The number of female students taking exams in A-level sciences overtook males for the first time ever this year, the culmination of decades-long efforts to encourage the take-up of science, maths and technology.
But the publication of the summer exam results for hundreds of thousands of students across the UK also showed a dip in results across the board in England, including a sharp drop of one percentage point in those awarded the top A and A* grades to the lowest share since the A* grade was introduced in 2010.
The proportion attaining the top A* grade in England fell to 7.7% while the proportion attaining A and A* went down from 26.2% last year to 25.2% this year. For entries in England attaining grades C and above, the rate also fell to 75.5%, down from 76.8% in 2018 and the lowest rate since 2012.
England’s weaker performance dragged down the UK average results, despite strong better performances in Wales and Northern Ireland, with more than 9% of entries in Wales gaining A*s.
Nationally, 25.5% of entries in England, Wales and Northern Ireland attained As or A*s, compared with 26.4% last year, and the proportion of those attaining C or above dropped from 78% in 2018 to 75.8% this year.
Experts said that the fall in grades was partly explained by more students taking A-levels than in the past. “The difference in outcomes this year is explained by the change in the students taking the subjects, and the changing mix of subjects they are taking,” said Alex Scharaschkin of the AQA board.
Ucas, the admissions facilitator, announced that a record proportion of 18-year-olds had been accepted on to higher education courses through its system, including more than 28% of 18-year-olds in England. But the total number of students accepted, including those from overseas, has fallen by 1% to 408,000.
The musician Stormzy announced he would fund a further two scholarships for black students at the University of Cambridge, following the two launched by the award-winning grime artist last year. The scholarships are to cover the full cost of tuition fees and a maintenance grant for up to four years of any undergraduate course.
In England, the proportion of female students among those taking sciences rose to just over 50%, as the numbers of both males and females taking Stem (science, technology and maths) subjects accounted for 21% of all A-level entries, up from 19.2% in 2018.
Jill Duffy of the OCR exam board said the shift – a 10 percentage point change compared with 2012 – was the result of years of effort to get over some of the stereotypes girls might have had about studying science.
“As a proud mum of two daughters who are scientists, I think it’s absolutely brilliant to see this increase in females choosing to take A-level sciences,” Duffy said.
Biology was the most popular subject for females, who accounted for 63% of entries. There were also more female chemists proportionally, but males continue to dominate in physics, making up 77% of all entries in England.
Gavin Williamson, the education secretary for England, said: “I’m delighted to see more pupils choosing science-related subjects. This is encouraging particularly as we look to boost science in this country and the skills we’ll need in the future.”
But scientists warned that the improvement should not overshadow the fact that several subjects, including maths and computing, remained heavily populated by males.
Sarah Main, executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said: “Progress has been made in subjects such as physics, however it continues to lag behind most subjects in terms of gender diversity.”
The Institute of Physics said more needed to be done to encourage girls to study technical subjects. “We continue to be deeply concerned that even in 2019 there are still so many ways in which girls are steered away from taking up technical sciences,” said Charles Tracy, the IOP’s head of education.
This year’s results in England include falls in the numbers taking maths and English A-levels, a change thought to be driven by the introduction of more rigorous GCSE exams as well as the popularity of alternatives such as psychology. But budget pressures on colleges may also be behind the fall in entries.
The decline in uptake of modern foreign languages has levelled off this year although numbers remain small. Spanish has for the first time overtaken French as the most popular language at A-level, with UK entries up 4.5% to 8,625, while French has seen a 4.1% drop to 8,355 entries.
Contrary to expectation, the popularity of Chinese among 18-year-olds declined this year, with entries down from a high of 3,334 last year to 2,272. There was much excitement last year when it became the third most popular modern language, but German regained the third spot this summer with 3,033 entries, still marginally down on last year’s total of 3,058.
Students in Wales showed the biggest improvements in the UK, with a steep rise in top grades outperforming their peers in England, as 9.1% of entries were awarded A*s and 27% gaining A and A* combined. The proportion of students receiving C grades or above was higher than in England for the first time in a decade.
Kirsty Williams, the education minister for Wales, said: “We’ve seen a positive set of results this year with a historically strong performance across the board for all grades. The record number of A*-A shows our top performing students are really flourishing and reaching their full potential.”
University admissions offices across the UK are braced for record numbers of inquiries through clearing and adjustment, where students accept offers for undergraduate study or seek new courses after receiving their exam results. More than 70,000 candidates were expected to use clearing, with the number boosted by the large number of courses still available and by a new ability for applicants to release their existing offers to seek other opportunities.
“We need to give more support to our students, so Labour will abolish predicted grades and implement post-qualification admissions. This will allow those studying to make informed choices, and reduce the stress of the transition to higher education,” Rayner said.