GCSE results: Why a laser-like focus on grades is damaging the UK’s economy

Edwina Dunn
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Too many girls aren't taking up sciences at A-level because they think it's "too hard" (Source: Getty)

This morning, hundreds of thousands of teenagers will be opening their GCSE results, accompanied by the usual attention on grades and whether As and A*s are up or down. But this relentless focus on just one metric is contributing to a pressing skills crisis that could be profoundly damaging for the UK’s economy.

It’s clear that the future of business is digital. From data sciences to the Internet of Things, technological innovation is accelerating rapidly and it is creating new jobs that require digital knowledge and numerical analytics.

Yet these skills are not accelerating in our workforce at the same rate – quite the opposite. The CBI has identified the gap in graduate skills in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) as the number one issue facing the UK’s competitiveness in the next five years. Put simply, not enough young people are studying maths and physics in sixth form, meaning they don’t have the skills needed for digitally-focused jobs.

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There is now a real disconnect between what children are choosing to study and the jobs they believe they may go into, and as a result young people are leaving education without the skills needed to go straight into employment. There’s an irony too, because while young people are dropping maths and sciences at A-level, the careers they aspire to (gaming is number one for teenage boys and healthcare is favourite for girls) require Stem subjects as their bedrock.

Overall, it is a worrying picture: the UK is languishing at twenty-second according to the OECD in terms of numeracy. Physics makes up just 4.3 per cent of A-levels sat. And there are currently 40,000 unfilled Stem jobs across the country and rising.

The problem is most acute among young women. Although, like boys, three quarters of girls start secondary school enjoying maths and the sciences, by the time they get to A-level, just one in 100 will study physics compared to nearly one in 10 boys. This year, a staggering 50 per cent of state secondary schools won’t send a single girl to study physics in sixth form.

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Confidence is a major factor. In my role as chair of the Your Life campaign, which is trying to address this issue, we conducted research which found 42 per cent of girls are opting for other subjects in sixth form because they think they will get better grades, versus 33 per cent of boys. A quarter of girls also say maths and physics are “too hard”, despite outperforming boys in physics GCSE for the past five years.

But these teenagers are not behaving irrationally. We are increasingly measure-driven in our school system, with the desire for top grades driving schools under the pressure of assessment and league tables. The message of grades being everything is carried via parents to students, with businesses and employers also complicit. As a result, students are leaning towards subjects where higher grades are easier to achieve, meaning they may win at the education system but will fail in the jobs market where they do not have the required skills.

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The laser-like focus that is placed on students getting top grades is short-sighted. A business would never look at just one key performance indicator, so why is it that with the education of young people we are prepared to go down this route – especially when all the evidence points to it leading them down the wrong path for their future?

To be fit for the digital future, we need to invest in talent and not be left at the starting blocks by other nations who are already streets ahead. Making sure our young people’s educational choices reflect the job market is more pressing than ever. We should be pushing for subjects over grades, and highlighting the message that maths and physics A-level offer students the pathway to the jobs of the future and the digital economy we need as a nation to prosper.

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