Seduced by the wonders of science

Science skills get school leavers jobs; arts ability is `punished' says a new study. Carmel McQuaid reports
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The Independent Online
Schools that emphasise teaching for good science grades in order to secure pupils careers in related fields may also be helping them to succeed in a wider range of high-status occupations.

But while these schools may be equipping their charges with transferable skills that help them to shine in the selection procedures associated with such jobs, those with reputations for good exam grades in arts subjects may discover an inadequate performance in the selection tests prevents their pupils from securing careers for which creative skills are deemed important.

"Their failure might well be attributed to their lack of essential skills transferred from good-quality science teaching," says Dr Alex McEwan, an educationalist from Queen's University, Belfast.

He also underlines the danger that employers may be unwittingly de- selecting candidates with outstanding grades in arts subjects.

These conclusions emerge from a study in Northern Ireland which asked 1,427 lower sixth-formers in grammar schools, or a representative one in four sample of the province's A-level students, to sit a simulated job selection test. Compiled from the AH5 Test of High Grade Intelligence which is widely used for candidate selection, the first part consisted of verbal and numerical questions and the second diagrammatic pattern recognition.

The social class and education level reached by each parent was determined from questionnaires. Each pupil's O-level grades (Northern Ireland introduced GCSEs later than England and Wales) for each subject passed were assigned to science or arts categories.

Science ability, as measured by mean O-level score, emerged as the most important predictor of performance on the AH5 test for the complete sample and for every sub-grouping within the sample. It was seen to be eight times more important as an AH5 predictor than gender and almost 12 times more important than religion.

Mean O-level scores in the arts, school type and social factors had no significant link with the AH5 scores of the complete sample. When aptitude for science is measured by total, as opposed to mean, score in science subjects, science ability remains the foremost predictor of AH5 score.

Scrutiny of scores in the second part of the AH5 test make it apparent that ability in the arts is "punished"; the greater the ability of the candidate in the arts the lower the predicted AH5 score.

When results obtained by Protestant boys were compared with those of Catholic girls, the AH5 scores of Protestant boys were seen to be significantly superior. A corresponding difference in science achievement between the two groups was noted.

The differing priority given to science teaching in Protestant and Catholic schools is also seen to have a bearing on the diverse employment patterns for pupils from the two types of schools. Protestant schools have traditionally put a much greater emphasis on science teaching and indeed before the introduction of the Northern Ireland Common Curriculum, some Catholic schools did not teach science at all.

Five years ago the Northern Ireland Civil Service (in its annual report) underlined how the poor performance of Catholic girls in pre-selection aptitude tests was undermining the equal employment opportunities it sought between the two communities.

Similarly, Catholic graduates, especially girls, have been seen to earn less than Protestants, among whom male graduates account for the majority on a "high road" of well paid occupations, while Catholic women graduates account for most graduates in non-graduate level jobs.

The researchers conclude that poor science provision and attainment levels in Catholic girls' schools has a huge influence on this picture, causing Catholic girls to be deselected from high status jobs where entry selection is by multiple choice aptitude tests, "...their abilities in the humanities and languages powerless to increase their ranking relative to Protestants".

The findings are also interpreted as further argument against the early specialisation the A-level exam system encourages, which commits young people to subject choices which may not include the sciences.