The English are now too posh for science

19th May 2006 at 01:00
Forget the Polish plumber - the Polish scientist will plug our skills gap in future. The numbers taking science in Poland are on the up while in England the number opting for science degrees has dropped 30 per cent in the past decade. This leads us to a worrying question: is this country becoming too posh for science?

A recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development conference on the decline in science-degree enrolments found that the richer the country, the more young people shy away from demanding science courses.

English students are instead taking "easy" A-levels such as psychology and media studies. German and Scandinavian youngsters are giving up science in droves.

Yet studies also show that at ages 11-15, young people's interest in the world and in science is high. So why does it drop off so dramatically in rich countries? Is the teaching dull? Is science too hard?

It can't be duller or harder than 30 years ago when many more boys opted for science. Did you notice that Eureka moment in the last episode of Channel 4's That'll Teach 'Em when one of the boys said he'd never enjoyed science so much? Of course, no one is advocating a return to 1950s-style lessons; besides, declining interest in science has been noted among 15-year-olds in India, too, where arguably the teaching is like it was in the 1950s here. Nonetheless, a far higher proportion of Indian boys continue with physics, chemistry or biology. A wide-ranging international study, Rose (The Relevance of Science Education) found that 15-year-olds like science least in Scandinavia, Japan and England. They like science as much as arts subjects in Malaysia, but far prefer the sciences in India.

The preference for science over arts is most marked in Africa, and is at its highest in Uganda and Malawi.

Dr Svein Sj?berg of the Rose project says young people in poor countries not only wish to carve out a top-notch career and develop their minds but also to improve their country. They know scientific progress translates into economic growth. They have also seen vaccines and drugs dramatically improve lives.

But in the richest countries the life-improving effects of science are less tangible: youngsters do not remember diseases some grandparents died of, and science may even be seen as a bad thing - polluting the world and causing global warming. Technology is equated with entertainment - iPods, games consoles, or DVDs.

Rose also found that teenagers in countries that have been wealthy for less than a generation (Finland, South Korea) value science more than those with unbroken prosperity since World War II (Scandinavia, Britain, US, Japan).

In Finland and South Korea, "parents still know what it is to suffer", Dr Sj?berg says.

In England, continued interest in science among second-generation immigrants is masking the real extent of the decline in interest among the general population. The take-up of science A-levels by ethnic minorities, particularly those with Indian or Chinese parents, is closer to the take-up in Finland and South Korea.

This is true in other rich countries with ethnic minorities, such as the US. In the Nordic countries, Muslim girls are far more likely to opt for science than Scandinavian girls, who would far rather be actresses, journalists and lawyers.

The English response to the decline is to try to engage young people with a new GCSE in "science literacy", which focuses on the relevance of science and weighs up the pros and cons of scientific decisions, leaving out the "hard" and "boring" bits.

It is better than nothing, but imagine the future: English pupils, with their bluffer's guide to science will intelligently discuss the relative merits of wind turbines and nuclear power while scientists elsewhere are discovering a better alternative to both.

As Professor Alan Smithers, director of education and employment research at Buckingham university, says: "The attitude towards science is at the sharp end of a general attitude to education in this country. We will suffer from this. We will become lazy and self-indulgent and dependent on those who have the power and the desire to do things about world problems."

Yojana Sharma is a journalist

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