Dodgy comparisons in DfE A level spin – nothing new there

Janet Downs's picture

It might be hoped that a new education secretary would heed warnings by the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) about the presentation of data by the Department for Education.  But it appears Gavin Williamson, newly-appointed secretary of state for education in England, is carrying on the DfE tradition of publishing potentially misleading data.

The DfE media blog’ says:

This year’s results show an increase in entries to STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) subjects, up 26.2% since 2010, whilst maths remains the most popular A level with a 20% rise in the same period.’

Williamson responds:  ‘Overall the reforms we’ve put in place since 2010 and increasing rigour in our schools are giving pupils more opportunities.’

This links a rise in the proportion of students taking STEM A-levels since 2010 to post-2010 reforms.

But, as UKSA has pointed out ad nauseam, context is important.

Government education reforms in England didn’t begin in 2010.  Entries in reformed exams have only just filtered through.   Comparing A level entries for 2019 with those nine years ago is meaningless and, of course, potentially misleading

Williamson is correct when he says maths is the most popular A level.  Entries for maths may indeed have risen by 20% since 2010 but, as already noted, exams have been reformed since then.

This year’s maths A level candidates were the first to have taken the ‘big fat’ maths GCSE.   And entries for maths A level in England were lower in 2019 than in 2018 according to Education Datalab. 

The Mathematics Association warned that a more demanding syllabus at GCSE together with moving to linear A levels would likely result in a drop of candidates for maths post-16.

It’s too early to say whether this downward trend will continue with maths going the same way as A level English Language, English Literature and combined English Language and Literature.   Entries for these have also fallen since last year.

What we can say is that A level entries for three STEM subjects, Biology, Chemistry and Physics, have risen since last year.  Entries for A level Design and Technology have remained stable. 

But it would be misleading to say rising entries for A level science subjects are directly caused by post-2010 reforms.   Increased science entries could be fuelled by perceived employer demand.  Or maybe the ‘Brian Cox effect’.  Or interest driven by TV dramas such as Silent Witness, perhaps. 

One subject that’s seen a rise in entries is A Level political studies.  But this increase is unlikely to have much to do with post-2010 education reforms.  According to Schools Week, interest in the subject is said to have been caused by ‘national and international political and social events’ such as Brexit and concerns about climate change. 

It would be unwise for a secretary of state to brag that increased interest in A level politics was fuelled by post-2010 government policies.   Such a boast could easily backfire.


NOTE: The article refers to England only.

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