A-level results: industry calls to re-think STEM education

A-Level results day can be an emotionally exhausting experience. Both a beginning and an end, it is recognised as a crucial juncture in a young person’s life. It marks the start of a student’s journey into the uncertainties and opportunities of adult life. And it signifies the end of school life: for many, that involves leaving friends, family and childhood homes come September, when they start university. 

At least that is the conventional narrative. But with a growing awareness of the costs of higher education – a typical three-year undergraduate degree is estimated to leave graduates with over £50,000 worth of debts – and calls from employers to ensure students are more work-ready, that story is being re-written. A recent survey of 11-16-year olds by the Sutton Trust, a progressive thinktank, found that only three-quarters thought a university degree was necessary to get on in life. This negative perception was more marked among disadvantaged pupils: only 67% believed the costs of higher education were worth it; by contrast, 79% of students from more affluent backgrounds considered it worthwhile. Both groups though were united in their concerns about costs: nearly half were worried about being saddled with debt. Sir Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust, captured the prevailing mood when he noted: “Young people face a dilemma.”  

But for those pupils who are going onto vocational degrees in industries like engineering, computational science, and data analysis, strong A-levels are still the ticket to dreams of future success. At UTC Swindon, for instance, a college which specialises in engineering and digital analysis, over 70% of grades were awarded at starred Distinction or Distinction Level (equivalent to an A-B grade at A-level) and 100% achieved a pass or better (A-E grade at A-level). And whilst some pupils will go onto engineering courses at respected institutions like Imperial, Southampton and Portsmouth, others secured apprenticeships with companies like BMW, Mercedes Benz and British Rail – demonstrating the diversity of destinations for STEM pupils. As Jon Harper, Executive Principal, said: “This is an important day for the next generation of UK engineers, scientists and technicians as they gain the qualifications that will put them on the pathway to careers in some of the world’s most innovative industries.” 

UTC Swindon students celebrate results

And whilst the traditional path to a career in technological industries is still overwhelmingly a university degree, there is a welcome shift towards greater experimentalism and diversity of post-A-level options. The Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology, founded by the entrepreneur and engineer James Dyson, is a pioneering a hybrid four-year course that blends academic learning and on-the-job training. Students spend half their week learning the fundamentals of engineering in lectures and seminars delivered by the University of Warwick. The rest of the time they work alongside Dyson engineers on projects that span its commercial and consumer product lines. They are treated as employers not students: paid a £16,000 annual wage and expected to observe normal office hours with 25 days of holiday. 

It’s early days for the institute, but its forward-thinking approach has made an impression on industry. Apprenticeships, and blended courses like Dyson’s, are increasingly recognised a viable route into STEM careers. “The most important asset for any industry is the people,” argued Jenny Taylor, UK Foundation Leader at IBM. “Apprenticeship schemes ensure businesses are bringing in fresh talent, new ideas and different perspectives.” She also stressed that school leavers should recognise the opportunity of their position, not be intimidated by the “the number of options which can be bewildering.”

Calls from industry to shake up the current curriculum have got louder. According to figures gathered by the Joint Council for Education, A-level results showed a slight increase in entries for Maths (12% up from 11.5% in 2017) and in Physics (4.7% on 4.4% last year). But the Institute of Engineering and Technology is vocal that exams do not sufficiently prepare students for modern engineering careers. It is calling for a more balanced offering of education, work experience and careers guidance; this will, it hopes, translate to better employability for school leavers and will help to close the engineering skills gap. 

The problem is acute among businesses: 61% of those polled consider the recruitment of staff with the right skills to be the greatest barrier to growth in the next three years; 81% also agreed that employers need to provide more work experience to improve the skills of junior engineers and technicians. “We now need to ensure that this positive uptake in STEM learning converts to young people studying engineering subjects at university and taking up apprenticeships,” said Dr Graham Herries, Co-Chair of the IET Skills and Education Policy Panel. “It is never too early to start developing the next generation of ‘home grown’ engineering and technology talent.” 

For many young people, one day in August will still shape their lives for years to come; its triumphs or tribulations looked back on as representative of the beginning of adulthood, and the end of childhood. But given the expanse of opportunities offered outside of traditional degrees, especially in emergent industries like engineering and tech, it is likely that the significance of A-level results day will begin to erode. Congratulations to those who achieved their university places. But no commiserations are due to those who didn’t or choose not to pursue the university route – after all, they are helping to engineer the future.