2016 A-level results: our reaction

Students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland received their A-level results today. They show a small increase in the number of pupils taking biology as a percentage of all entries this year, but a continuing downward trend in the number of physics entries.

HIV particles budding from the surface of a T cell.

Credit: R Dourmashkin, Wellcome Images CC BY NC

Cell structure is covered in the biology A-level syllabus. There has been a small percentage increase in the number of pupils studying the subject in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Last year, the number of pupils taking biology, chemistry and physics A levels fell compared to 2014. Overall, this trend is continuing. 

From 2015 to 2016:

  • biology entrants fell from 63,275 to 62,650
  • chemistry entrants fell from 52,644 to 51,811
  • physics entrants fell from 36,287 to 35,344. 

In terms of the percentage of all entries from 2015 to 2016:

  • there was a small rise in biology entries from 7.4% to 7.5% 
  • chemistry entries plateaued 
  • physics entries fell from 4.3% to 4.2%. 

Wider patterns in A-level entries

There have been relatively minor changes this year.  Entries for the 'facilitating subjects' – the academic subjects favoured by Russell Group universities – fell as a percentage of all A-level entries, from 51.2% in 2015 to 51.1% in 2016. 

In pupil numbers, entries to mathematics fell from 92,711 to 92,163. Due to a smaller cohort size, there was in fact a welcome rise in mathematics as a percentage of all A-level entries, from 10.9% in 2015 to 11% in 2016.

Professor Sir John Holman, Wellcome’s education adviser, commented: "Congratulations to all the students who have succeeded in science and maths A levels – and to the teachers who have inspired them.

"We are pleased by the small increase in the percentage of all pupils taking biology in 2016, while noting that in raw numbers, entrants fell. While we are relieved at the plateauing of the percentage of all pupils in 2016 taking chemistry, there is much room for improvement. The continued decline in physics entries in raw numbers and as a percentage of all entries is worrying. 

"We need to better understand the factors that are affecting both A-level choices and the attainment of the pupils taking science courses, because the country cannot afford a decline in the science base at this critical time for the economy."

Last month Prime Minister Theresa May reasserted the government's commitment to science and the high priority it attached to teaching and research. "Increasing the number of pupils studying science A levels must be a priority for the government, and securing the opportunity for all pupils to be able to study science at A level with excellent teachers is key to reaching this goal." 

Extended Project Qualifications

Wellcome is pleased by the number of students taking the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ), which has risen from 33,564 to 35,608. 

EPQs give students independent research skills and in-depth subject knowledge separate to their A levels. We hope the numbers of students taking EPQs continues to rise, particularly those involving hands-on practical science investigations.


Big Picture is Wellcome's post-16 educational science resource. It is free and published twice a year.