Teachers are partly to blame for students turning their backs on maths and science as they progress through secondary school, a new report suggests.
Just one in 11 young people takes maths and physics at A-level – despite almost three-quarters of children leaving primary school expressing a high interest in science, new analysis from consultancy firm AT Kearney has found.
The “Tough Choices” report, commissioned by employers campaigning for a greater take-up in the subjects, has found that girls’ interest in maths and science dramatically declines by 74 per cent during secondary school, while boys’ engagement in these subjects drops by 56 per cent over the same period.
Teachers have played a role in the “Great British science turn-off”, the report claims, by encouraging only the “ultra-bright” students to take Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects at A-level.
According to the research, only a quarter of A-level students take up two or more Stem subjects. Among girls, the dropout rate is worse, with only one in 31 taking maths and physics at A-level.
The report concludes that the low uptake of science and maths beyond the age of 16 reflects “apparently rational decision-making”, which it claims is “ill-informed and harmful”.
It says: “Many teachers and parents push students to prioritise good grades and as a result steer them away from Stem [and] students say they listen to this guidance.”
The report recommends that teachers and parents should change the message from “it’s hard” to “you can do it” by shifting the focus from “getting high grades irrespective of subject to a balanced view of subject content, subject mix and likely exam performance”.
But pressure on students to achieve top grades is not the only reason for the decline in interest. A number of young people in the research cite that they find maths and science subjects too theoretical, making it harder for them to understand how the skills relate to modern life.
The study, which involved interviewing a group of A-level students who had chosen not to study Stem subjects, reveals that one in 10 was unable to identify careers that involve maths – and the result for physics was even worse.
According to the research, which combines studies from King’s College London and UCL Institute of Education, 45 per cent of young people claim to choose A-levels based on future career aspirations and yet just 43 per cent have had any formal careers guidance.
A widespread lack of knowledge about job prospects for maths and science subjects has also led to students not understanding the skills needed in the workplace, the report concludes.
Mark Page, managing partner of AT Kearney, told TES that he found it “most shocking” that students chose not to study sciences or maths because they didn’t see a career potential.
He said: “We need to make clear to students, families and teachers that they should look forward to potential career choices [when choosing A-levels]. The link is broken. Rational decisions are being made but on the wrong information. I hope people will start to see this and correct it.”
The Your Life campaign, run by a group of employers, is calling for more businesses and institutions to help improve the connection between the curriculum and careers advice.
Edwina Dunn, entrepreneur and chair of the Your Life campaign, said: “Many students are unintentionally left without any knowledge of the skills and careers which follow from learning maths and physics.
“We must act now to reverse a multi-generational decline in Stem uptake in schools and empower young people to gain the skills to do incredible things and make a real difference to their own future and the future of the nation.”
The report advises that without significant change, the current Stem worker shortfall of 40,000 each year will continue, causing the UK economy to fall further behind other nations.
Paul Drechsler, president of the CBI, which also backed the report, added: “A real grounding in science and maths is becoming increasingly important in many high-growth sectors and leads to even more opportunities for young people in the future.”