Pupils prefer to stress the practical

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The Independent Online
If they have the choice, GCSE pupils prefer careers education to chemistry, first aid to physics, according to new research which shows a clear bias towards practical and vocational subjects.

The survey of 683 girls and boys in six Midlands schools included three large comprehensives, two single-sex selectives and one mixed, independent grammar school. Only three academic subjects - maths, English language and biology - made it into the top 10 subjects. Work experience, careers education, first aid, sex and drugs education, money management and business studies pushed out more traditional subjects. Geography came 28th and history 35th in a list of 50 subjects canvassed.

The pupils were tracked through their year 11 in an attempt to establish the extent and nature of the pressures on pupils created by GCSE studies. My list of 50 subjects included those on the traditional curriculum and many others which are taught infrequently or not at all. Pupils were asked to consider how important it was for each subject to be taught in schools and given a choice of three boxes marked "very important", "important" or "unimportant". A points system based on their answers was then used to draw up ranking lists.

Although there are a number of differences in emphasis between boys and girls, along largely stereotypical lines, the list is generally more remarkable for the extent of agreement.

Maths, English language, careers and work experience are placed in the top ten in every school's list. First aid, sex and drugs education are in five top tens; money management, business studies and biology are in four. All the top tens contain permutations of at least seven of these subjects.

English literature, health education, study skills, law and PE are at least in the top twenty in all lists. The figures have implications for the continuing debate about school effects, as they clearly suggest that pupils have more in common with their age group and their sex than they do with their schools.

The results would tend to indicate that recent proposals by Sir Ron Dearing and David Blunkett, aimed at putting academic, applied and vocational qualifications on a more equal footing, are in sympathy with the wishes and priorities of pupils in schools.

The April 1996 Careers Service report, showing that the number of people staying on in full-time education after 16 was dropping, and the November 1996 Commission for Racial Equality report, suggesting that the price of pupil expulsions could now be pounds 48m, are two recent specific examples of pupil discontent, among many others.

Recent evidence from the workplace has suggested that total powerlessness is a high stress factor, and it could be that a heavy price is already being paid for schools' apparent disinterest in pupil opinion.

The writer is a postgraduate researcher at Warwick University Institute of Education.

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