The provision of science study at GCSE level in schools is enough to make one’s brain hurt, and questions on the internet show some students are slightly baffled too when trying to pick out which revision guides they should be following. The options are to take a single ‘science’ GCSE which combines chemistry, biology and physics, through taking a double science option where you sit ‘additional science’ as well as ‘science’ and end up with two GCSEs, to taking all three scientific disciplines as separate GCSEs. As science is a core subject in the National Curriculum at Key Stage 4, students have to study it, and many opt for the more basic science GCSE, with over 451,000 students sitting the exam in 2013. Around 63% of those – 283,000-plus – took additional science as well. The individual science subjects each entered between 160,000 and 174,000 candidates.
Without GCSE additional science, students have little hope of going on to take a science A level. But the government wants more students to study science at A level; the Minister for Education Nick Gibb reports that ‘Encouraging more young people to study these subjects is part of our long-term economic plan to build a more prosperous future for Britain’. Science subjects are crucial for many degrees. Yet data published in July 2014 by the Department for Education (DfE) shows that many schools did not enter any students for some or all of the sciences at A level, while some failed to enter any candidates for maths or further maths A level. Universities, faced with so many potential entrants and unable to interview them all, are forced to look back at GCSE subjects and results too, in order to pick out the best candidates.
The government is also keen to get more girls into science careers. Interestingly, about 10,000 more girls than boys took the additional science GCSE – so gender bias towards boys and sciences has not yet taken hold in what is seen as an easier option than taking the three individual sciences. There, the gender bias is alive and well, however – more boys than girls sat these separate subjects, even in biology which is traditionally seen as the science that girls follow. But it is at A level where the gender difference really kicks in. The DfE data shows that boys are more likely to study maths and science A-levels (apart from biology, which is by this level more popular with girls). The biggest gender gap is in physics, with about 19.2% of boys studying the subject at A-level compared with 3.6% of girls, while maths A-level is taken by 35.5% of boys and 18.4% of girls.
Launched in summer 2014, the government- and industry-backed ‘Your Life’ campaign has an ambitious aim of increasing the number of students studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects by 50% over the next three years. The initiative brings together business, educators, members of civil society and government to show how science and maths leads to exciting, successful careers. The campaign’s advocates want, as they put it, to ‘speak to 14-16 year olds as key decision makers’ and to change perceptions about making STEM subjects a top choice.
This is great, as long as there are enough specialist teachers to carry through these ambitious goals in schools. If a Year 9 student gets all fired up about taking science to a higher level but can only take the basic science GCSE or is offered no option to do the triple of individual science subjects, then their options are closed off before they begin. Perhaps while the government tries to rev up the number of specialist teachers, science tutors should be engaging with the ideas of the Your Life campaign and ramping up their marketing to attract students whose school provision in science is weak? Over to you!