Much potential is being wasted because girls continue to turn away from physical sciences and maths at A-level, says a new report published by the Department for Education and Employment. Fear of mathematics still seems to limit their choices, it says.
The study shows that girls from single-sex schools were more likely to choose these subjects, largely because they had done well in them at GCSE. "The most important influences on the uptake of science and mathematics at A-level are the subjects taken and results obtained in GCSE," says the report from the Policy Studies Institute. "To increase uptake, change needs to take place further down the school."
The findings, which will provide food for thought for policy-makers worried about the shortage of scientists and mathematicians in the 21st century, also suggest that studying separate sciences at GCSE is more likely to lead on to a choice of physical sciences and maths at A-level, while "combined" or "balanced" science at GCSE leads more often to biology. This could confirm the fears of opponents of "balanced" science; however, the researchers advise caution, since "balanced" science was very new at the time of the survey, which covers the years 1989-92.
The report, which looks at science and mathematics in full-time education after 16 in England and Wales as part of the ongoing Youth Cohort Study, says the arts-science divide "remains strong". In vocational courses, for example, many more boys than girls studied technical subjects related to maths and physical sciences, while girls were more likely to take subjects related to medicine and life sciences. "However by far the most popular subjects for girls were business and social studies," say the researchers Yuan Cheng, Joan Payne and Sharon Witherspoon.
They found that more pupils took science and maths subjects in AS courses than the other subjects. But added that only about a fifth of pupils do AS courses.
Those who did not take GCSE biology were more likely than those who did to take a physical science at A-level. "The greater the number of GCSE A-C grades obtained in other subjects, the less likely it was that the student would choose physical sciences," says the report. "Overall, GCSE results appeared to be a more important factor in the choice of physical sciences for girls than for boys." Asian students were more likely to take physical sciences than white students.
The researchers also found that schools make a difference when it comes to pupils' A-level decisions, but were unable to identify the factors that accounted for the variation. They suggest that more research should be carried out about how schools influence subject choice. "It would be particularly useful to be able to relate information on students' choices to data on schools' staffing levels in science and mathematics and the qualifications of the science and mathematics staff."
The report, England and Wales Youth Cohort Study: science and mathematics in full-time education after 16, is available from Research Strategy Branch, Department for Education and Employment, Moorfoot, Sheffield S1 4PQ.