Select Committee on Science and Technology Tenth Report

CHAPTER 2: Student Attitudes and Choices

2.1.  The attitudes of students towards science and mathematics, and the choices that they make as a consequence, are absolutely central to the issues which this report seeks to address. The more positive the opinions of students towards science and mathematics, the more likely they are to opt for these subjects at GCSE and beyond, and to pursue them at further or higher education level. This in turn will lead to more of them pursuing STEM careers.

2.2.  The remaining chapters of this report examine issues which all ultimately impact upon the formulation of student attitudes towards science and mathematics throughout their years of secondary education. In this chapter, we focus more narrowly on the number of students studying science and mathematics beyond GCSE, the factors which influence their choice of subject (including the broad question of the nature of the A-level system), the Government's targets in this area and the role that careers advice can play.


2.3.  The data on A-level entries over the last ten years are mixed. The table below sets out the figures.


A level entries for science and mathematics in schools and colleges
Other science
Further mathematics

Source: DfES[5]

2.4.  It is encouraging that the number of students taking biology is increasing, following a decline between 1998 and 2001. The figures for chemistry, mathematics and further mathematics are less healthy. Whilst the numbers for all three have started to rise in the last few years, they remain considerably lower than they were in the late 1990s and the increase should in any case be seen in the context of an overall rise in total A-level entries. Clearly, it is essential that no further decline takes place. The most problematic subject of all is physics, with the number of students opting to take the subject showing a precipitous fall since 1998. The numbers continue to fall and currently stand at less than 60 per cent of the total in the late 1980s. Moreover, the situation is far worse in some schools than these aggregated figures would suggest—as the Royal Society noted, "science take-up is strongly skewed at present, with half of all A-level entries in science coming from just 18 per cent of schools" (p 63).

2.5.  The Government have set some ambitious targets to increase the numbers of students taking science and mathematics A-levels. By 2014, it is hoped that entries to A-level physics will have increased to 35,000 (currently 24,094), entries to chemistry to 37,000 (currently 33,164) and entries to mathematics to 56,000 (currently 46,037) (p 2). The Government recognised that it would be "very challenging" to reach these targets, both because of the pattern of decline mentioned above and because of the predicted decline in cohort size, which means that there will need to be "an even larger increase in the proportion of pupils who continue to study A-level science" than would be required if the cohort remained at its current size (p 3).

2.6.  In oral evidence, Lord Adonis, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, accepted that these ambitions were not "precise targets based on very advanced forecasting techniques", but felt that it was reasonable "to set a target over the next eight years to restore the position to broadly that which applied in the early to mid-1990s" (Q 4). However, he reiterated that "these are ambitious targets" and noted that the targets for physics A-level entries were "the most ambitious by some way" given the continuing decline in numbers (Q 5).

2.7.  The Government's targets were generally welcomed. However, the Next Steps document is thin on what needs to be done if they are to be met. As Daniel Sandford Smith of the Institute of Physics said, "we would like to see more about how that ambition is going to be realised" (Q 99). We therefore seek below to identify some of the reasons behind the declining numbers of recent years and to pinpoint the actions that need to be taken in the coming years in order to increase the number of students studying science and mathematics beyond GCSE.

Factors affecting post-GCSE choices

2.8.  It is difficult to analyse the A-level trends with any great confidence. As Research Councils UK pointed out, "the decline in the numbers of students studying these subjects is a very complex process which is not accessible to simple solutions. In particular, the factors affecting students' choice of subject ... are numerous, and their interactions are not well-understood" (p 197). However, several issues emerged repeatedly in the evidence.

2.9.  One such issue is essentially fashion—in particular, the emergence of new subjects that have only become available at A-level in recent years, such as psychology, media studies and photography. As Marie-Noëlle Barton of Women into Science, Engineering and Construction (WISE) noted, "there is now a huge array of A-levels available and a lot of young people choose what they call the 'funky' subjects" (Q 151). We do not denigrate these subjects, but some—for instance psychology, which is a science in its own right—have clearly drawn students away from the traditional sciences. Indeed, as the British Psychological Society pointed out, over 50,000 students sat the psychology A-level in 2005, which is significantly more than sat physics or chemistry (p 139).

2.10.  An inevitable consequence is the dilution of the science A-level combinations for which able science students have traditionally opted. Professor Margaret Brown of the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME) told us that the introduction of a wider choice of A-levels had had "quite a dramatic effect in reducing the number of students doing the normal offering of mathematics / physics / chemistry or mathematics / chemistry / biology which is down to 60 per cent of what it was in 2001" (Q 109). However, even if it were desirable to do so, it would be very difficult to reverse the introduction of a greater choice of A-level subjects; as Professor Brown said, "once you have let the genie out of the bottle, I think it is quite hard to say to students that last year's students were allowed a free range of choice and you are not" (Q 113). We agree.

2.11.  The traditional sciences and mathematics need not feel threatened by the broader range of A-levels available, but it is essential that students should perceive them in the best possible light. One problem here is that science and mathematics can be portrayed as boring or irrelevant to modern life. This partly relates to the content of the specifications, but even more important is the style and quality of the teaching. As the written evidence from the Science Learning Centres stated, "inspired teaching is the key to inspiring young people towards the continued study of science" (p 173).

2.12.  It was suggested to us that poor teaching affects female students in particular, who are seriously under-represented in the physical science A-levels. The Institute of Physics argued that "girls are much more likely than boys to be deterred by poor and uninspiring teachers" (p 57). Similarly, Marie-Noëlle Barton of WISE told us that "girls are particularly sensitive to what happens in the classroom" and emphasised the importance of "gender-free" examples in science teaching (Q 151). The importance of specification content and good science teaching are addressed in more detail in Chapters 3 and 4.

2.13.  A more serious and fundamental problem is the perception that the traditional science subjects and mathematics are more difficult than other subjects, and that it is consequently more difficult to achieve impressive A-level grades—a point that was made forcefully by the students with whom we spoke at Huntington School in York. Marie-Noëlle Barton felt that this was particularly true of physics: "it is perceived by young people, it is perceived by a lot of teachers (and I am not talking about the science teachers but other teachers), it is perceived by the parents as being a difficult subject" (Q 151).

2.14.  Again, it was suggested that the perception that sciences are difficult affected female students disproportionately—the Institute of Physics claimed that girls were particularly liable to feel that physics was "too difficult and not for them", another cause of their under-representation at physics A-level (p 57). There is also a risk that state school students and their teachers are more likely to be deterred by perceived difficulty than their contemporaries at private schools, which could result in an unhealthy social distortion in the science field. We have already drawn attention to the fact that half of all A-level science entries come from 18 per cent of schools.

2.15.  This issue of relative difficulty has profound implications. On the one hand, as the Royal Meteorological Society noted, "students looking forward to university entrance will be strongly motivated by what they perceive to be their best chance of obtaining the necessary A-level grades" (p 209). Similarly, Dr Colin Osborne of the Royal Society of Chemistry told us that students "realise they have to get a certain number of points to go to university, so often they choose to take subjects that are perceived to be (and indeed may be) easier" (Q 105).

2.16.  On the other hand, schools, in seeking to improve their position in competitive league tables, may be tempted to maximise A-level scores by encouraging students to choose easier subjects. The Institute of Physics reported anecdotal evidence of schools "actively discouraging students from taking subjects that could weaken their league table position" through lower A-level grades (p 57). If these perceptions are well-founded, they throw into question the A-level "gold standard" on which post-16 education is currently based.

2.17.  Analysis of A-level results does in fact suggest that science and mathematics are more difficult than other subjects at A-level. The figuress below, based on very large samples, have been produced by the Curriculum, Evaluation and Management (CEM) Centre at Durham University. Figure 1 shows the predicted A-level grades in a variety of different subjects for a student with an average GCSE grade B—the pattern is similar for students with different grade averages—and suggests that the three sciences are some of the hardest subjects. Figure 2 embodies a different approach, a complex comparative formula which looks at the relationship between each grade achieved by each individual student and the grades that the same student scored in his or her other subjects. Following an iterative process, a "relative grade" is produced for each subject. Essentially, the higher the relative grade, the more difficult the subject. Again, the sciences and mathematics are amongst the most difficult of all subjects.


Expected A-Level Grade(as points) of a student with an average GCSE Grade B

Source: CEM Centre, Durham University


ALIS Project: A Level subject relative difficulties

Source:CEM Centre, Durham University

2.18.  The CEM Centre's methodology is widely if not universally accepted. It produces similar findings each year which are broadly consistent with data produced using alternative systems. However, when we asked the Government to respond to these tables, we were told that "the DfES and the QCA have always responded to such claims by stating that there is no such thing as an easy or hard A-level. In terms of UCAS tariff points etc all A-levels are weighted equally. We have no plans to move from this position".[6] This is an unconvincing response. The fact that equivalent grades in all A-level subjects are worth the same number of UCAS points, regardless of difficulty, goes to the very heart of the problem.

2.19.  Students studying science and mathematics thus appear to face an in-built disadvantage because, in general, more hard work and/or ability are needed to achieve the same number of UCAS points as might more readily be achieved in most other subjects. Clearly, higher education institutions and employers should be able to distinguish between an "A" in physics and an "A" in photography, for example. Indeed, Cambridge University has drawn up a list of A-levels which "provide a less effective preparation for our courses"—including Business Studies and Media Studies—and advised students that they should take at least two "traditional academic subjects" (i.e. those not on the list).[7] However, students may still be deterred from taking the more difficult A-levels because of their desire to achieve as impressive a set of A-level grades as possible.

2.20.  This is not a problem with an easy solution, which is probably why, in the words of the Royal Society of Chemistry, "the QCA has addressed the issue of standards over time but has not addressed the issue of cross-subject comparability" (p 48). Although the QCA does profess to look at cross-subject comparability, it does not appear thus far to have taken solid action in light of any findings.[8] This is a major problem and clearly needs to be taken more seriously by both the Government and the QCA.

2.21.  In terms of a remedy, Professor Brown of ACME said, "I think there is a temptation to say that we dumb the subjects down and that is clearly what we must not do" (Q 103). We firmly agree that "dumbing down" is out of the question—standards must be maintained. Dr Osborne of the Royal Society of Chemistry echoed these sentiments, commenting, "I am not suggesting either that we should be dumbing down the sciences or mathematics. What I am suggesting is that perhaps some of these other subjects should be made harder, which would not be a difficult task but would be remarkably unpopular" (Q 105). However, whilst it might appear desirable to seek a common standard across all subjects, it would in reality be a difficult if not impossible task to align all A-level subjects with one single arbitrary level of difficulty. Difficulty means different things in different subjects, reflecting the various skills and faculties required of students. Moreover, the growing number of A-level choices open to students means that accepted, traditional tests of difficulty have to adapt to an increasingly complex and diverse environment.

2.22.  One possibility might be for UCAS or higher education institutions themselves to extend the approach already in effect adopted by Cambridge University, and to weight different A-levels so that, for example, an "A" grade at physics A-level is worth more points than the same grade at photography A-level. However, agreeing criteria for establishing which subjects are harder—and therefore should be worth more points—would be difficult if not impossible, and could artificially distort students' A-level choices towards subjects to which they are not so well suited. Moreover, such an approach could potentially put them at an unfair disadvantage when seeking employment.

2.23.  Nor would the re-introduction of grade quotas solve this problem—indeed, it would probably exacerbate it. Although the sciences and mathematics appear to be amongst the "hardest" of A-levels, the percentage of students achieving A grades in them is generally higher than in other "easier" subjects.[9] This is largely because the "harder" subjects tend to be sat by higher ability students, although there are other relevant factors. Therefore, the introduction of quotas could mean fewer "A" grades in the sciences and mathematics, and more in the easier subjects, which would clearly not be a desirable outcome.

2.24.  What these issues demonstrate is that the "gold standard" of A-levels is now fundamentally compromised. The presumption that an A-level "A" grade represents a fixed level of achievement (embodied in an equal UCAS tariff) is hard to defend. An alternative way to ensure that the assessment system is an accurate reflection of ability might be to replace A-levels with a baccalaureate or broad-based system of diplomas, ensuring that everybody is examined on a mixture of "difficult" and "easy" subjects.

2.25.  This proposal is in line with the 2004 report of Sir Mike Tomlinson's Working Group on 14-19 Reform,[10] which recommended the development of a broad-based system of diplomas, available at entry, foundation, intermediate and advanced levels, which would ultimately replace GCSEs, A-levels and NVQs. Such a system would not only go a long way towards solving the issue of cross-subject comparability, it would also ensure that students left school with a broader and more well-rounded education.

2.26.  Whilst the Tomlinson Report is wider in scope than this inquiry, its central recommendation chimes with the concerns we have heard that students are being forced to narrow their areas of study at too early an age. When the perception that some subjects are "easier" than others is factored in, the result is that students are in many cases giving up science and mathematics before they can fully appreciate the opportunities that qualifications in these subjects can bring. Professor Martin Taylor of the Royal Society said, "our current A-level system, when it asks people to choose three A-levels, is implicitly asking them to choose away from an awful lot of other things". He added, "the Tomlinson Report had started to look for some flexibility there, maybe a diploma system, maybe something like a baccalaureate system, something that was wider and left children up to the age of 18 not having rejected so many things. I think that would be quite welcome" (Q 108).

2.27.  We agree with the Royal Society. The Tomlinson Report made a convincing case for replacing A-levels with a diploma system. In response, the Government's White Paper on 14-19 Education and Skills stated that "we understand and appreciate the argument that we should challenge our A-level students further, by demanding more breadth. But there is no clear consensus amongst pupils, parents, employers or universities on whether and how it should be done".[11] This response ducks the central issue. It is time the Government showed strong leadership.

2.28.  There is good evidence that students are opting for "easier" A-levels over the sciences and mathematics, a problem which is compounded by the specialisation forced upon students by the A-level system. We call on the Government to replace A-levels, over the long-term, with a broader-based syllabus for post-16 students. To this end, we suggest that they revisit Sir Mike Tomlinson's proposals for a diploma system and also consider the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. These systems would allow students to maintain greater breadth in their studies, giving them more time to choose the areas which they wish to pursue. They would also result in a more rounded education and would prevent the damage caused by the perception that science and mathematics A-levels are particularly difficult.

Importance of high-quality advice

2.29.  As long as the A-level system remains in operation, it is essential that students should receive top quality advice about the significant benefits of studying the sciences and mathematics. There is clearly some way to go if this goal is to be achieved, however; as SETNET (The Science, Engineering, Technology and Mathematics Network) noted, "a significant influence on this decline [in science A-level entries] is an insufficiently wide understanding of the breadth and excitement of the careers that can be pursued with science, technology, engineering and mathematics qualifications" (p 215). The Royal Astronomical Society commented, "most young people have no idea what a scientist actually does, apart from possibly doctors, vets, and more recently forensic scientists (from television dramas and documentaries)" (p 204).

2.30.  The key to ensuring that students are fully informed about the different types of STEM careers before they choose their A-level subjects is high quality school careers advice, from both careers advisers and science teachers themselves. The Institute of Physics (IoP) had serious concerns in this regard, claiming that "students are not being given accurate careers advice at a sufficiently early age to allow them to make informed choices ... careers advice tends to be reactive and does not give students a full picture of the consequences of subject choices" (p 58). Similarly, SETNET complained that careers advice was "inadequate and often stereotypical" (p 215).

2.31.  Drawing on a report conducted in 2000, the IoP noted that science teachers did not see themselves as a source of advice because they did not feel able "to keep up with careers information" (p 58) and the Science Learning Centres added that there should be "better careers information available to science teachers, who are often the people to whom students … turn first when considering whether to opt for science subjects" (p 179).

2.32.  Careers advisers, meanwhile, overwhelmingly had humanities or social science backgrounds—the IoP noted that just one in ten of those surveyed had science degrees (p 58). The consequences of this imbalance were illustrated by a study, highlighted by Marie-Noëlle Barton, which showed that "90 per cent of careers advisers … did not feel confident with giving advice about science and engineering careers" (Q 146). Similarly, Daniel Sandford Smith of the IoP referred to "horror stories of careers advisers advising students not to do the sciences because they are more difficult" (Q 108).

2.33.  Elspeth Farrar, Director of the Careers Advisory Service at Imperial College London, made a more general point about the quality of careers advice offered at school: "the advice that [is] given to the more able students in schools now, particularly those that are staying on to do A-levels and thinking about carrying on into university, is not has good as it has been in the past". She felt that this was related to the introduction of the Connexions Service which "very much had its priorities around the less able students" at the expense of more able students. She concluded, "I think this has had some effect on their guidance on going into university, their choice of subjects and maybe not having as much of a scope or a breadth of ideas about what they could go on and study as they maybe had in the past" (Q 146).

2.34.  These comments were endorsed by Marie-Noëlle Barton of WISE, which works to increase the number of women going into STEM careers. She suggested that "it is almost now a stigma for young people to go and see a careers adviser from the Connexions Service, because they deal mainly with young people who have got drugs problems and so on" (Q 146).

2.35.  The importance of improving the provision of quality information on science and engineering careers was recognised in Sir Gareth Roberts' seminal 2002 review, SET for success: the supply of people with science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills. The review recommended that "the Government establish a small central team of advisers—possibly within the new Connexions service—to support existing advisers, teachers and parents in making pupils aware of the full range of opportunities and rewards opened up by studying science, mathematics and engineering subjects". It also called on the Government to "review, in three years' time, the progress in improving pupils' knowledge of the rewards and the breadth of careers arising from studying science and engineering, and take further action as necessary".[12]

2.36.  The Government initially responded to this recommendation by pledging to "establish a team that can help Connexions Personal Advisers and teachers in offering such careers advice [on science and engineering]". However, when we followed up this commitment, the department showed considerable confusion as to whether the necessary action had indeed been taken. Eventually, we were told that "the Government did not establish a specific team within Connexions" because it was important for the service to offer "impartial advice reflecting individual need". Instead, the department pointed to its work with the Science, Engineering, Manufacturing Technologies Alliance (SEMTA), the role of the "jobs4u" careers database and several assorted resources.[13] This is simply not sufficient.

2.37.  When questioned about the state of careers advice during oral evidence, the Schools Minister, Jim Knight MP, accepted that "people have this notion that science careers are being a scientist or being a doctor and they are not seeing the full range and excitement of things which you can then go on to do with science A-levels and science degrees". However, his own explanation of the Government's response to this problem was vague, and showed little sense of urgency: "we are currently having some discussion around how we can develop information advice and guidance as part of the 14 to 19 changes which we are implementing over the next seven years" (Q 9).

2.38.  Other witnesses were unimpressed with the progress made by the Government in this area. The IoP felt that "the DfES does not seem to have taken any steps to address these issues" (p 58). SETNET commented, "we felt that the lack of any mention in Next Steps of how the provision of careers information is to be improved and made into a really effective tool to help increase the interest of young people in studying science subjects, was a significant gap. We are keen that this is not overlooked or sidelined" (p 216).

2.39.  A potentially invaluable new initiative to improve the flow of STEM careers advice to students is the proposed "Careers from Science" website, which is being put together under the auspices of the Science Council. As the Chief Executive of the Science Council, Diana Garnham, told us, the website "will have sections for teachers, careers advisers and parents ... [it] will build an awareness of the skills studying science develops, how options are kept open by studying science and it aims to ensure that students have the right information to hand when choosing subject combinations". Vitally, it is a collaborative initiative which will "provide an accurate picture of the entire STEM landscape and the possibilities it can offer rather than reflecting a particular organisation's chosen message".[14]

2.40.  Currently, a little less than one half of the required funding has been raised, with contributions received from the Royal Society, the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Chemistry, among others. A project manager has also been appointed. Yet, even though considerably more funding is required, the Government appear to have failed to live up to their commitment to "work with the Science Council on developing a science careers website".[15] The Royal Society of Chemistry complained that the Government had "failed to offer any support to realise this project" (p 48) and Diana Garnham warned, "we consider that partnership with DfES is crucial to the success of the project and indeed, a funding partnership with Government is critical for us to secure the financial commitments already made".[16]

2.41.  In general, the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers advice offered in schools appears not to be of sufficient quality, and the Connexions Service is not well adapted to the needs of high achieving students. The Government have largely neglected careers advice in Next Steps, and this omission should be remedied at the earliest opportunity. We recommend that the Government act upon the findings of the Roberts Review by establishing a small central team of advisers to support existing advisers, teachers and parents in making pupils aware of the full range of opportunities and rewards opened up by studying science, mathematics and engineering subjects.

2.42.  The proposed "Careers from Science" website would be a valuable tool in persuading more students to study STEM subjects at A-level and beyond. In light of earlier commitments, the lack of Government assistance to the Science Council is unacceptable. We urge the Government to provide financial and logistical support to the project as a matter of urgency.

5   These figures only cover those students taking the A-levels at the age of 18 in England. The 2006 figures were not available in this format at the time of writing. Back

6   Written evidence (not published). Back

7   See Back

8   See Back

9   For example, see Level%20Results%20Booklet%

10   DfES, 14-19 Curriculum and Qualifications Reform: Final Report of the Working Group on 14-19 Reform, October 2004. Back

11   DfES, 14-19 Education and Skills-White Paper, February 2005, p 6. Back

12   HM Treasury, SET for success: the supply of people with science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills, April 2002, p 80. Back

13   Written evidence (not published). Back

14   Written evidence (not published). Back

15   HM Treasury, Science and innovation investment framework 2004-2014, July 2004, p 91. Back

16   Written evidence (not published). Back

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