Double whammy

23rd December 1994 at 00:00
You can lead a horse to H2O but you cannot make it drink. That is the lesson of The Impact of Double Science, an analysis of the continued flight from science in the sixth form carried out for the Engineering Council by Professor Alan Smithers and Dr Pamela Robinson (page 2).

The growth of the double-award broad and balanced science from 22 per cent of GCSE science entry in 1989 to 82 per cent in 1994 is a double-headed success. It promises to improve general scientific literacy and has helped to counter the gender imbalance in which girls eschewed physics and chemistry and boys biology.

The national curriculum undoubtedly acted as a catalyst in this though the minimum requirement is the equivalent of the single-award balanced science; a qualification which is rapidly being eclipsed by the double. Schools have clearly taken on board in their curriculum planning the importance of a firm scientific foundation to general education and the need to keep open pupils' further and advanced level options. But so far none of this has resulted in the hoped-for increase in take-up of science A-levels; indeed the decline of the science sixth has continued unabated.

Since 1983 the numbers opting exclusively for arts and social science A-levels have increased by 28 per cent and those taking a mixture of science and arts subjects by 31 per cent. Among those specialising in maths and science at A-level, however, there has been a 40 per cent drop. A-level entries in the pivotal subject of physics have fallen by 21 per cent since 1989 and the gender imbalance has worsened from 3.41 boys to every girl to 3.54.

This raises two important questions. Why is the much higher proportion of 16-year-olds now apparently equipped to specialise in science in the sixth not doing so? And how much does it matter?

The Smithers and Robinson analysis concentrates on the first of these, though it notes that, if the response of the job market is any guide, there is little evidence in the salaries of science and technology graduates of employers experiencing any shortfall. Indeed, as the Department for Education's own recent consultative document, Science and Maths, pointed out, the salaries of science and engineering graduates tend to be lower than others in equivalent occupations and new graduates in these subjects are no less likely to be unemployed.

If the aim is to improve numeracy and scientific literacy of those in general employment then that is being achieved, in part at least, by the growth of mixed arts and science A-level combinations. But the Government also clearly wants more science and engineering graduates. Since 1986 maths and science undergraduate places have risen by 86 per cent and for applied science by 69 per cent. But the proportion of 18-year-olds specialising in maths and science A-levels has remained at or below 5 per cent over that period whereas the proportion taking other A-levels has doubled to 26 per cent. The A-level grades of maths, physical sciences and engineering undergraduates have declined while in other fields they have improved.

Smithers and Robinson tend to absolve double science of the blame for this trend, pointing out that it stretches back at least to the early sixties despite all attempts at curriculum and assessment reform. They point, instead, to the restrictive three-subject A-level, poor teaching at primary level and discouraging signals from the science and engineering labour market.

The continuing low take-up at A-level may not be wholly unaffected by the move to the double GCSE award, however. Mandatory science may prevent pupils from opting out of the subject at 14 but when choices are made at 16, young people are influenced by their experience of subjects - and teachers - over the intervening two years.

There are good reasons for thinking that teaching of the new balanced science courses may well not always have been at its most inspirational. Not only did many departments have to cope with the radical changes required to combine or coordinate separate sciences, they also had to contend with syllabus overload and the succession of changes ordained by the twists and turns of the national curriculum.

Stability and experience should now allow new courses to bed down. It is an open question, however, how well broad and balanced science teachers who are primarily biologists or chemists will turn their GCSE groups on to, say, A-level physics. Nor do they have any particular incentive to do so, especially if A-levels are provided in a separate sixth form or tertiary college.

Double science may also have another diluting effect on the science sixth. Able pupils previously steered into three sciences at O-level or GCSE now have room for another non-science option and may well have appetites whetted for further study of the humanities or arts.

Meanwhile, the three-A-level sixth form and university entry requirements for science and technology create an all-or-nothing disincentive to sixth-form science. A single science A-level opens few doors and physics is barely sustainable without maths.

The laissez faire growth of mixed A-levels shows that 16-year-olds are increasingly voting with their feet for broader sixth-form studies, often in bizarre combinations. If the Government is serious about increasing the quality and numbers of graduate scientists and engineers it will acknowledge this and embark on urgent reform of the A-level curriculum to ensure balance and coherence as well as breadth.

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