Discuss salaries if you want to boost A level maths take-up

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More students would study mathematics at A level if they knew about the potential for increased earning that the subject can bring.

A study involving more than 5,500 young people across England has concluded that this “cheap and easy intervention” would “significantly increase take-up”.

However, subjects such as computing, biology and art proved less popular with students when they knew more about projected salaries.

The research, undertaken by the University of Birmingham with funding from the Nuffield Foundation, was presented at the annual research conference of the Society for Research into High Education last month.

Researchers reached their conclusions after working with 15 and 16-year-olds from 50 schools, state and private, across England. During a one-hour lesson, the students were asked to make a number of hypothetical choices about which subjects to study and whether to go on to higher education or to enter work at 18.

The pupils were then given related salary information and asked if they would like to change their minds. They filled in questionnaires about their planned A level options both before and after the exercise.

The researchers then followed up with the schools involved at a later date to gather information on the pupils’ actual A level choices.

They found that of those pupils who remained in the same school for their 6th form studies, 52 per cent who had received the intervention opted for maths at A level, compared to 42 per cent who had not.

Furthermore, pupils who received information on graduate earnings were 39 per cent more likely to study maths than students in the control schools. However, they were 27 per cent less likely to study biology and 39 per cent less likely to study computing.

Peter Davies, Professor of Education Policy Research at the University of Birmingham, who led the research, said: “At the core of this project has been a randomised controlled trial in which we gave pupils information about variation in graduate wages to see if this affected their subject choices. We found that the expectation of a higher salary increased take-up of maths quite considerably.

“The results of this intervention are very important because amid the government’s anxiety about increasing maths take-up there has been talk of introducing a baccalaureate system to replace A levels. The disadvantage of this is that it forces pupils to study subjects they might be weak at or don’t enjoy.

“The only subject where there is clear evidence that studying it at A level makes a difference to future earnings is maths, which can lead to high-salary occupations such as engineering.

“What we now know for sure from this research is that better information about graduate salaries would increase take-up of maths and would do so very cheaply, without having to coerce children into studying it.”


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