Leading Article: An answer to two A-level questions

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THIS week's A-level results, gratifying though they are to all concerned in terms of success rates, have revealed two failures in the existing educational system. The first is a continuing decline in the proportion of those choosing to study science. The second is a shortage of university places in certain subjects. Thanks to the surplus of would-be arts and social science students, the dearth is particularly acute for non-scientists. It has been exacerbated by the Government's chosen tactic for encouraging the take-up of science and engineering places: a cut in the funding of arts and social science courses.

Both problems derive from a single cause: this country - excluding Scotland, which has always had a broader and more democratic approach - has been moving quite rapidly from an education system geared to the needs of a small elite to one seeking to cater for what is, by comparison, a mass market. In the early Eighties, only 12 per cent of school leavers went into higher education, now the proportion is nearing 30 per cent. Yet public attitudes and the system remain to a considerable extent mired in the past.

Take the great British down-rating of the sciences. It starts at primary schools, where these subjects, including maths, are likely to be taught by arts-oriented generalists whose grasp of their subject is insecure. Their lack of confidence will be transmitted to their pupils. At secondary level, science and maths teachers are quite likely to be less good at making their subjects seem appealing than their arts colleagues.

Why? Partly because their subjects are for many children innately harder to grasp; and partly because their attitudes may reflect a certain defensiveness inspired by the absurd but enduring English conviction that the sciences are duller than the humanities. On top of that, 16-year-olds facing the decision of whether to pursue science or arts subjects at A-level will have picked up signals from the outside world. They will know that studying science, engineering or maths at university requires more frequent attendance at lectures and more consistent application than following the arts or social sciences; and from the world of business and industry they will gather that the market for run-of-the-mill science graduates is sluggish and rewards low. Even many of those who do the hard graft of a science or engineering degree soon find that a career in, say, finance or accountancy offers better prospects.

Britain is unique in narrowing exams at 18 to three subjects, and thus requiring most 16-year-olds to make that choice between science and the humanities. When Dr (now Sir) Gordon Higginson, vice-chancellor of Southampton University, examined the A-level system in 1988, his committee found 'a remarkable consensus' that a five-subject model should be adopted, in line with continental practice (even if still rather narrower). With their own blend of chauvinistic pig-headedness, successive Conservative governments have rejected that view, arguing that it would reduce standards.

Clearly students would not be able to reach present A-level standards in two extra subjects as well. If that were deemed desirable, an extra year either at school or university might be necessary. The return on the investment would be enormous. It would not just be a question of more students developing a taste for further science studies. From boardrooms to the House of Commons, new generations would have a higher level of basic scientific knowledge, and a greater respect for science and its practitioners - they might even pay them attractive salaries.

Such a revolution would do much to remove the present gross oversupply of arts students, and fill up all the surplus of available science and maths course places, thereby providing a long-term solution to the kind of frustration being experienced by thousands of candidates this weekend. In the short term, vice-chancellors need to agree a common approach to applications ensuring that most, if not all, candidates apply for places after they have received their A-level results, rather than, as now, almost a year ahead, when it is notoriously difficult to predict their likely grades. But it is on the longer term that the Government's eyes, and the nation's, should be fixed.