Today the Royal Society, Blighty's pre-eminent boffinry institution, has issued its "state of the nation" report into science education in the UK – and it doesn't make encouraging reading.
According to the report, there are far too few schoolchildren studying the correct combinations of subjects at A-Level in order to become science or technology undergraduates – and so develop into useful high-skilled citizens of the future as opposed to mindless drones qualified in the humanities or other soft studies.
The reason for this, according to the Royal Society, is that nowadays most sci/tech faculties prefer an undergraduate to be qualified in maths and two sciences at A-Level – and in general most students only expect to take three real A-Levels (General Studies or similar joke fourth subjects don't count).
Even where parents and teachers know enough to offer a kid the right advice (ie take Maths, Physics and Chemistry at A-Level – and Further Maths too if you can manage it – almost regardless of what you want to study at uni and do in life thereafter) it is often difficult to persuade teenagers that they should do so much more work than their idle chums taking English, Geography or whatever. And, to be fair, they may have a genuine interest in another subject well worth studying – for instance a foreign language.
That's where the A-Level system falls down compared to the Scottish "Highers" setup, which lets kids take five subjects as standard, according to the Royal Society. With this increased elbow room, many more Scottish students study sciences, and many more manage the crucial combination of maths and sciences (particularly maths and physics), without which nobody can really be said to be truly educated*.
Thus the Royal Society recommends a two-pronged attack on the current A-Level system.
Firstly, there should be an attempt to rein in the vast and continually burgeoning range of bullshit A-Levels which are easy and fun to do but no use whatever – and which tempt kids away from the true path. The report says:
The increasing diversity of A-level and equivalent qualifications provision (particularly in England) needs to be reviewed, and its impact on the numbers of students taking science and mathematics post-16 evaluated. Awarding organisations should make available detailed data on the participation, attainment and progression of students taking their specifications in science and mathematics.
Then, the rest of the UK should move more to a Scottish-style system which would permit kids to study more subjects at an advanced level.
In undertaking reforms to A-level qualifications in England, the Department for Education should consider modifying their structure to enable students to study a wider range and increased number of subjects than is usually the case now.
Of course, it's all too often impossible for kids – even if they have been correctly advised and have the guts or intelligence to go for a proper selection of A-Levels – to do so, because their school or sixth-form doesn't offer those subjects. This is primarily because the teaching profession is unable to attract the science and maths graduates needed to teach these subjects, leading to a "vicious circle" in which not enough people study them at university and even fewer are then available to become teachers.