A major shake-up of education funding could dramatically cut the number of schools in England offering science A levels, because they will no longer receive extra money to run expensive practical courses, leading scientists have warned.
The reforms run the risk of courses being axed, fewer resources being made available for experiments and schools employing cheap and inexperienced staff, according to a group including the Royal Society, the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Society of Biology.
The concerns have been raised in a letter to the government, which says they are "extremely concerned" that the funding changes "will have detrimental effects on the offering and uptake of science A levels".
"We know that the government supports and encourages the uptake and quality of the sciences at school, so the likely negative impact of these changes would clearly be unintended - but no less real," according to the letter from the group, known as Science Community Representing Education (Score).
The row has broken out over government plans to simplify the funding of 16-19 qualifications, which will see all academic and some vocational courses receive the same amount of money from September. The formula is based on funding students, not qualifications.
Previously, academic qualifications were funded according to the cost of delivering them, with science receiving 12 per cent more than other subjects. From September, the current funding streams will be abolished, with non-science courses being brought up to the same level. Scientists fear that this will create an incentive for schools to offer comparatively cheaper subjects.
"The sciences are practical subjects and therefore more expensive to run, requiring the upkeep of laboratory facilities, purchase of equipment and consumables and continued support for technician staffing," states the letter, written by Score chairman Graham Hutchings, professor of physical chemistry at Cardiff University.
"Almost certainly this will result in science departments following one or more of: cutting teaching time, reducing the resourcing of practical work, or employing less experiencedcost-effective staff to deliver the practical work," the letter states.
At A level, small sixth forms and schools with small- to medium-sized science groups will be vulnerable to the funding changes, it is feared, as will institutions with large science departments that will be subject to "severe funding cuts".
The DfE will announce the funding levels for 16-19 subjects this spring, but has pledged transitional funding for three years to protect schools and colleges.
"The changes to the 16-19 funding system should not impact on the number of students wanting to study science," a spokesman said. "We have simplified the current complex system to fund schools and colleges more fairly. We want to increase the number of young people studying the subject at A level.
"We're investing up to #163;135 million over the next few years to support this. We are also attracting top science graduates to become teachers with tax-free bursaries of up to #163;20,000."
Planned reforms to the funding of 16-19 qualifications will limit the number of hours of study for which students are funded. The government said that this will remove "perverse incentives", which can lead to pupils taking too many easy qualifications.
But in its letter, Score said it was concerned that the change could limit the number of A levels students are able to take. "Mathematics and further mathematics AS and A levels are natural additional subjects for any science programme of study at 16-19, and it would be wrong (and we do not believe it is the government's intention) to discourage a provider from offering these combinations of four or five A levels," it said.