How GCSE Science is failing students – and society

Students are being put off careers in STEM. shutterstock

The UK is facing massive skills shortages in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers – according to one study 43% of STEM vacancies are difficult to fill.

This is why the government has been trying to increase and widen participation in STEM careers and education, to ensure a better prepared workforce for the future. To try and address the STEM gap, the “triple science” GCSE qualification was introduced. Triple science is the route allowing students to study biology, chemistry and physics as separate subjects. This leads to three distinct GCSE awards.

Triple science has been championed by the government and industry for the way it prepares students for the world of STEM employment. This is compared to alternative routes like double science, which awards students two GCSEs for studying the three sciences.

But our research suggests that the triple science route could actually be perpetuating social inequalities among pupils who are studying and aspiring to work in science. This is in part down to the fact that the provision of triple science varies from school to school. This is because of inconsistent resources and differences in how students are selected to study triple science. And this ultimately means that students in deprived areas are much less likely to attend schools that offer this option.

Not good enough

Based at the UCL Institute of Education, our research uses an ongoing longitudinal study of school students in England that tracks their science and career aspirations. The study includes surveys conducted with over 13,000 Year 11 students and interviews with 70 young people.

This research has found that the most socially disadvantaged students are nearly three times less likely to study triple science compared to the most advantaged.

A student’s ethnicity also has a bearing on their likelihood to study triple science. Chinese students are two-and-a-half times more likely to take triple than double science. Students in middle and bottom sets are also much less likely to study triple science than their peers in top sets.

Overlooked and undervalued

Despite the notion of choice surrounding the GCSE selection process, our research found that many students taking triple science have this decided for them – or are steered into a particular choice – by their school. Students are often directed to, or away from, this route – sometimes with school results a leading factor.

This was recently acknowledged by the head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, in a speech at the Association of Science Education’s 2018 conference:

In most of the schools we visited, the option of taking triple or double science GCSE – and as a result, some key stage five courses – was almost entirely dependent on student results and overlooked pupils’ own aspirations.

Some pupils are having their options limited, as schools fear they will not make the grade.

Triple science can be overwhelmingly seen as the high status route for those who are “clever” and “sciencey”, both by those students taking it and those taking alternative options.

Students studying for double science and science BTEC can be left feeling inferior. This may be especially true in schools which threaten to “bump down” triple science students to double science if they fail to achieve the top grades. As Bobster, a Year 13 student, said:

Science at school was interesting. I did quite enjoy it actually … I was in triple science until about mid-Year 10. Then I was moved down … It was just like ‘yeah, we can see that you’re really struggling with it’, and it was like ‘I’m not, I can get it done’, but it was like ‘yeah we just think it would be better if you like move down.

‘Science isn’t for me’

Our research also showed that triple science students have more positive attitudes and confidence about their ability in science than those not taking this route.

We found that students on this route were more likely to study science after leaving school and more likely to aspire to work in STEM careers. Whereas those taking double science or alternative qualifications, may be left questioning their ability in science and discouraged from aspiring to work in STEM. As one of the Year 11 students, Georgia, explained:

I was quite gutted that I didn’t get triple science, but obviously I’m not as good in lessons … I was planning on doing triple science and then obviously going on and doing a science career, but I didn’t get triple science, I didn’t get picked for it.

For Georgia, missing out on the chance to study triple science due to her school’s policy, ultimately discouraged her from pursuing her ambition of becoming a marine biologist, which became evident when tracking her aspirations as part of the longitudinal project.

So while it was hoped that this widely praised route would help to address the UK’s STEM skills gap – by providing higher attaining students with the opportunity to study science in greater depth and breadth – it seems it may instead have served to narrow the pool of potential future scientists.

The Conversation

Louise Archer receives funding from the ESRC.