Chemical attraction

Vivian Anthony explains how schools and industry could entice more pupils into science
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The Independent Online
It will be a relief to many that this year's exam results reveal a rise in the number of candidates for A-level mathematics and for GCSE science and maths. Moreover, the pass rates and the grade levels went up by at least a percentage point. So much for the good news; the bad news is that the numbers taking A-level in physics and chemistry continues to decline.

Most pundits agree that these subjects are central to our efforts to prepare the young for the technological and scientific challenges of the 21st century, although they do not always agree on what is needed in the way of preparation. The greatest possible facility in key skills, including numeracy and information technology, is at the top of most lists.

Those who oppose the idea of mathematics and science for all through to GCSE are a dying breed, though some still question whether all three sciences need to be studied. There are now nearly a million entries for combined science at GCSE, while entries for the separate sciences are below 50,000 for each.

Is combined science a sufficient preparation for young people? For those not going on to a scientific or technological career it may well be sufficient, but there is concern that the needs of the nation in these areas are not being met.

At the top level we may be holding our own with the rest of the world, but in the middle and lower ranks we are not attracting sufficient quantity or quality. The development of General National Vocational Qualifications in manufacturing and science will help, but more should be done to attract young people to A-level science and mathematics. The availability of new, horizontal AS-level courses, equivalent to the first year of A-level, should, at least, encourage those for whom science is not their main interest to take their studies a little further.

A survey by Graham Able, headmaster of Hampton School in Middlesex, of heads of department in Headmasters' Conference schools gave an indication of the problems. Young people think it is harder to get good grades in these subjects and so choose arts or social science subjects. Professor Carol FitzGibbon of Durham University School of Education has produced supporting evidence, and Sir Ron Dearing has recommended efforts to restore equivalence between subjects. Respondents thought it harder to get equivalent grades in separate subjects at GCSE than in combined science, and yet most believed that separate sciences better prepared them for A-level.

Many HMC schools want greater opportunities for the most able students to be able to take their work beyond A-level, either through a revitalised S-level paper or "Advanced Placement" work whereby universities give recognition or credits equivalent to first-year degree-level work. This would enable top-level scientists to make more rapid progress.

Others have benefited from the growth of modular A-level courses and these will soon be in the majority. Teachers believe that there should be more careful control of this development, but they applaud the increased motivation, particularly among students of lesser ability. This, and the GNVQ development, should produce a much needed increase in the number of applicants for university places in science and engineering.

While the take-up of maths and science in independent schools is higher than elsewhere, there is a trend towards mixing these subjects with arts and social science. Those who believe that specialisation should be left until as late as possible will applaud this. More girls are choosing science, but until now physics syllabuses have not proved attractive enough for take-up by girls to increase.

Much depends on the teaching lower down the school. If the subject is not taught by well-qualified, enthusiastic teachers early on, pupils will not be persuaded to continue. Strategies must be found to encourage more high-quality science graduates to enter the profession, and incentives must be provided for teachers to undertake more professional development and training.

Pupils choose the subjects at A-level that they have most enjoyed, or those they believe will provide them with the best employment opportunities. It is paradoxical that, despite protests that we are not producing scientists in sufficient number and calibre, science and engineering graduates cannot expect to earn as much on average as those who follow other routes, such as accountancy or law.

Schools and colleges will, no doubt, continue to tell pupils of the encouraging developments in maths and science when guiding their subject choice at the beginning of the academic year but industry and business will have to show a greater appreciation of this educational route if take-up trends are to be reversed.

The writer is secretary of the Headmasters' Conference.