Working-class girls are still losing out when it comes to GCSE science compared to their middle-class counterparts, new evidence shows.
An analysis of the first decade of GCSE science results and the first groups to study the national curriculum, presented last week at the ASE, has examined for the first time "the class factor" in girls' results.
Di Bentley of Roehampton Institute said the national curriculum's demand that all 14 to 16-year-olds study elements of biology, chemistry and physics had enshrined "integrated science" in comprehensive schools. After the early 1990s only independent and some grammar schools continued to teach all three as separate subjects.
Independent and grammar school girls did better than boys in separate physics (71 per cent and 67 per cent grade C and above respectively) and almost equally well in chemistry (67 and 69 per cent respectively). Boys did better at biology (66 per cent compared with 54 per cent). But almost no comprehensive schools - attended by most working-class children - offered science as three separate subjects. In 1992, the single science A-C rate for boys was only 15 per cent, while for girls it was 23 per cent.
The overall science A-C rate for 1993 was 51 per cent for girls and 52 per cent for boys.
Ms Bentley said: "What you're seeing is a social class effect." She suggested reports that girls have caught up with boys in science were misleading because, although pass rates may be similar overall for all GCSE science, more boys do the more demanding "double science", while more girls opt for single science, even if they are capable of meeting greater challenges.
Ms Bentley, assistant dean in the faculty of education at Roehampton, said: "It's not good enough to say there's an issue about girls and science. It's a particular cohort: working class girls in comprehensive schools." These are the girls who previously chose to take no science at GCSE level.
Doing integrated science did not mean they were not able, Ms Bentley said: "We are not developing a science that attracts them."
However, relatively few middleclass girls despite their success at GCSE continue science at A-level, despite their success at GCSE .
In another piece of research, Ms Bentley and Samantha Drobinski, also of Roehampton, investigated what girls liked about science. A problem-solving approach appeared to enhance girls' interest, but there were other factors as well.
Girls who enjoyed science often felt patronised, and liked to find out things for themselves. They wanted science to be an adventure. Their likings fell into six main categories, which the researchers called "the spirits of science": the spirit of discovery, the spirit of adventure, the spirit of investigation, the spirit of independence, the spirit of knowledge, and the spirit of success.
Ms Bentley suggested that to make science more interesting for girls, teachers should trust them more, bring in the social context, and "give them more opportunities to develop their own science."
Researchers found in a survey of 1,700 pupils that girls were more likely to like science if the teacher was female, while boys preferred male teachers. However for the topic of energy, both sexes preferred female teachers. The reasons have yet to be analysed.