'Stop knocking the students'

24th August 2007 at 01:00

Bosses more concerned over shortage of science and maths expertise than A level standards debate

THE NEW FE representative of the National Union of Students has hit out at critics of A-level results after pass rates hit a new record high.

And employers are far more worried about the low numbers studying science and maths than they are about grade inflation.

After the 25th consecutive annual rise in pass rates, 96.9 per cent of candidates reached at least a grade E and more than one in four earned A grades. Two-thirds of A-level students come from further education and sixth form colleges.

The results prompted renewed concerns that exams are getting easier, but Beth Walker, who was elected NUS vice-president for further education in March and picked up her own A-level results from Chichester College last week, dismissed the fears.

"We seem incapable of celebrating the educational achievements of UK students," she said.

"Those who continue to devalue the achievements of A-level students repeatedly fail to recognise that the year-on-year rise in standards has come about because of hard work on the part of students and their teachers.

"It should come as no surprise that students choose to work hard to attain good grades. They are all too aware that they will face tough competition at every stage of their academic and working careers."

Employers highlighted a shortage of candidates taking science and maths. This year's figures show physics entries up by 0.4 per cent, chemistry up by 0.6 per cent and maths up by 7.3 per cent, but the Confederation of British Industry said this masked a long-term decline. Since 1997, the number of physics entries has fallen by 17.4 per cent and chemistry has dropped by 4.7 per cent. Maths has declined by 10.4 per cent since 2000.

Richard Lambert, director-general of the CBI, said: "Businesses are far more worried about the low numbers studying chemistry, physics and maths than they are about the grade inflation debate.

"We are facing a growing skills shortage in these areas that has serious implications for the future health of the economy."

Maggie Scott, director of learning and quality at the Association of Colleges, said: "We would like to congratulate every student who has gained the grades for which they have been working hard."

The association says it is concerned that there has been a decline in the number of students opting to study a modern language but efforts are being made by colleges to appeal to a wider range of people. Itchen College in Southampton and Solihull Sixth Form College, for example, offer Mandarin and Urdu.

As the customary scramble for university places got underway after the A-level results were published, UK Skills, which promotes training for work, urged those advising students to ensure they considered all paths for future career success, not just undergraduate places. Jacqui Henderson, the chief executive, said students, regardless of ability, should consider routes such as apprenticeships.

If students do wish to go to university, she said, they need to be advised to consider vocational as well as academic courses.

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