2 13.8 6.5 4.5 5,439 (16.1) (17.2) (22.0) (20.1) (13.9) (6.3) (4.4) (5,490) Other Modern 22.3 22.3 20.4 15.8 9.7 5.2 4.3 4,400 Languages***(23.8) (24.2) (18.1) (14.5) (10.7) (5.2) (3.5) (3,778) Physics 15.1 15.5 15.8 16.7 15.4 10.9 10.6 41,273 (14.4) (14.7) (15.4) (16.7) (14.9) (11.6) (12.3) (43,416) Religious 12.7 15.4 17.6 16.7 15.0 9.4 13.2 7,550 Studies (12.3) (15.2) (17.3) (17.8) (14.0) (10.4) (13.0) (7,159) Science** 9.8 15.8 17.5 19.2 16.7 10.7 10.3 5,946 (10.3) (15.4) (18.5) (19.1) (16.0) (10.1) (10.6) (5,392) Social 8.1 14.9 16.5 17.8 15.8 10.7 16.2 70,321 Sciences* (6.5) (13.6) (16.9) (18.5) (16.1) (11.6) (16.8) (61,649) Spanish 21.0 19.6 18.9 16.9 13.1 6.2 4.3 4,717 (20.1) (18.2) (18.7) (17.4) (13.0) (7.2) (5.6) (4,230) Technology 10.7 13.9 19.5 20.4 16.7 10.2 9.5 9,213 subjects* (10.6) (15.2) (18.4) (19.3) (16.3) (10.4) (9.8) (8,302) Welsh 13.8 25.9 26.0 21.2 10.7 1.8 0.6 792 (12.8) (22.9) (30.3) (20.2) (9.8) (3.0) (1.0) (764) Other 7.2 15.4 18.4 21.0 16.9 10.1 11.0 27,627 subjects (4.4) (13.2) (18.4) (22.3) (19.0) (11.9) (10.8) (22,924) TOTAL 12.8 16.3 17.3 17.9 15.3 9.9 10.5 730,212 (11.9) (15.5) (16.9) (18.1) (15.6) (10.5) (11.5) (699,041) ----------------------------------------------------------------- *These titles cover a range of related subjects **Science includes all science subjects except Biology, Chemistry and Physics ***Other Modern Languages includes all languages except French, German, Spanish and Welsh -----------------------------------------------------------------

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