In a new report published by the Royal Society today titled Increasing the Pool, there are calls for fundamental reform of the A Level system in order to encourage greater numbers of 16 – 19 year olds to study more than one science subject. The report argues that there is a mismatch between the subjects being studied and the needs of universities, who want undergraduates to have more than one science if they are going to study STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics) subjects.
By effectively restricting pupils to three or four subjects, the current A Level system reduces the pool of students willing and happy to study at least two science subjects. Reforming A Levels, by increasing the number of subjects studied, would it is argued, allow sixth formers to choose a broad range of subjects yet still study the core sciences wanted by universities.
Choice is certainly one of the factors in maintaining student engagement with their learning. It is not unusual for potential sixth form students to find themselves in a position where they feel that they are being forced to drop subjects that they feel passionate about simply because the demands of the examination system (and university entry) means they have to restrict their choices at 16. Our introduction of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme goes a long way to addressing this situation, allowing two science subjects to be studied alongside Mathematics, English, a Language and another subject.
However, we also know that certain university departments are fans of the sort of specialism currently enshrined in the A Level system. Anyone thinking about sixth form choices must make sure that they understand what a particular university (and particular department) is looking for before selecting their preferred curriculum route. Key to this is guidance. Guidance from staff who understand not only what different institutions are looking for but also the strengths and weaknesses of individual students.