Comment: Red stilettos in the chemistry lab
Thursday 15 April 1999
All this I learnt from my daughters who, like every other 12-year-old in their class, had a violent crush on Miss Glover and, naturally, wanted to be like her when they grew up. "You mean you want to be chemists?" I asked. Yes, they chorused. But not necessarily chemistry teachers. They'd be very happy working in Boots. The first parent/ teachers meeting I ever went to, I made a beeline for Miss Glover's corner to see whether they'd been exaggerating. I couldn't get anywhere near it. The press of parents, mainly fathers, waiting to talk to Miss Glover about their daughters' progress was too great. The year before they did their GCSEs, Miss Glover left (presumably to go to Hollywood) and thereafter no further mention was made by either daughter of a scientific career.
I mention all this only because of the latest suggestion put forward by educationists - that more girls would do science at A-level and university if they had more attractive role models. Maybe they are right, and if the only way to test the theory is by giving science teachers sports cars and a clothing allowance, that's fine by me.
The trouble is, I don't think it would work. It's not the teachers so much as the method of teaching that puts children off science. There is nothing I would like more than a child with a scientific bent. If all this talk about the two cultures is correct - that's the 1999 version of the two cultures, by the way: art for girls, science for boys - then theoretically I'm in with a chance with my sons.
Chance would be a fine thing. Like their sisters, who did languages, they too want to speak with tongues. For Christmas last year I gave the one who is heading for GCSEs a wonderfully complicated fold-up microscope to set him on course to win the Nobel Prize for physics. "But I'm giving up physics, it's so boring," he said.
This too, it turned out, was the eventual verdict of my daughter's friend, who read natural sciences at Cambridge. She was one of the few who managed to survive the Glover gap. Finola, all agreed, had a natural talent for chemistry and would, one of these days, emulate the school's most famous old girl, Rosamund Franklyn, the DNA pioneer. Alas no. When she graduated, Finola spent a year doing research, then jacked it in in favour of a science broadcasting course. She's now working for television's most popular science programme. When I rang her yesterday to question her narrowly as to why she'd given up pure science for impure media, she thought I was replying to an ad she had placed in Time Out looking for women willing to have their breasts enlarged. "Why did I give up science? Because it was too focused, too narrow and, frankly, too boring. Imagine a whole year studying a single molecule."
The real issue, surely, is not why more girls aren't doing science but why anybody isn't doing science these days. You need As and Bs at A-level to read languages and literature at university. Cs and Ds will bag you a place to read physics or chemistry, so desperate are the science departments. At the rate we're going, the only way to lure students into university laboratories will be to offer them a free Nintendo game or a season ticket to Man U with every module.
Everyone agrees that we don't set enough store by science. Or take it seriously. "Cambridge scientists discover 80 new ways to tie a tie", was the last big science story I read. As I came home on the bus the other day, the small girl on the seat beside me was reading aloud to her mother, not from a book but from a poster. "Physics is phun," it said, and went on to describe simply but interestingly why the bubbly bath disappears when you put the soap in. The campaign is being run by the Institute of Physics and with any luck will inspire its sister institutes to do the same. I want to discuss this excellent awareness campaign with my son's physics teacher. But, of course, he wouldn't know anything about it. He doesn't use buses. He drives to school in a Porsche.
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