Q5. Which students choose to study each of biology, chemistry, maths and physics?

Why this is important

  • It is important for students of all backgrounds and genders to have equal opportunities and equal encouragement to study all subjects at A level, including science and maths.
  • Subject choices can be influenced by gender stereotypes and perceptions of the ‘type of person’ who studies certain subjects. This can lead to some young people opting not to study a subject that they may enjoy or be interested in and benefit from.
  • Ofsted advises school governors to monitor the gender differences of students taking A levels and address any significant imbalances.

Benchmarks

Research by the Social Mobility Commission found marked differences between post 16-choices made by pupils in England in 2016 when examined by disadvantage (eligible for free school meals), sex and ethnicity. For example:

  • 9% of non-FSM (free school meals) students drop-out of the education system at age 16, compared to 16% of FSM students. The research estimates that over a third of this gap results from different choices made by students with identifcal opportunities open to them (i.e. with the same GCSE attainment).
  • Boys are more likely to drop out of education altogether at age 16 (11% versus 9% for girls), but about half of this gap arises from choices by gender of students with the same GCSE attainment.
  • All ethnic minority groups are much more likely than the White British group to attend a school sixth form or sixth form college even accounting for prior attainment and geographical location.

The following table shows the percentage of A level entrants in different subjects who were female in 2016. The differences in subject choice by gender are not inherent. In single sex schools the differences are reduced28 and many mixed schools buck these trends. Research in the United States found that young women and men were equally likely to report at the end of high school that they planned to pursue an undergraduate degree in a science-related field if they had attended a school that offered advanced mathematics and science and where extra-curricular activities, such as sports clubs, attracted females and males in similar numbers (Legewie and DiPrete, 2014).

Table : Percentage of A level taken by female students in the UK (2016)

SubjectPercentage of A level taken by female students
Biology61
Chemistry50
Mathematics39
Mathematics (further)28
Physics22
English73

Ideas for improvement

Governors

  • In ‘Maintaining Curiosity’ Ofsted advise governors to monitor the gender differences of students taking A levels and tackle any significant imbalances.
  • Ofsted also encourage governors to be fully involved from the outset in where pupil premium funding is allocated and ensure there is a clear policy guiding this.

There are many ways that school leaders may begin to address gender imbalances.

  • The Brilliant Club is a charity that seeks to increase the number of pupils from under-represented backgrounds progressing to highly-selective universities. They do this by mobilising the PhD community to share its academic expertise with state schools.
  • It is important that all options are extended to all students and that any barriers that may affect some young people more than others are addressed. For example, 2016 research found that young women were considerably more likely than young men to cite ‘lack of confidence’ as a reason for not studying triple science GCSEs (36% versus 24%); but these differences in confidence do not reflect attainment, which is the same.
  • Schools should work to ensure that they do not reinforce negative stereotypes and be aware of and work against any unintentional subconscious biases that may do so.
  • The Institute of Physics has conducted extensive research29 into gender imbalance, and ways to improve it. which goes beyond just physics and seeks to significantly reduce gender bias systematically across the school, with the results visible in all subjects.
  • Visit WISE for more resources and ideas to address gender imbalance.

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