Education: View from here

Click to follow
The Independent Online
One of the problems of "women in science" is that it is not just one problem. Rather, the term is a convenient umbrella for referring to a range of issues touching on women in late 20th-century society in all its complexity, and encompassing therefore economic imponderables, cultural values, biological imperatives and the public perception of science and scientists. There is no magic bullet through this tightly woven tapestry of feelings and facts, but just over 18 months ago, the opportunity arose for making one small breach.

It was whilst talking at the Girls' School Association conference in Brighton in the autumn of 1996 that it became apparent to me that many teachers were far from happy about secondary school science teaching, particularly for girls. Yes, we all acknowledge that girl-only establishments have nullified the problem of sexual stereotyping, enabling them choice unencumbered by peer expectations and pressures: but on the other hand, the take-up is still sluggish and the attitude persists that it is unfeminine to do science unless one adopts the girlie face of biology, medicine or veterinary sciences, where one's non-macho persona is preserved by "working with people".

It struck me that here was a specific problem that could be tackled as such. No, it was not solving many, perhaps most, of the wider and deeper issues of "women in science", but at least it was focused enough to identify and explore. Moreover, even though any conclusions reached might not redress current difficulties, the fact that the question centred on the next generation, at the grass roots, made a possible investigation particularly compelling. The idea that began to crystallise was that it would be marvellous to organise a one-day conference, not aimed at teachers but at the girls themselves, specifically those that still had to make the choice over what A-levels to choose. But how to make it happen?

Enter Gresham College in Holborn, an oasis of scholarship in the rush and thrust of the City. By virtue of my appointment there as Professor of Physic, I was able to harness the links the college has within the Square Mile, and indeed to suggest a vehicle for promoting one of its main objectives in promoting education and related issues. The Gresham College academic registrar, Maggie Butcher, was able to take on the brunt of administration, and to organise use of the Guildhall. Margaret Rudland, headmistress of the Godolphin and Latymer school, and thus an expert on secondary education, made up the third member of our committee. So, with help from the Department of Trade and Industry, the GSA, the Corporation of London and Gresham College, we have been able to organise a one-day conference next Monday, 9 March, for Year 10 girls (the pre-GCSE year) at the Guildhall.

Some might think that we have been over-restrictive and that the maintained sector, those outside of the south east, and boys are under-represented. But it would be impossible to target all UK schools at once. If the meeting proves successful, then it will be tempting to try to repeat the event in the north. More independent schools than girls-only maintained schools will be present due simply to the fact that most single-sex schools are in the independent sector. One could extend the proceedings to boys, but that is starting to open up the umbrella beyond the one specific question we will be discussing. It was important to see how useful a single question to a single sex could be developed and tackled.

The day will start with a report of experiences of science teaching, followed by two sixth-formers - one who has chosen science and one who has opted for arts - explaining their preferences and expectations. In response to what we hope will be a snapshot of the school angle, Rosie Boycott, editor of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday, Nancy Lane, a cell biologist from Cambridge, Jean Irvine, group personnel strategy director of the Post Office, and yours truly will speak of our own experiences, and show the girls that a wide range of careers are available from a scientific launch pad. After lunch we will set up a panel discussion for answering queries and questions. Over tea, each of us will be available for more informal interactions.

The emphasis is on interchange, not just as crusty experts sounding forth but also on listening to what the girls perceive as problems and drawbacks to taking the scientific path in the sixth form. By means of pre- circulated questionnaires we will gain some concrete data as well as a more personal impression of the current situation.

We will not solve the problem of women in science in a day; we will probably not solve the "simple" problem of why science is unpopular with schoolgirls in all-girl schools. But if we can learn anything at all, surely it will be a day well spent.

The writer is professor of pharmacology at the University of Oxford.