From education to employment

What works to increase the uptake of STEM subjects at A level, particularly for girls?

Applying behavioural insights to increase female students’ uptake of #STEM subjects at #ALevel 

Female students are much less likely than their male counterparts to take A levels in certain STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects. This is problematic for gender equality but also limits the country’s capacity to address the growing national STEM skills shortage.

This research was commissioned to design and test the effectiveness of two sets of interventions based on behavioural insights theory, to increase the number of high-achieving female students choosing STEM subjects at A Level.

The principle mechanism by which the interventions sought to increase uptake of STEM A Levels was by improving perceptions of STEM’s utility – this was the target of the parent-focused intervention, as well as two of the three student-focused intervention exercises.

The secondary mechanism was designed to improve students’ self-concept and expectations of success in STEM. These interventions were based on insights from a rapid review of relevant academic research in the fields of psychology and behavioural science. Participating schools received either a student-focused intervention in isolation, or the student-focused intervention in combination with a parent-focused intervention.

While schools were free to administer the interventions to any and all students approaching their A level choices, the interventions were primarily intended for girls who were likely to be eligible to take STEM subjects (referred to as ‘high-achieving girls’ below).

The primary evaluation compared students’ responses before and after taking part in the interventions (Pre-Post study design).

The key findings after the interventions, as compared to before, are:

  • High-achieving girls were more likely to state the intention to study two or more STEM A Levels.
  • This positive change was greater for high-achieving girls in schools that received the parent-focused intervention in addition to the student-focused intervention.
  • High-achieving girls were more confident that they could apply the material they learned in maths or science class to real life.
  • High-achieving girls were slightly less confident in their ability to learn the material they covered in maths or science and that they could be successful in these subjects.
  • High-achieving girls were less likely to report having discussed the importance of maths or science with their parents in the previous month.
  • Students who received the parent-focused activities showed an increased likelihood of discussing A Level choices with their parent or guardian, relative to those who received the classroom-focused activities only.

Following further evaluation of the data, the following additional findings were observed:

  • There was a strong relationship between the intentions of girls to study STEM subjects with their final A Level choices.
  • However, not all stated intentions to study STEM A Levels translated into formallysubmitted A Level preferences (as was also the case for non-STEM A Levels).

As the design of the intervention was changed ahead of the administration to schools (from a Randomised Control Trial (RCT) to a Pre-post study design), it is possible that factors besides the interventions themselves were responsible for the changes in students responses after participation compared to beforehand. Further research would be required before firm causal conclusions can be drawn. Given the positive indications of the interventions, especially in tandem, such further research is warranted. This report also seeks to make recommendations based on the efficacy of the interventions to inform further research and more broadly, to help develop targeted actions to improve diversity in STEM participation.

The recommendations are:

  1. That the observed benefits of the parent-focused activities in improving intentions of students to discuss A Level choices is studied in conjunction with existing careers guidance available in schools.
  2. That further research using the parent-focused intervention is also explored, including broadening the type of communication parents receive as this places no burden on teaching time.
  3. That capital-related inequalities and the action-intention gap are considered when carrying out further research.
  4. That any changes presented by the impact of COVID-19 on STEM uptake (compared to other subjects) in the coming years are explored, with respect to how changes in teaching e.g. remotely or in smaller class sizes would have affected student cohorts in England.
  5. That the focus shifts to the longer-term effects of societal norms surrounding STEM and perceptions about the challenges of the subject matter itself and interventions are targeted much earlier, particularly for girls.

This research reviews ways to overcome the barriers that young women are up against to increase the uptake of STEM subjects at A level.


Applying behavioural insights to increase female students’ uptake of STEM subjects at A Level

Ref: ISBN 978-1-83870-215-1, DfE-00209-2020PDF, 2.87MB, 83 pages


This research will be of interest to:

  • academics
  • education policy professionals
  • others interested in diversity in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM)

The research contributes to developing the existing evidence base on what works to improve STEM uptake, particularly for girls.

Published 26 November 2020

Related Articles