Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report


113. The major challenge for science post-16 is to attract students while ensuring that the courses offered provide a sound basis for further study in science. This requires A level courses which do not appear discouragingly difficult and boring, alternative science courses linked more clearly to careers and better information for students.

A levels


114. The Roberts Review found that the average A level point score of undergraduates in scientific disciplines had increased in recent years.[208] This needs to be reconciled with universities' perceptions that the quality of their intake is falling.[209] This is at least partly caused by the increasingly varied background of undergraduate students and the provision of A level courses that offer flexibility and prioritise contemporary science. We think that these changes in the style of A level science should serve to motivate and interest students and that universities are best served by enthusiastic students who want to learn. If A level courses were designed primarily so that they provided a stepping stone to go on to university, there would be a risk that an increasing number of students would opt out. Post-16 students at Quintin Kynaston School in London told us that they had already been put off studying science at university by comments from older friends that had moved on to higher education. They would be switched off even earlier if A level courses took the same approach.

115. 60% of A level students take at least one science or maths subject. They will go on to a wide range of employment and higher education courses. David Giachardi of the Royal Society of Chemistry has told us that "chemistry is very interesting for its own sake and if somebody, for example, reads a chemistry degree...and goes off into the City, is that a waste?".[210] The same applies to A level sciences. The reality is that many students only choose science A levels if they think that they will need them for their career. We would like to see students encouraged to study science A levels as part of a broad education and see no reason why science A levels should be specifically orientated to the needs of science and engineering departments at universities.[211] In providing A level science courses it is difficult to strike a balance between attracting a broad range of students and providing the content needed for transition to science-based courses at university. The onus should be on universities to adapt to the changing nature of their intake. The Roberts Review recommends that the Government fund universities to use new "entry support courses" and e-learning programmes to bridge gaps between A levels and degree courses. We endorse this recommendation.


116. Claire Dawe, a student at Redland High School, Bristol told us about how her school was approaching the issue of mathematical skills: "We have one lesson of maths a week which basically goes over all the maths which will be needed within our science syllabus, so it keeps up the maths skills. I think that is a very good idea".[212] This approach has been formalised in courses developed with funding from the Nuffield Foundation.[213] For example, an AS in the Use of Mathematics has been developed which is specifically designed to teach maths in ways that support other subjects. A similar solution is now used at Nottingham Medical School with the introduction of a data analysis module to reinforce mathematical skills.[214] Again, it is necessary to strike a balance between providing courses that attract students to A level science while also providing a basis for transition to university. The Institute of Physics published a report on undergraduate physics in 2001, which concluded that university physics departments needed to alter their courses in response to changes at A level and to give students opportunities to strengthen their maths skills.[215] It also argued that there was a case for a new type of physics degree with less mathematical content that would be part of a general education rather than preparation to become a physicist. On balance we are persuaded that the mathematical demands of school science at A level are appropriate. Where students need support with their maths, additional maths courses are available for schools to offer. Any increase in the maths content of A level science courses would risk alienating students further. Where universities require greater mathematical skills, they should take action to teach these themselves.


117. It seems that it may be more difficult to achieve high grades in A level science subjects than some others. There are several ways of looking at this. One is to accept that science by its very nature - requiring students to understand abstract concepts and develop a particular way of thinking and processing information - is, and always has been, more difficult than some other subjects. If young people find the subject interesting, see its relevance to their lives and are fully aware of the value of scientific qualifications for future careers, they will choose to study science for these reasons. The challenge is to achieve this, which is discussed elsewhere in this report. A second is to aim to make grades across all A level subjects comparable. The Roberts Review believed that "this can and should be done without compromising the core knowledge and skills needed for studying science and engineering in higher education". A third is for universities to give a greater weighting to grades in those subjects that are known to be more difficult. This may occur already to some extent. Students do not want to get lower grades than their peers and are deterred from taking science simply out of interest. The Government should ask QCA and the awarding bodies to explore how it would be possible to address the imbalance in grading across A level subjects.

Alternatives to A level

118. Vocational courses in 'science' have not attracted a large number of students, as described in paragraphs 64-65. FE colleges offer vocational courses that are linked directly to specific careers; schools do not usually have the equipment or expertise to deliver these courses. Chris Roberts from Bradford FE College gave us examples of science-based vocational courses offered by his college, which included pharmacy, ophthalmic dispensing and sports science.[216] Students studying beauty therapy at Hammersmith and West London College told us that they had not initially realised that the course would include any science, but that having studied aspects of science as part of their course, they had enjoyed it. Their course would have included aspects of microbiology, dermatology, anatomy, physiology, nutrition. Their lecturers suggested that if the students had been taught these topics as straight science rather than in the context of beauty therapy, they would not have enjoyed it. Jane Clifford, a lecturer at Brooklands College in Surrey, pointed out that many of the students entering FE colleges would have struggled with GCSE science. She said that they "very often feel that science is hard and it is not a subject that they want to do".[217] Rather than retaking GCSE science, and potentially failing again, they would be encouraged to take vocational courses where the different style of learning could enable them to succeed. FE colleges offer a range of science-based vocational courses linked to specific careers. These give students the opportunity to engage with science and achieve where they may previously have struggled.

119. The vocational qualifications in science do have an important role in allowing students who have not achieved on traditional courses to engage with science and move on to further or higher education in science or employment. The Association of Colleges tell us that the Intermediate GNVQ is a useful stepping stone between GCSE and VCE. Without it, students who do not achieve at GCSE will have limited options available.[218] They are concerned that QCA plan to terminate the intermediate GNVQ in 2006 in the expectation that the Applied Science GCSE will be fulfilling the same role, which they did not think it would do. This can be contrasted with the situation in Scotland where there are now five different levels of qualification available to students after they have completed Standard Grade, the equivalent of GCSE. Teachers that we spoke to at Beeslack High School, Penicuik told us that students were motivated by the knowledge that there was a course in science that they could progress to even when they had not achieved top grades at Standard Grade. For those students who do not achieve grade C in GCSE science, there need to be intermediate qualifications available that will allow them to move on to AS and A level or VCE.

A broad education

120. In paragraph 85, we say that students should be required to have studied a balance of biology, chemistry and physics in order to be awarded a matriculation diploma at age 19. To go one step further, the question arises whether science should be a compulsory subject for all post-16 students as part of a broad education. We note that the International Baccalaureate, offered by some schools in England, requires students to study a science to age 18.[219] In France, all students studying academic courses leading to the baccalaureate study a core science curriculum. In Germany, students must continue to study at least one science to age 19. In Canada, to qualify for a university course, even to read arts, a specific science course (biology, chemistry, physics or earth sciences) needs to be taken post-16. In Sweden, a Science Studies course forms part of all national programmes available to post-16 students - not just those following academic courses, but vocational too. This course "aims to provide the knowledge of science necessary for people to engage with it as citizens". In the other countries from whom we received evidence (Denmark, Iceland, Italy, Holland, Switzerland, the United States and Japan), we understand that science is not compulsory post-16.[220]

121. The introduction of a post-16 curriculum in England that laid down compulsory subjects would represent a major shift in approach.[221] This is particularly true now that a wider range of courses, including vocational and work-based options, are followed by post-16 students. Schools and colleges are still adapting to the recent post-16 reforms, which were intended to broaden the range of subjects studied by students. As noted in paragraph 47, it does not seem that these reforms have resulted in a significant increase in the number of students studying science to AS level post-16. In evaluating the new AS and A level structure, the Government should look closely at whether the changes have successfully broadened the curriculum studied by post-16 students. If this is not the case, Government should consider the introduction of a compulsory post-16 curriculum, which would include science as one of its core subjects.

Increasing the awareness of scientific careers

122. As we have seen, students tend to choose to study science post-16 despite their experiences at GCSE rather than because of their experiences. They are motivated by longer term ambitions, although students knowledge of the options open to them after studying science is limited. Improving the experience of science at 14 to 16 in the ways that we suggest in this report should motivate students to consider studying science post-16. They should be provided with proper careers advice.[222] Government should ensure that the careers service improves the quality of advice offered to school students about scientific careers and the breadth of career possibilities open to those with qualifications in science.

123. Young people have reported that careers advice is most helpful where they already have an idea of the area in which they would like to work, so their initial interest in science related careers needs to be stimulated in other ways. A student at Quintin Kynaston School, London told us that his knowledge of where scientific careers could lead came from his mother, a virologist. Most students do not have such inspiration available to them so close to home and this is where it can be useful to identify role models. Nigel Thomas of the Royal Society told us that the best way to increase the number of girls interested in scientific careers would be to "put women as role models in the situation where they were accessible to school pupils".[223] We would see the same applying to boys. There are a number of schemes that create opportunities for students to meet scientists. Sheffield Hallam University tell us about their Researchers in Residence programme, run with funding from the research councils.[224] It is based on postgraduate students spending between six and eight half days in a school, working with students on science investigations and projects. Government has recognised the value of role models in motivating young people, which resulted in the launch of the Science and Engineering Ambassadors scheme in January 2002 as a joint initiative between DfES and DTI. This aims to bring 30,000 young people working in science, engineering and technology into schools for a few days each year to act as role models and mentors. Their role is to work with teachers rather than as teachers and this we support. Teaching is a profession; scientists are not trained to do it. We welcome the motivation behind the Government's Science and Engineering Ambassadors initiative and look forward to seeing an evaluation of how effectively it is implemented and what impact it has.

124. Research by the National Institute for Careers Education and Counselling (NICEC) reports that work experience is commonly cited as the most useful part of a careers programme. Most young people have the opportunity to go on work experience placements, usually for one or two weeks. However, the NICEC research found that schools often had difficulty finding placements in science and engineering based employers because of insurance and health and safety issues or the lack of local science-based employers.[225] Teachers in Bolton said that science students often carried out work experience in completely irrelevant environments, for example working as shop assistants.[226] They wanted engineering and science-based companies to be encouraged to participate in work experience schemes. NICEC suggest that alternative approaches, such as work shadowing, work simulation or short courses, be explored by schools and employers. One example of this is a three day event for girls run by the Women into Science and Engineering scheme, described to us by George Salmon of the Institution of Incorporated Engineers.[227] Over the three days the students visit several local engineering companies and complete an engineering project. Victor Lucas from the Engineering Council told us that a number of similar schemes exist but that the level to which schools and colleges get involved "is very variable across the country".[228] We have heard from Denmark of a pilot project in which students, as part of a three year post-16 science course, spend one week each year carrying out a science-based project in a local company.[229]

125. An increase in the teaching of vocationally orientated courses at 14 to 16 might change this. For example, the new GCSE in Applied Science will require students to complete a project investigating how science is used in selected workplace. The AQA draft specification for this course suggests students could look at a hospital laboratory, a civil engineering company or an environmental monitoring consultancy, among others. This sort of project has the potential to bring science to life for young people studying traditional science courses as well. However, it is time consuming for teachers to organise outside visits or speakers and it also uses valuable classroom time. Where teachers feel under pressure, whether from their workload or from an overloaded curriculum, they are less likely to use time setting up links with local companies. A benefit of requiring science to be taught using contemporary contexts is that it would encourage more science teachers to make use of local science-based employers to support their teaching.

208   Roberts Review, para 3.12 Back

209   See paragraphs 66-68 above Back

210   Evidence taken for the Inquiry into Scientific Learned Societies. Q210. Back

211   See also Ev 114, para 2.2; Ev 132, para 15 Back

212   Q106 Back

213   Ev 157, paras 23-24 Back

214   Q388. See also Ev 89, para 11. Back

215   Physics - building a flourishing future. Institute of Physics. 2001. Available via Back

216   Q312 Back

217   Q313 Back

218   Ev 103, para 123. GNVQs will continue to be accredited until 2006. Back

219   Q260 Back

220   See Annex 2 Back

221   See proposals Ev 108, paras 7-10; Ev 139, paras 3.7-3.8; Ev 164, para 36 Back

222   Ev 145, para 21-22; Ev 174, para 20 Back

223   Q39 Back

224   SED26. Unprinted evidence. See also Ev 131, para 4 Back

225   SED6. Unprinted evidence. Choosing Science at 16: The influences of science teachers and careers advisers on students' decisions about science subjects and science and technology careers. 2000. Published by CRAC. Back

226   Ev 201. See also Ev 146, para 27-29 Back

227   Q69. See also Ev 173, Exhibit 2 Back

228   Q69 Back

229   Annex 2 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 11 July 2002