Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report


44. Problems with science education at 14-16 have a knock-on effect on science post-16, affecting both students' subject choices and the required content of courses following on from GCSE. What has come across from our discussions with students is that those who are continuing with science post­16 often do so in spite of their experiences at GCSE. They are frequently motivated by a longer term ambition to follow a particular career, which requires them to have studied sciences at A level. Many of the young scientists we surveyed at the Royal Society of Chemistry reported that they had found science at GCSE boring. It would seem that students study science post-16 not because of science at GCSE but despite it.

45. Many of the issues raised with us about post-16 courses themselves relate to the implementation of the recent AS and A level reforms. In particular we have been told about the difficulty of completing the AS courses in time for exams that fall in January and May, concern that an excessive amount of time is spent on exam preparation and concern about the pressure that the exam system places on students.[85] These are very important issues but are not science specific.

Falling popularity

46. The take-up of the sciences post-16 is a widely discussed area and the general assumption is that the number of students studying science at A level is falling. An analysis of the statistics is presented in Annex 3.[86] Science subjects are popular at A level. 60% of A level candidates enter at least one science or maths A level.[87] English is the A level taken by the greatest number of students, followed by maths, biology and chemistry. The numbers of students choosing biology, chemistry and physics post-16 has been fairly static for the last 5 years, following a significant drop in the take-up of physics prior to 1996.[88] However, the proportion of A level entries accounted for by chemistry and physics is falling.[89] This matters because young people are, at age 16, closing off the option of entering a career in science or engineering at a time when the UK is suffering from a shortage of scientists and engineers.[90] Physics A level has seen the most marked decline in popularity, while biology has largely retained its popularity. Throughout the late 1980s physics was the most popular science A level; it now attracts a third fewer entrants than biology A level. The Head of Biology at St Augustine's Catholic College, Trowbridge said that biology A level attracted many "humanities types" for whom biology was their only science subject.[91]

47. It was hoped that the introduction of AS levels in 2000 would have encouraged more students to choose to continue with science for a further year post-16. It is difficult to establish at this early stage if this is happening. The statistics record only those students that have "cashed in" their AS results and accepted their grade: students can chose not to cash in their AS results so that they can retake modules and improve their marks. In addition, at Westminster School, the Head of Science told us that he had decided not to enter students for AS chemistry exams after their first year of study, but to enter them for AS and A2 exams together at the end of the two year course. If these options were not available, the total number of entries for AS levels would be expected to be considerably higher than that for A levels: students were expected to study four or five subjects to AS level, as opposed to the standard three to A level. However, in 2001, there were 686,000 entries to A levels compared to a total of 647,000 entries to AS levels.[92] This pattern is reflected in the entries to the sciences. For example, 33,650 students entered chemistry A level, while 30,986 students entered the new chemistry AS level. While it not possible to draw any firm conclusions because the statistics do not show a true picture of the number of students studying AS levels, it seems that recent reforms to post-16 education have not produced a significant increase in the number of students studying sciences.

48. We discussed the take-up of science in Scotland on our visit to Beeslack High School in Penicuik. In Scotland, Standard Grade at age 16 is broadly the equivalent of GCSE, after which students generally choose 4-5 subjects to study as Highers. In recent years there have been significant decreases in the take-up of biology, chemistry and physics for Scottish Highers although, after English and maths, chemistry, physics and biology are the most popular choices. [93] The take-up of science A levels in England is comparatively healthy.[94] In Scotland, students are expected to study at least one science to Standard Grade at age 16 but are free to opt between the sciences: 70-75% of students choose to study only one science.[95] They may therefore be limiting their choices post-16 at the age of 14. At the same time, each of the sciences attract almost identical numbers of entries in Scotland. We do not know the cause of the disparate interest across the sciences in England but the contrast with Scotland is striking. Possible factors include the chronic shortage of physics teachers in England, an issue not yet affecting Scotland, and a different approach to the curriculum and its assessment up to age 16 and post-16.

49. It is at university level that the big decreases in take up have been seen in some areas of science and engineering. Between 1995 and 2000, while there were increases in the number of students studying biological sciences at undergraduate level, the number of entrants to chemistry degrees fell by 16% and to physics and engineering degrees by 7%.[96] This reflects a trend seen in other countries. A recent report on young people and science in France concluded that there was no evidence that students were shunning science at secondary school. On the other hand, between 1995 and 2000 the number of students entering university in France to study physics and chemistry fell by almost 50%.[97]


50. All students now study biology, chemistry and physics up to age 16. Girls now perform as well, or better, than boys in science at every examination stage from ages 11 to 18. For example, 53% of the girls entered for double science GCSE in 2001 passed with grades A*­C, compared to 50% of boys.[98] The Equal Opportunities Commission regards "girls' participation and achievements in science to age 16¼as one of the recent success stories of education".[99] It is when students are able to make subject choices at age 16 that it becomes apparent that boys and girls are not equally engaged across the sciences.[100] Girls significantly outnumber boys in biology A level and, if the current trend continues, may soon outnumber boys in chemistry too. In physics, the proportions have been static over the last 8 years, with girls continuing to make up only 20% of the entries. This matters because it implies that girls are being excluded from physics and because the shortfall of scientists and engineers will be most easily addressed if there is representation from the whole, rather than only part, of the population.[101] Biology is sometimes seen as a good way to attract students, in particular girls, into science, but A level biology alone does not provide a route in to the physical sciences.[102] We welcome the increase in the number of girls studying biology and chemistry to A level that has occurred since the introduction of compulsory balanced science to GCSE. In particular we are pleased that girls now make up 50% of A level chemistry entries. We are, however, concerned that physics remains an unpopular option with girls.

51. The number of boys choosing A level physics has, after decreasing for several years, remained relatively static since 1996. In contrast, the number of boys choosing to study biology and chemistry has been falling for the last four years. Indeed, the equal representation of boys and girls in chemistry A level would not have occurred without this decrease in entries from boys. In biology, the number of entries from boys remains above that of the early 1990s in spite of recent decreases. But boys continue to make up less than 40% of entries. We have no explanation for the falling popularity of the sciences for boys other than that they are presumably more attracted to other subjects. DfES suggested that take­up of computer science in particular, which has increased by 128% over the last 10 years, might at least be a partial explanation.[103] In 2001, computer studies A level was taken by 15,051 boys, while 21,751 boys sat physics A level.[104] The falling number of boys choosing biology and chemistry A level is a matter for concern. The reasons for this need to be investigated further and we recommend that DfES fund research in this area.

52. Students' explanations for the gender differences in take-up of sciences have been mainly in terms of career aspirations. Students from Hammersmith and West London College thought that boys were more likely to want to move in to "techie" careers that would need physics. And girls are associated with caring professions such as nursing, which require biology, and medicine, which requires both biology and chemistry.[105] Girls' choices may reflect the lack of visible female role models, which is discussed further in paragraph 123. From a teacher's perspective, Michele Ryan, a teacher at Ricards Lodge High School in Wimbledon, felt that "girls do tend to be more interested in biology topics, they are more interested in topics that they can personally relate to".[106] She said that, in comparison, "there is a view that boys are more [interested in] knowledge for the sake of knowledge".[107] In research carried out by King's College, London, boys and girls alike felt that changes were needed to the science curriculum, primarily to introduce more modern ideas.[108] But the examples that they gave were distinct, with girls wanting more emphasis on advances in medical science and boys interested in topics such as nuclear fission and fusion. Astronomy was the one area that both boys and girls mentioned.[109] The GCSE science curriculum fails to provide for the differing interests of boys and girls.


53. There are also differences in take-up of post-16 science among ethnic groups. These are no doubt affected by experiences and attainment at GCSE. The African­Caribbean Network for Science and Technology has presented data to us showing the differing levels of attainment in science and mathematics of students from different ethnic minority groups in science, based on data from Birmingham, Manchester, Nottingham and the London Borough of Enfield. The results present a complex picture.[110] For African-Caribbean pupils, a high level of achievement in the early years is followed by decline and underachievement at GCSE, with a marked gender differential in favour of girls. Indian and Chinese pupils achieve high levels of attainment throughout: Chinese girls and boys do equally well, while Indian girls do better than boys as they get older. Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils have the lowest levels of attainment on entry to school but do better than the African-Caribbean pupils by the GSCE stage, with girls doing better than boys (most markedly among Pakistani pupils).

54. Some LEAs, as shown above, have collected data on the performance of students by ethnic group. This has not been the norm. Schools have been required to report the number of ethnic minority students on their school roll, by ethnic group, to DfES since 1990. However, this information was not linked to the performance of individual students and so was little more than a head counting exercise. In January 2002 DfES introduced the Pupil Level Annual School Census, which requires schools to provide data on an individual pupils, rather than for their school overall. This has meant a considerable amount of extra work for some schools. Once the new census is fully introduced it should allow data on, for example, achievement at GCSE, to be cross-referenced with ethnic group on a school, LEA and national level. We welcome the introduction of pupil level ethnic monitoring by DfES. We trust that the data will show the performance of different ethnic groups in science subjects and recommend that this information will be made public as part of DfES's annual statistics publications.

55. Data from the Further Education sector - which already conducts ethnic monitoring - presents a complex, and in some respects surprising, picture.[111] Black Caribbean pupils are proportionately represented on science, engineering and technology courses at further education, but show the lowest level of achievement in science. Black Caribbean females have higher enrolment rates than males in all subjects, even construction and engineering. In construction and engineering, which are traditionally seen as male-dominated areas, it is only among white pupils that males outnumber females. It would appear that some of the usual assumptions about the relative participation of men and women in science and engineering are simply not true in respect of ethnic minority students.

56. The African­Caribbean Network raises a number of curriculum issues affecting the differential attainment of ethnic minority students. It is argued that the science curriculum is eurocentric, ignoring the contributions of other cultures to science, and that textbooks and other teaching resources in maths and science are produced with little awareness of the dangers of reinforcing racist stereotypes. Teacher expectation discourages black children from achievement in maths, science and technology (while, conversely, Asian pupils are expected to achieve in these areas and discouraged from achievement in the arts and humanities).[112] Racial stereotyping is also reported in careers guidance: even well-qualified black students are rarely encouraged to take up careers or further study in numerate or technical fields. The Network reports that there is evidence that African-Caribbean pupils are disproportionately over-represented in the pupils for whom science and design and technology are disapplied at Key Stage 4: in other words they would not study these subjects to GCSE.[113]

Difficulty of A level sciences

57. Among the factors affecting A level choices are the perceived difficulty of science subjects and the increasing availability of alternative courses in other subject areas. Students and teachers have told us that science A levels have a reputation for being harder work than other subjects and that it is more difficult to pass science A levels than some other subjects.[114] Students from Hammersmith and West London College mentioned in particular the amount of time they invested in coursework for science A levels, which they said was considerably more onerous than for peers studying subjects such as business studies. As Ed Walsh, a teacher at Roseland Community School in Truro told us, there is a risk that this can "almost become like a badge of honour" and increase the sense of elitism around science.[115] The Roberts Review reported on-going research, carried out through the ALIS project at the University of Durham, which showed that sciences, foreign languages and mathematics A level courses attract, on average, students who have done better at GCSE than sociology, psychology or law.[116] The Durham research also suggests that it is more difficult to achieve grades in some A level subjects than others. On average, students with the same GCSE profile will achieve one grade lower in chemistry, physics and maths than the average A level grade obtained. This is not unique to science. The most difficult subjects, based on a comparison of achievement at GCSE and A level, in roughly this order, are chemistry, physics, Latin, French, maths and biology. This will vary from year to year, but remains fairly stable. Most students are likely to be discouraged from studying a subject that they think will be harder than others. This may be particularly true for those students who do not intend to move into an area that requires qualifications in science but who are looking to accumulate the best overall point score for university entrance. The Head of Biology at St Augustine's Catholic College, Trowbridge felt that biology A level was seen as an "easy option" compared to the other sciences and therefore attracted students of a wider range of abilities.[117] Students may be dissuaded from studying science at A level if they think it will be harder work than other subjects and more difficult to achieve a high level grade.

Maths skills

58. Some students appear to be put off doing science post-16 by the mathematical content of A level science courses. This does not seem to be a problem at GCSE. The Science Museum's on-line survey of young people suggests that GCSE students are generally confident in their ability to use maths. 79% reported that they had not struggled with the maths requirements in GCSE science. Susan Turner, a teacher at Bishop David Brown School, Woking told us that "The content of the [GCSE] syllabus is now far less mathematical than it was".[118] The problems seem to arise post-16, where the mathematical demands, particularly in physics, are higher.

59. Lucy Ferguson, a student from Guildford High School, said that one of the things that might have led her to choose science A levels would have been "less maths".[119] Catherine Wilson, from the Institute of Physics, saw this as a particular issue for physics A level, where students need to take maths as well if they are considering continuing with physics post-18.[120] Rubens Reis, a student at St Augustine's School, London, told us that "Maths is not something you do for fun but because you have to".[121] Similar sentiments have been expressed by other students. Tim Crocker-Buque from Worthing Sixth Form College told us that "definitely maths is just a servant to the sciences".[122] The mathematical requirements, or students' perceptions of the mathematical requirements, of A level sciences puts students off choosing to study these subjects. This particularly applies to physics.

60. On the other hand, universities and employers say they need people who are better able to use maths. Stuart Brown from Nottingham Medical School told us that the maths their students need would have been learnt at ages 14 to 15 but that "the trouble is that it is not reinforced sufficiently so that when they get to university they say they have either not heard of it or they have forgotten".[123] For physical, rather than bio-medical, sciences the issue is somewhat different. Cambridge University's School of Technology tell us that physics is "inherently detailed, quantitative and, sometimes, difficult. This is largely hidden from students at school, so that the nature of a university course can come as a great shock to them".[124] They describe this as the "demathematisation" of school science teaching.

Making an informed choice

61. Some students have told us that they gain little understanding at 14 to 16 of what the subjects involve at A level. Students at Quintin Kynaston School, London told us that, within the double science GCSE course, the difference between biology, chemistry and physics was not spelt out to them. Teachers in Fareham, Hampshire suggested that students may find it difficult to distinguish the boundaries between subjects where teachers teach across subjects.[125] The Association of Colleges tell us that "this hampers their ability to make an informed choice about what disciplines they should select to pursue..., and what this study will demand of them".[126] Indeed, one student we met at Quintin Kynaston was dropping chemistry after AS level because the course was not what she had expected. More positively, another reported that she was enjoying A level sciences much more than she would have expected from her experiences at GCSE.

62. Students' choices post-16 are influenced by the career that they aspire to. Ashley Clarkson from Bede Sixth Form College, Teesside told us that "You really only go on to study science if you wanted a job which was to do with science".[127] Research carried out by the National Institute for Careers Education and Counselling (NICEC), found that "Generally it was only if pupils knew they needed sciences for a career choice (medicine being a common example) would they be determined to study science".[128] The same research found that "subject choices were being made with little understanding of the range of work and study opportunities open to people with science and technology qualifications nor of the educational or personal advantages". Students were not aware that science could provide valuable transferable skills, opening doors to a wide range of non­scientific careers. Indeed one student at Westminster School told us that science had little to offer in the way of transferable skills because, unlike subjects such as history and English, you were not taught to think for yourself. Students do not in general choose history A level with the expectation that they will become historians but the sciences are to a great extent chosen by those who expect to pursue scientific careers.

63. Influences on career ambitions are wide­ranging; the NICEC report mentions parents and family, the image of science, the image of jobs in science and engineering, the history of the local labour market, gender and the media. Careers in science are not perceived to be glamorous or financially rewarding. Together with students' experiences in the classroom, these factors determine students' choices post­14 and post­16. At 14 there is no choice to be made about science and discussions about educational and career value focus on subjects such as geography and ICT, where there are decisions to be made.[129] Interviews with careers advisers usually occur after the first year of GCSE, by which time NICEC reports that most students have already decided whether to continue with science post­16. The report also said that young people found interviews with careers advisers most useful where they wanted further information about a career in which they were already interested. Young scientists that we spoke to at the Royal Society of Chemistry told us that they had received very little careers advice in school. Students' awareness of scientific careers and the value of transferable skills gained through science would appear to be limited.

Vocational pathways

64. Traditional A levels are not appropriate for all students post-16. The main alternative, GNVQs, have never attracted students on a significant scale. The Nuffield Foundation suggest that this "failure was not due to a lack of interest from teachers" but because "when they offered these courses they could not recruit enough students to make them viable".[130] They suggest that the attraction for teachers "was not so much because they were 'vocational' but because they offered an alternative approach to teaching, learning and assessment" that would help to motivate students.[131] However, from a student's perspective, it was not clear where a broad vocational qualification in science would lead. The GNVQ in health and social care, which has a basis in the biological sciences, has attracted more entrants perhaps because students can see a direct route to the caring professions. Given this, and the low status currently given to vocational education, it is perhaps not surprising that students have not been attracted to vocational science courses.

65. The first VCEs, the replacement for advanced GNVQs, were taught from September 2000. Chris Roberts from Bradford FE College told us that, with the change from GNVQ to VCE, the approach "has drifted closely to that [of A levels] and it is turning students off".[132] The Association of Colleges tells us that "colleges have needed to set an entry standard as high, or in some cases, higher then for AS/A level study".[133] In the effort to achieve equal status for academic and vocational qualifications it seems that the distinctive nature of vocational education is being lost. The unexpectedly low pass rate for the first students sitting VCE exams in 2001 has also discouraged students. The vocational options in science are not yet attracting students. More should be done to provide attractive vocational courses and to ensure that students are well aware of the potential value of the qualifications for a range of future careers.

Universities' views

66. From the perspective of universities, Stuart Brown, from Nottingham Medical School, told us that he felt that there had been "a decline in the knowledge base" of A level students.[134] This is a commonly heard criticism and one that it is difficult to pin down. QCA recently invited an independent panel of advisers to review the quality assurance arrangements for A level. They published their findings in January 2002 and concluded that "there is no scientific way to determine in retrospect whether standards have been maintained. Therefore, attention should be placed on ensuring the accuracy, validity and fairness of the system from now on".[135]

67. The science taught and assessed in A level courses seems to have kept up with the modern world somewhat better than GCSE. However, Roberts reports that "reductions in the depth of knowledge required at A-level in favour of breadth and relevance of study, are seen by some to weaken the usefulness of the A-level as an indicator of a student's ability to tackle the more complex and in depth work at degree level".[136] The view that there has been a loss of depth at A level was also reflected in comments from schools. A physics teacher at Westminster School criticised the new Advancing Physics A level developed by the Institute of Physics. He told us that, while the course brought interesting contemporary physics into the classroom, he perceived a loss of depth. Teachers at St Augustine's Catholic College, Trowbridge said there had been an element of "dumbing down" in recent curriculum developments, and wanted to see the curriculum made more relevant to daily life.[137]

68. As only 50-60% of the content of an A level course is specified by QCA, students may arrive at university having covered very different material at A level. This applies not only to students who have been taught different specifications: there is often the freedom for teachers to select modules from within a specification. Ian Haines, representing the UK Deans of Science Committee, told us that he would like to see more common material between different A level specifications so that he "could guarantee a certain amount of subject knowledge".[138] This problem is further exacerbated by the trend for students to take a combination of science and non-science subjects at A level.[139] The recent reforms at AS and A level, described in paragraph 18, are intended to encourage students to broaden the range of subjects that they study post-16. Undoubtedly a broad education has its benefits, but at the same time university science and engineering departments want depth. Tom Ruxton of the Engineering Professors' Council told us that "a chartered engineer would need a depth of science at A level - physics, chemistry, maths".[140] Where universities place restrictive demands on applicants, specifying grades in three A level subjects, students are unlikely to place value on broadening their education.

85   Ev 85, para 6; Ev 117, para 22; Ev 139 para 4.2 Back

86   See p 81 Back

87   Figure A8, Annex 3 Back

88   Figure A1, Annex 3 Back

89   Figure A3, Annex 3 Back

90   Discussed in the Roberts Review, chapter 1. Back

91   Ev 203, item 4 Back

92   GCSE/GNVQ and GCE A/AS/VCE/Advanced GNVQ Results for Young People in England 2000/2001. DfES. November 2001. Tables 11 and 13. AS level figures are for students aged 16 at the start of the academic year; A level figures are for students aged 17-18 at the start of the academic year. Available via Back

93   Figure A5, Annex 3; Ev 129 para 12 Back

94   Figure A6, Annex 3 Back

95   Ev 128, para 10 Back

96   Roberts review. Paragraph 0.27 and figure 1.5. Back

97   SED104. Unprinted evidence Back

98   See Ev 144 for comparative data on performance at A level. Back

99   Ev 147, para 32 Back

100   Figure 4, Annex 3 Back

101   Ev 143, paras 7-8 Back

102   Ev 203, item 4 Back

103   Q537 Back

104   Source: Joint Council for General Qualifications. Candidates of all ages in England. Back

105   See also Ev 145, para 20 Back

106   Q251 Back

107   Q252 Back

108   Pupils' and Parents' Views of the School Science Curriculum. 2000. King's College London. Back

109   See also Ev 132, para 7; Ev 140, Appendix 24 Back

110   Ev 147, Appendix 27. Graphs not published. Back

111   Ibid. Back

112   Ev 150, para 1.14 Back

113   Ev 154, para 1.32 Back

114   For example Ev 94, para 5; Ev 164, para 33; Ev 203, item 3; Ev 201 Back

115   Q273 Back

116   Roberts Review. Paragraphs 2.105-2.106 Back

117   Ev 203, item 4 Back

118   Q279 Back

119   Q211 Back

120   Q5 Back

121   Q110 Back

122   Q117 Back

123   Q387 Back

124   SED33 Unprinted evidence. See also Ev 140, Appendix 24 Back

125   Ev 196, para 2 Back

126   Ev102, para 110 Back

127   Q165 Back

128   SED6. Unprinted evidence. Choosing Science at 16: The influences of science teachers and careers advisers on students' decisions about science subjects and science and technology careers. 2000. Published by CRAC. Back

129   See also Ev 93, para 5.1 Back

130   Ev 157, para 31 Back

131   Ibid. para 32 Back

132   Q328 Back

133   Ev 98, para 51 Back

134   Q377 Back

135   The full report can be seen at Back

136   Roberts Review, para 3.2 Back

137   Ev 202, para 1 Back

138   Q378. See also Ev 139, paras 3.11-3.13 Back

139   Imagination and Understanding: A report on the Arts and Humanities in relation to Science and Technology, Council for Science and Technology, 2001. Available via See also Ev 164, para 34. Back

140   Q384 Back

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