Entries for Stem subjects saw an increase of 5.5% in this year’s A-levels in the UK, with chemistry growing in popularity, particularly with young women. What next for the youngest generation of future chemists?

There is always a period of national debate and soul-searching when A-level results are announced in the UK. Rightfully, this is also accompanied by congratulations and celebrations. This year saw slightly more students (up 0.1%) achieving top grades (A* or A) along with a fall (down 0.3%) in the overall pass rate (students getting grades A–E), in the midst of a toughening of the system in England by replacing coursework with final exams. Grade distribution remained comparable with previous years, and grade boundaries are reported to have stayed pretty stable as well.

But the big news for science is that students taking Stem subjects at A-level in the UK rose this year, with over a third of all A-level entries in a Stem discipline and a 5.5% increase in entries compared with 2017. Chemistry entries saw an increase of 3.4% compared with 2017. Overall the number of A-level entries declined in 2018 (3% fewer than 2017) so growth in students sitting Stem subjects and chemistry in particular really is something to be cheerful about.

Even better news – chemistry’s popularity is soaring for young women. 3000 more girls than boys took chemistry at A-level in 2018, meaning girls made up more than half of students taking chemistry this year. This has helped close the gap between the proportion of boys and girls who take chemistry: 7% of boys vs 6.4% of girls took chemistry A-level in 2018 whereas in 2015 it was 7.3% vs 5.7%. Biology remains a popular subject with girls (who made up two-thirds of the entries) but physics – though making progress – still sees considerably fewer girls than boys taking the subject (22% of entries were from young women but this is the highest proportion since 2009). Perhaps physics needs Bryony Cox more than Brian Cox (read Andrew Parsons’ view) though that’s a lot of pressure to place on one person and I’d like to think that science celebrities can’t be solely responsible for getting young people into Stem.

Perhaps physics needs Bryony Cox more than Brian Cox

So, from here, what can we do to build on this success for chemistry among young people? The community as a whole (schools, universities, employers) could better articulate the opportunities for chemists and chemistry. For those who want to help solve global challenges – food, shelter, disease, water, energy, sanitation, climate change – there is a real and vital contribution from chemistry towards all of them. For those who fear that chemistry has limited options, there are over 375 accredited programmes offered by more than 60 universities – I think students would be surprised about how varied the discipline can be and how many different places it can take you.

Let’s not forget about diversified routes into chemistry careers. University degrees remain the predominant entry point but they’re not the only option. Work-based and apprenticeship routes are growing in popularity and give students an entry into chemistry if they don’t have the subjects or grades at A-level or, frankly, would rather get paid than take a student loan. As John Holman said ‘high level research stops dead very quickly without technicians’ and we should ‘add some of that prestige to technical roles’ which can be, unfortunately, the unsung heroes of discovery.

Or we could just go straight to the wallet. The careers open to chemists are broad and tend to have good salaries and working conditions. The Royal Society of Chemistry’s recent pay and reward survey showed that median annual salaries increased in most job types and sectors from 2015 to 2017 – with computer systems roles seeing the largest jump of more than a third from a median of £45,000 in 2015 to £58,000 in 2017. The majority of respondents either strongly agreed or agreed that they had a good work–life balance, equal opportunities and confidence in job security with their current employer, and nearly two-thirds reported their employer had flexible working arrangements.

I’m realistic – chemistry isn’t for everyone – but we’ve seen this year that our youngest generation of chemists is growing and diversifying. So let’s show them what we’ve got.