Product has been added to the basket

Reasons to be cheerful?

An increasingly common sight?

Geology examination entries in schools and colleges across the nation are rising, say Chris King and Ben Jones*. Can this be true? And if so, what can it mean?

Geoscientist 21.05 June 2011

How important are school geology examination courses to the UK? This is a difficult question to answer, but the contribution school geology courses make to the recruitment of undergraduate geologists is an important indicator. The latest data we have on the numbers of geoscientists who graduate in the UK indicate that 1160 students completed university courses in geological sciences in 2005. All students are contacted six months after they have left university, as part of the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey undertaken each year, and of the approximately 945 geoscience graduates who responded, more than three quarters were either in employment or further study and almost one in five (18%) was working as a geophysicist, geologist, mineralogist or other geoscientist. Clearly, these geoscientists were contributing directly to the economy. Many others will have been contributing indirectly – since their geoscience backgrounds may well be important to the work they do.

Soon you may not be able to see the rocks for the students


We do not know how many of the 1160 students who completed a geoscience degree in 2005 had previously taken a GCE A-level, GCSE or Scottish Intermediates or Highers in geology, and so had become enthused to take a geology degree through those routes. However, anecdotal evidence from A-level geology teachers suggests that around a third of those who complete an A-level geology examination go on to take a geoscience degree. The percentage for Scottish Higher candidates may be similar. The school exam entry figures for 2002, three years before the graduation of the 1160 students (many of whom will have taken a three-year degree) show that 1178 candidates were entered for A-level geology that year, while 49 students were entered for Scottish Higher geology. If a third of these took a geoscience-related degree, this would have been more than 400 students, or 35% of those who graduated with geoscience-related degrees in 2005.

So, if more than third of those who graduate with a geoscience-related degree come through an A-level or Scottish Higher route, and a fifth of them go on to employment as geoscientists, this suggests that A-level and Scottish Higher geology do play an important role directly in the nation’s economy. We have already made the point that the geological backgrounds of other individuals, not employed as geoscientists per se, may play an equally vital role, through their work as politicians, journalists, lawyers and so on.

For all these reasons, we believe that the health of GCSE, A-level geology and Scottish Intermediate and Higher level geology is important to UK society. Thus, it is very pleasing to report that, after some years of stagnation or even decline, all geology GCSE, AS-level and A-level examination entries increased last year (Table 1, Figures 1, 2 and 3). The statistics are taken from the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ). The increased entries cannot be explained by increases in student numbers, since according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS) there were demographic falls in the numbers of 16, 17 and 18 year-olds from 2009 to 2010 (Figure 4).
A-level geology examination entries, 1971 - 2010
Image: A-level geology examination entries, 1971 - 2010
Geology exam entries E,W&NI 2009 2010 % increase
A-level (A-level) geology entry (mostly 18-19 year olds)  1183  1376  16 
AS-level geology entry (mostly 17-18 year olds)  2438  2635 
GCSE geology entry (mostly 16 year olds)  812  1007  24 
AS geology examination entries since the inception of the current AS exam in 2001
Image: AS geology examination entries since the inception of the current AS exam in 2001
Geology GCSE entries, 1988 – 2010
Image: Geology GCSE entries, 1988 – 2010
Further study also reveals that A-level, AS and GCSE entries have remained at around two thirds male, one third female over many years.

The steady fall of GCSE entries until recently (Figure 3) reflects the impact of the National Curriculum from 1988, whose core and foundation subjects did not include geology. So it is refreshing to note that the modicum of extra freedom, offered to schools in recent years, has seen an upturn. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this trend is set to continue, since the new GCSE geology specification, available for first examination this year, seems to be creating increased interest among both teachers and students. The Subject Officer for Geology at WJEC (the only Awarding Body now offering GCSE geology), told us in November last year: “It's a pity that I've got no definite figures for GCSE entries for 2011 but I'm expecting an increase of 20-40% on last year”. Those statistics will be available next year.

Meanwhile, more light can be shed on the A-level geology entry figures by plotting these by centre type (Figure 5). This rather complex graph shows that the peak of A-level geology in the 1980s was rooted in comprehensive schools. Since then, and despite the rise of sixth form college entries, the decline in geology in comprehensives, as minority subjects were steadily ‘culled’, is the main cause of falling numbers. Other factors have included the reduction in numbers of grammar schools; the increase in uptake of “vocational” subjects in sixth form colleges, with the related drop in A-levels; the steady loss of geology (and most other A-levels) from further education colleges over time; and the reduction of geology numbers in independent schools. So, it is really refreshing to note that every single category of centre type showed an increase in entries from 2009 to 2010 (Table 2).

A-level entries in EW&NI by centre type 2009 2010 % increase
6th Form College  839  894 
Comprehensive  450  489 
Grammar  200  214 
Independent  173  196  13 
Further Education College  68  83  22 
Private  12  33 
Secondary Modern 
Population changes by age group, 2004 – 2014
Image: Population changes by age group, 2004 – 2014
A-level entries by centre type, 1971 – 2010
Image: A-level entries by centre type, 1971 – 2010

It is unclear why these increases should have been recorded for every centre type last year, but it nevertheless excellent news for geology teachers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.


Trends in Scottish geology examinations are harder to analyse, since the figures are small and fluctuations greater. Table 3 shows changes from 2009 to 2010. The 2009 figures were taken from the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA website), the 2010 figures from a personal communication from SQA Qualifications Manager for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

Scottish Higher entries, 1986 – 2010
Image: Scottish Higher entries, 1986 – 2010
Scots geol exam entries, 2009 – 2010 2009 2010 % change Mean, 2000 - 2009
Intermediate 1 (mostly 15-17)  71  60  - 15%  55 
Intermediate 2 (mostly 15-17)  10  21  + 110%  20 
Higher (mostly 16-18)  56  64  +14%  57 
These figures become clearer in the context of longer term trends, such as those shown by the entries for the Scottish Highers 1986-2010 (Figure 6). These trends do show a steady increase since the early 1990s, somewhat masked by annual fluctuations in the small cohorts. This is still seen, when measured against the total Higher entry figures from all subjects. Scottish Intermediate figures are even more erratic and difficult to interpret, particularly when set against the Intermediate examination entry for all subjects.

However, Professor Colin Graham of the Scottish Earth Science Education Forum (SESEF), has told us: “The Scottish story is currently not a ‘good news’ story. SQA plans to axe the Geology qualifications, which will be phased out over the next three to four years, because of "low uptake". The upsurge of Earth science undergraduate numbers and applications and the current popularity of SQA geology qualifications at the few centres where it is taught suggest that low uptake in schools and colleges is simply a consequence of low access. SQA wishes to disperse aspects of geology among the other sciences and geography, a proposal that we know from experience will lead to its extinction and that actually runs counter to the cross-curricular and cross-disciplinary emphasis of science education in the new Scottish curriculum (the so-called “Curriculum for Excellence”).


Increases in exam entries in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are good news for the geology teachers in these regions and for Awarding Bodies that offer geology examinations. There is encouragement here for all the organisations that support the teaching of geology in schools in England and Wales, the Earth Science Teachers’ Association (ESTA), the Geological Society, the Earth Science Education Forum (England and Wales) (ESEF), the Higher Education recruiters of undergraduate geologists, and for the country at large.

The situation in Scotland is more shaky. This an important time to support our colleagues there, particularly those in the Scottish Earth Science Education Forum (SESEF), as they try to adapt to the new educational realities in Scotland.

* Chris King is Professor of Earth Science Education at Keele University. Ben Jones is Principal Research Manager: Examination Standards, for the AQA Awarding Body.


  • Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ): Inter-Awarding Body Statistics, published annually.
  • Scottish Qualifications Authority statistics website:


All photographs courtesy, Ian G Kenyon Head of Geology, Truro School.