A London girls' comprehensive has boosted take-up rates in A-level physics and chemistry. Diana Hinds reports.
Four years ago there was no physics A-level at the Grey Coat Hospital, a voluntary-aided comprehensive for girls in Westminster. This year, 10 pupils in the upper sixth and 23 in the lower sixth are taking the subject, and more than a third of the lower sixth are studying one or more science A- levels.
In view of continuing concern about why more girls do not opt for science, these figures are striking. Does Grey Coat Hospital know something that others don't?
A report published recently by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority suggested that it is much harder for A-level students to get good grades in maths and the sciences than in many arts and humanities subjects, which could help to explain why the numbers opting for those subjects is falling.
Physics is said to be the hardest in which to get a good grade and it is not popular with girls - only one for about every four boys chooses the subject at A-level. However, recent research by Bristol University shows that girls who are taught GCSE physics in single-sex classes perform better and are more likely to take the subject at A-level, because they are more confident.
Certainly there is no shortage of confidence among the girls at Grey Coat Hospital. "They are encouraged to think highly of themselves and they have never been put off science by seeing it as a male preserve," says Flavia Lambert, head of the sixth form.
"If anything, their ambitions can sometimes be unrealistically high - for instance, half the A-level chemistry group have said they want to be doctors, but not all of them will get the grades."
Marion Parsons, the headteacher, began to take science in hand about four years ago and, with her staff, has worked to give the subject a much higher profile throughout the school.
There are several new faces in the department - "I do think that having energetic, enthusiastic teachers as role models, who believe that girls can do it, is one of the keys."
Her efforts to turn a subject around began with maths eight years ago when she first arrived at Grey Coat - "there were teachers in the department who didn't really believe that the girls could do maths."
The science team is a mixture of young and more experienced teachers; all those teaching A-level physics, chemistry or biology are specialists in their subject - which isn't always the case in secondary schools. "Teachers are the biggest influence on whether you like the subject or not," says 17-year-old Arfy Majeed who is considering a career in either medicine or astronomy.
Louise Westcar, 27, who teaches A-level biology, last year started a science club after school for Years 9 and 10, and encourages Year 9 pupils to enter for the CREST awards (Creativity in Science and Technology). Martina Lecky, 24, A-level chemistry teacher, has made it her mission to give pupils a taste of science in the outside world, by organising trips and inviting speakers to the school. Last year, she got sponsorship to take a party of girls to Switzerland to CERN, the nuclear particle accelerator.
Naomi Szewczyk-Morgan, now studying A-level maths, physics and chemistry, was one of the younger girls on the trip: "I didn't understand it at all, but it made my head go 'wow'. It made me realise that the world is science."
As well as making science fun, such excursions and talks also demonstrate to the girls some of the subject's practical applications of science, and its different career possibilities, such as food science, medicinal chemistry and engineering.
Applying science to everyday life is now more a feature of the national curriculum and is an approach that appeals to many girls. "We try hard to find an example for everything we do," says Mrs Westcar.
The first three years of secondary school are crucial if pupils are not to be put off GCSE science. Again, Grey Coat Hospital tries to make the subject more enjoyable for this age group, by introducing competitions and games. Since September l993, the school has also made use of the CASE project (Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education), devised by King's College, London, which focuses on skills and reasoning rather than right and wrong answers. "We don't swamp them with content, but we give them the skills to be investigators," explains Ms Lecky.
Grey Coat Hospital has a Church of England foundation and draws girls from all over London to its sites - the upper school is near Victoria Station. GCSE results overall are above average (47 per cent last year gained five or more A-C grades) and A-level science results are improving .
More pupils are opting for GCSE science, and the vast majority do double science - a mixture of physics, chemistry and biology - which staff like because it is "broad and balanced", and good on the application of science.
Teaching the girls on their own up to A-level is enormously beneficial, according to Mrs Parsons, who has taught in, and was educated at mixed schools. "Boys get 75 per cent of the teacher's time and if the teacher tries to redress the balance, the boys complain."
Because Grey Coat is part of a sixth-form consortium, with Westminster City and Pimlico Schools, there are currently three boys doing science A-levels with the girls.
Mrs Westcar thinks that they add "variety and a bit of spice; they'll tend to start a discussion going" but the girls are much more ambivalent about their presence.
"They can be really arrogant in class, they come up with big words and make us all look small," according to one. "I like them outside school," said another, "but the dosage we have got here is about right."
The school is confident that its buoyant A-level numbers are no mere blip, but part of a general upward trend in science. Much of its success must derive from the hard work of its staff, and a co-operative pooling of good ideas. "These results are very encouraging," says Catherine Wilson, education manager at the Institute of Physics, who believes that single-sex teaching is certainly worth examining as a way forward.
But it is not only girls who could benefit from the Grey Coat Hospital approach to science: "Enhancement of the curriculum is very important," says Ms Wilson.
"There is an increasing mismatch between real science and school science, partly because real science is moving on so fast: the curriculum doesn't leave enough room for science at the frontiers of research and its most modern applications.
"What does seem to tip the balance is getting pupils out of the school situation and seeing science in a broader arena. Girls - and boys too - will put up with difficulty and persevere, if they can see a purpose to what they are doing."
* The TES Science Teacher of the Year award recognises excellent teaching in schools and colleges. Nomination forms, which must be returned by May 31, are available from the Association of Science Education, College Lane, Hatfield, Herts AL10 9AA. Please enclose an A4 SAE.