What do the A-Level results mean for UK industry?

Posted on 17 Aug 2017 by The Manufacturer

Semta’s chief executive, Ann Watson shares her views on what impact today’s A-Levels results may have on the UK’s engineering and advanced manufacturing sectors.

exam student schools stock image
The reforms in England means that we can expect nuances and differences compared with previous years to be analysed and used to challenge the government.

So once again it’s A-Level results day, when hundreds of thousands of young people across the UK wake up with a mixture of nervousness and excitement (often the former rather more than the latter!) to find out what grades they have achieved – and to take the next step on their career path, whether that means an apprenticeship, further education or university.

(All great choices and all of them great starting points for an engineering career)

The media has, of course, obsessed and pored over these results all day and will I’m sure continue to do so.

The reforms in England, with AS Levels no longer counting towards the value of a full A-Level, and with the focus shifted towards exams at the end of the second year of study, means that we can expect nuances and differences compared with previous years to be analysed and used to challenge the government.

And while I am using this article to do something similar with the Physics and Engineering results, I believe it’s really important to first say a couple of things about today.

Engineering the future

Firstly – these results should not define the worth of the young people receiving them, and we must not allow them to do so. We live in a competitive world, and we all remember what it was like for us to receive our own exam results on days like today.

Some of us will have done better than expected, and some of us will have done worse – but either way, life will go on after today and the young people involved in today will go on to do many amazing things with their lives whatever their results.

I am confident that many of those who do worse than they had hoped will still succeed and go on to become brilliant engineers, and that they will look back on today in years to come and wonder what all the fuss was about – as I’m sure some of you have done.

Secondly – there is absolutely no need to panic today if the young people we know have not got the results they were hoping for. This is especially true for those who are considering an engineering career.

Ann Watson, chief executive, Semta.
Ann Watson, chief executive, Semta.

For those whose hearts are set on higher education, there will be lots of places open on university engineering courses through UCAS’ clearing service – a quick search finds more than 200 institutions.

And whatever their results, for those who are considering whether university is really the right option for them, there are lots of engineering apprenticeships available.

A quick search on the UK government’s Find an Apprenticeship service finds 1,225 engineering apprenticeship vacancies across England – including some at degree level for those who don’t want to do a traditional engineering degree.

Engineering pipeline

With all of that said, the results paint a very interesting picture when it comes to the future skills pipeline for engineering. Across the UK, girls are once again outperforming boys in A-Level Physics – but there has been a drop in their performance from 2016.

And if we look at the results by UK nation, we find that the drop in female performance in England has been steeper than in Northern Ireland and in Wales. So, while last year 73.8% of female Physics A-Level students achieved an A*-C grade, this year just 69.9% did.

The implication of this is that female students have been more negatively affected by the new focus on end point exams than males have – which is, of course, something that research might have told us would happen.

The latest Industry Apprentice Council report finds that almost nine in ten apprentices (of nearly 1,200 surveyed) are concerned about end point assessment, and that female apprentices are more likely to disagree with it (90%) than males (87%).

The report also finds that females are more likely to believe that formal qualifications should be included in apprenticeships (94% vs. 91%), which are of course assessed continuously.

The Engineering A-Level results, meanwhile, show that overall female performance has improved while male performance has been mixed – 95.2% of female entrants achieved A*-C grades against just 75.2% of males, but males did better at getting the very highest A* grade (3.5% vs 2.4%).

We need to remember that the sample sizes are small for this subject, with just 226 males and 42 females taking it across the whole of the UK. Many of those who might have taken it will have instead studied vocationally-focused or technical qualifications, or else gone straight into an apprenticeship.

Accountant Accounts Finance Exam Stock Image
The Engineering A-Level results show that 95.2% of female entrants achieved A*-C grades against just 75.2% of males, but males did better at getting the very highest A* grade.

T-Level qualifications

It will be interesting to see whether the Engineering A-Level survives once the new T-Level qualification is introduced – either way, government must ensure that the T-Level is widely accepted as equivalent to an A-Level from the start.

The gender disparity in how males and females are performing relative to last year has implications for the design of other qualifications and other pathways.

The government and the Institute for Apprenticeships must consider how to ensure that the Engineering and Manufacturing route T-Level is open and attractive to both males and females.

And where apprenticeships are concerned, the government must think again on its steadfast focus on end point assessment as the sole measure of an apprentice’s job readiness and competence.

But regardless of policy developments in future, my closing message to those getting their results today is – whatever they are, well done for all your hard work and good luck with whatever you choose to do next, especially if that choice is engineering-related.

And my message to their parents and educators is – please talk to them about all the options that are open to them. Some will want to go on to university, but some may well be thinking again about that today – and if that is their choice, it doesn’t mean they have failed or that they are set to have a worse career because of it. Apprenticeships offer a tried and tested route into engineering.

Either way, if you know a young person who’s creative, who likes to solve problems and who has an interest in STEM – send them our way!