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A-Level figures hint at physics recovery

Is science on the mend?

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It is summer, and the newspapers are full of the inevitable pictures of happy blonde teenage girls celebrating their A-level results.

This year, more than one in four of the results was an A grade. This will undoubtedly trigger renewed debate about falling standards, and prompt questions about how universities should go about differentiating the truly gifted from that top-scoring 25 per cent.

But as predictable as all this is, there is one subject that is, at last, bucking its recent trend. According to the Institute of Physics (IoP), for the first time in 20 years, the number of A-level and AS-level physics candidates has risen, very slightly, and the number of girls taking the exams has risen slightly faster.

Overall, the number of candidates for A-level physics has risen a sliver: just 0.35 per cent from last year. The number of girls taking the subject rose by 2.5 per cent. AS-levels in the subject have done better, with rises of 3.2 per cent and 4.2 per cent respectively.

Dr Robert Kirby-Harris, chief executive of the IoP, said the numbers are very encouraging and suggest that the message is beginning to get through.

"Physics underpins the solutions we will need to meet today's key challenges to society – climate change, energy supply, sustainable housing, and efficient transport  – and physics graduates work right across the economy in well paid interesting careers, including making a major contribution to the City and finance sector," he said in a statement.

Although the numbers are up year on year, we still have some way to go to repair the damage of the last decade. In 1995, 35,000 students took A-level physics. This year, there were 27,000. Still a substantial difference.

The Royal Society said the subject was still on "the critical list", despite the slight upturn.

"In actual terms, we're looking at just 98 more people taking the A-level compared to last year. We need more evidence before we can conclude with confidence that this is the beginning of a recovery," said the society's president, Martin Rees.

It is a mixed bag for the other science subjects: biology is down, but maths and chemistry are on the up.

Rees notes: "The decrease in students taking A-level biology is not hugely concerning at this stage. However, we should keep the subject under surveillance. The focus on physics and chemistry should not allow biology's health to deteriorate unnoticed." ®

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