Education Quandary

'My daughter loves science, but says she doesn't want to study with "only boys" in the sixth form'
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The Independent Online

Hilary's advice

What your daughter means is that there will be more boys than girls taking sciences, and that all her close friends plan to do arts subjects. Even so, it will be hard for her to see beyond the imagined social isolation to the long-term opportunities from studying sciences.

There have been many initiatives designed to encourage girls into science, but none has worked very well. Last year, Daniel Sandford Smith of the Institute of Physics told the House of Lords that research showed that ultimately "it is the quality of teaching that matters and if you do not improve the quality of physics teachers in schools, you will not be able to address the problem."

This won't help your daughter, so go all out to make her see the broader picture. Talk about jobs and salaries; take her to visit university science departments; track down happy female graduates; and find interesting work experience for her. Seek help from her science teachers, and from organisations such as Wise (Women Into Science and Engineering, at www.wisecampaign.org.uk). She might hate you for it now but thank you later.

Readers' advice

Choosing only arts subjects closes a lot of doors. Our schools have an excellent record in encouraging girls to study science at A-level - if girls nationally studied physics and chemistry to the extent that they do in our sixth forms, there would be 19,000 more chemistry and 8,000 more physics A-levels sat every year. When we surveyed our former students who did science, most had gone on to careers in science, medicine and related subjects. Because they had a passion for the subject, they were still enjoying their work many years later.

Maureen Bosch, The Girls' Day School Trust

As I was interviewing for head of physics, I set this quandary as a written exercise for candidates. One wrote: "Is your daughter aware of the high proportion studying science in girls' schools? This could persuade her to view science as a positive choice. Get her to discuss what aspects of science she finds interesting. Search for residential courses aimed specifically at girls studying science. Research the destinations of graduates from university websites; she may be surprised at the range of opportunities science opens up." Another suggested that the overall problem needs to be tackled by the school's leadership at an earlier stage.

Girls in Girls' Schools Association schools do very well in science compared with girls in co-ed schools, but sustaining this depends on good scientists joining the teaching profession.

Vicky Tuck, Principal, Cheltenham Ladies' College

In 1955, I chose maths, physics and chemistry at A-level, then read science and maths at university. I was one of five girls in a class of 25 at school and one of five in a class of 100 at university. At both, girls were subject to patronising sexism that would be intolerable today. We assumed the poor dears didn't know any better and got on with our work. Your daughter can spend time with friends outside lessons and show the boys that science is not a male preserve.

Angela Kingston, Leeds

Next Week's Quandary

Dear Hilary,

I am looking for my first headship. I have had 15 years of experience as a classroom teacher, head of department and deputy head. I feel absolutely outraged to think that I could soon be ranged against other candidates coming in to run schools from industry. How can they possibly know, in the same way that I do, what makes a good school?

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to arrive no later than Monday 29 January, to 'The Independent', Education Desk, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or e-mail h.wilce@btinternet.com. Please include your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack of a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser.

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