It is often said that girls have now overtaken boys in every major subject including the traditional male strongholds in the sciences. This is simply not the case. The problem of girls' underachievement in science still exists.
The idea that they have caught up in the sciences arises from a too simplistic interpretation of GCSE results.
GCSE candidates either take single-award GCSE, double-award GCSE or a set of three separate science GCSEs to satisfy the requirements of the national curriculum. The choice of options differs between the sexes. More boys than girls take separate sciences.
It is also true that pupils who take separate sciences tend to be more able, and the average ability of the boys entered for double-award GCSE science is consequently reduced.
This effect can be illustrated by considering the percentages of pupils who either get a grade C for double-award science or for each of the separate sciences. Combining the results for biology and double-award science gives 40.1 per cent of boys and 39.2 per cent girls in the 1994 GCSE cohort obtaining at least a grade C. For chemistry and double-award science the percentages are 40.1 per cent of boys and 38.6 per cent of girls, and for physics and double-award science, the percentages are 40.2 per cent and 38.2 per cent respectively.
However, these small differences do not tell the full story. Most 16-year-olds enter double-award GCSE and obtain a grade for aggregated performance on physics, chemistry and biology. This aggregation process hides important differences and this can be demonstrated by a more detailed consideration of the results of the 1996 Nuffield co-ordinated sciences examination.
In this GCSE, Sc1 (Scientific investigations) is assessed as coursework; Sc2 (Life and living processes), Sc3 (Materials and their properties) and Sc4 (Physical processes) are assessed by separate examinations.
Eighty-five per cent of girls and 80 per cent of boys obtained at least a grade C on the teacher-assessed Sc1. Girls were also slightly ahead on the biology-based Sc2 (60 per cent compared with 56 per cent). There was no difference for the chemistry-based Sc3 (56 per cent). However, for the physics-based Sc4, the gender difference was large. Sixty per cent of boys obtained at least a grade C compared with 49 per cent of girls.
Compelling more young people to study physics is not enough to close the gender gap at 16. There are many underlying causes of the continued sex differences in science uptake and performance in further and higher education. These include attitudes to future careers, out-of-school interests, and the nature of science and science teaching.
This pattern is no different from the one found by the Assessment of Performance Unit in the early 1980s. The disaggregated results I have presented indicate why the uptake of sciences at degree and A-level is much lower for women. For example, in 1994 approximately three in every 1,000 female 18-year-olds obtained a grade A in A-level physics, compared with 12 in every 1,000 males.
Research indicates a decline in positive attitudes towards science as pupils progress through the education system. This applies to both sexes, but is more marked in the case of girls.
Brian Woolnough, in a recent paper in the School Science Review, noted that many physics courses were considered by the majority of pupils to be difficult, dull, theoretical, impersonal and requiring hard work.
In view of the research evidence, there is every reason to be concerned about the underachievement of girls in the physical sciences.
The author is a research officer at the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate, but writes in a personal capacity. Further details of this research can be found in the paper Sex differences in performance in double-award science GCSE which is available via the Internet from Education-line at http:www.leeds.ac.ukeducoldocumentsOOOOOO32.html or directly from the author.
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