Gender Differences


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Gender Differences

  1. 1. RESEARCH REPORT 5 The health of subjects: evidence from examinations entries Susannah Wright Research Officer, University of Oxford October 2006 1
  2. 2. The health of subjects: evidence from examinations entries Susannah Wright 1. Introduction This paper presents one aspect of the work of the Nuffield Review of 14-19 education and training. While there are disagreements over to what extent the school curriculum should be organised around subject disciplines (or around learners), most educational institutions serving 14-19 year olds, and the work of government agencies such as Ofsted and QCA, are de facto organised on the basis of subjects. It was therefore decided to review evidence on the ‘health’ of different subjects. Data on entries to different subjects at GCSE and A-Level since 1994 and 1993 respectively has been used as a starting point for this analysis. As Walford (2000, p.303) notes, “The number of students annually taking a subject at examination level is not a complete representation of the subject’s health, but it does represent a visible and valuable recurring indicator in relation to both the status and popularity of the subject in schools.” Examination statistics have been quoted (sometimes selectively) by the media. They have been used by government bodies like the DfES and QCA for monitoring purposes and also to inform funding and resource allocation decisions, and by subject associations for monitoring purposes and to support arguments for additional resources for their subject. It was decided to select a limited number of subjects – chemistry, physics, mathematics, geography, and modern foreign languages – in order to investigate these issues in some detail. This focus on GCSE and A-Level examinations data does not cover all aspects of a ‘healthy’ 14-19 curriculum and learning experience. Vocational qualifications, extra-curricular activities, and informal learning are also important. The availability of data is a key issue here. Publicly available administrative data on vocational qualifications is not as detailed as that on GCSE and A-Level and therefore cannot be analysed in the same way. Administrative data exists on subjects covered for GNVQ/AVCE and also for frameworks within the apprenticeship programme, but frequent changes in data collection methods and in the design of the programmes themselves make it difficult to construct time series data. Other vocational qualifications including BTEC are only counted in the main administrative datasets as part of the total number of entry Level/Level 1/Level 2/Level 3 qualifications obtained. These data are not disaggregated by type of qualification, or by subjects 2
  3. 3. chosen.1 Also, there is very little quantitative data on extra-curricular activities and informal learning. Part of the remit of the Review is to assess the quality of the evidence available and to identify significant gaps: the paucity of data for qualifications other than GCSE and A-Level and for extra-curricular activities and informal learning is one of these gaps. Further research on vocational qualifications and a review of qualitative evidence available on informal learning and extra-curricular activities would be valuable but not possible within the time and resource limits of the review. 1 “Subject” take-up in vocational qualifications could be traced through privately-owned datasets such as PLASC and ILR. Time and resource limits preclude this sort of analysis for the time being. 3
  4. 4. 2. The data This paper will now present and comment on time-series data for GCSE and A-Level examination entries. Examination entry data is an imperfect proxy for subject take-up, as some pupils may have studied on a GCSE or A-Level course but not been entered for the examination. Nevertheless these data give a useful indication of changing patterns of decision-making among 14-19 year olds and changing patterns of curriculum provision and organisation among schools and colleges Before the data are presented it is important to comment on the data in terms of quality, how they have been collected and collated, and how they have been used. First, there is no single source of data on examination entries and attainment. Examination Board data (collated by Joint Council of Qualifications from 2001 and its predecessors before then) are the most detailed, broken down by country and by gender, but give only provisional figures. A number of subject associations have also collated data, for their own subject and sometimes for others too, but these data cannot be used for cross-subject comparisons over time. This paper analyses DfES entry and achievement data: for A-Levels data collated in UK Statistics of Education (published annually) and for GCSE time series data for England presented in a Statistical First Release (DfES 2005).2 This use of different datasets was a deliberate strategy. While this makes direct comparison between GCSE and A-Level data impossible, it has the benefit of illustrating some of the potential pitfalls of the data available and the difficulty of making comparisons over time. Second, the existence of different datasets which collect and organise data in different ways makes the construction of time series datasets problematic. This difficulty is compounded by changes in methods of data collection over time, even within the same dataset. For example, the A-Level entry statistics in DfES Statistics of Education are for all ages before 1997, and only 16-18 year-olds after this date. Nevertheless, the numbers taking the qualification outside the age cohort are small and therefore should have a minimal impact on the data. Third, changes in the post-14 curriculum and the structure of post-14 assessment mean the nature of GCSEs and A-Levels has changed over time. Boundaries between subjects are dynamic: for example, elements of science and technology have merged with other subjects (Bell 2001). The content of syllabuses has also changed. For example, there has been a shift from physical geography towards social geography in GCSE and A-Level geography syllabuses (Birnie 1999), and a shift from ‘pure’ to applied areas in the topics covered at mathematics A-Level (Hoyles et al. 2 Time series data from 1994 to 2004 are in Table 26 of the SFR presented as an additional excel file. 4
  5. 5. 2001, Kahn and Hoyles 1997). Such changes make it difficult to interpret time series data: we may not be comparing like with like over time. For these reasons it is important to treat these data with caution. They should be seen as a crude measure. Also, the examination entry data analysed is disaggregated by gender, but cannot be disaggregated by region, ethnicity, or type of school. More detailed data – for instance disaggregated by region, by towns or boroughs within regions, type of school, or even by individual schools – has been collated by subject associations or individual researchers for particular subjects, but cannot be used for cross-subject comparisons. 5
  6. 6. 3. Changing patterns of subject take-up 3.1 Time series data – GCSE Fig 1. GCSE entries (England) 1994-2004 700000 600000 500000 Chemistry number of entries Physics 400000 Double Award Science Mathematics Geography French 300000 German Spanish 200000 100000 0 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 year Fig 2. GCSE entries (England) 1994-2004 as % total entries 14.00 12.00 10.00 Chemistry % total GCSE entries Physics 8.00 Double Award Science Mathematics Geography French 6.00 German Spanish 4.00 2.00 0.00 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 year 6
  7. 7. Fig 3. GCSE (England) entries 1994-2004 % of all 15-year olds attempting the subject 100 90 80 70 Chemistry 60 Physics % of 15 year-olds Double Award Science Mathematics 50 Geography French 40 German Spanish 30 20 10 0 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 year Table 1. 15 year-old pupils and total entries (England) 1994-2004 Year Total GCSE entries Number of 15 year old pupils 1994 3,729,427 532,273 1995 4,092,696 578,197 1996 4,194,872 594,035 1997 4,155,907 586,766 1998 4,141,083 575,210 1999 4,229,612 580,972 2000 4,251,811 580,393 2001 4,422,251 603,318 2002 4,843,625 606,554 2003 4,872,690 622,122 2004 4,952,980 643,560 Time series data for GCSE and for A-Level have been calculated as 1) the raw number of entries; 2) the percentage of total entries; and 3) the percentage of the age cohort attempting the 7
  8. 8. subject. The raw number of entries is important - as this affects staffing decisions among other matters – but the percentage of total entries is required to get a clearer sense of trends over time the percentage of total entries is required. It is also important to investigate how changes in entry figures relate to the size of the age cohort.3 Mathematics has been compulsory to age 16 through the whole period. It has also been compulsory through the period for all pupils to take some science to age 16. It is left to schools whether to offer single science subjects or science double award or single award GCSEs. Geography has been optional at Key Stage 4 (KS4) throughout this period. Nevertheless, geography, like other options subjects, has been affected by changes to the national curriculum in 1995 whereby the time allotted to core areas of English, mathematics and science was increased, thereby limiting the time available for optional subjects. MFL became part of the compulsory national curriculum for pupils up to age 16 in 1989. However, from 1998 MFL and design and technology could be disapplied for some pupils, and in September 2004 MFL was downgraded from statutory to entitlement status at KS4. Key trends in the time series data for GCSE entries are as follows: 1. Low and relatively static numbers entered for physics and chemistry – consistently less than 10% of total GCSE entries and of the age cohort. The majority of pupils are taking Double Award science with a small increase between (72% of 15 year-old pupils in 1994 and 75% in 2004). 2. There has been a rise in the number of entries for mathematics and double award science (from 479,084 in 1994 to 606,002 in 2004 for mathematics and from 380,893 in 1994 to 479,591 in 2004 for double award science). The proportion of 15 year-old pupils taking these subjects also rose over the period examined, from 72% in 1994 to 75% in 2004 for double award science, and from 90% in 1994 to 94% in 2004 for mathematics. However, in 2004 both subjects constituted a slightly smaller proportion of the total number of GCSE examination entries than in 1994. Entries for mathematics counted for 12.85% of all GCSE entries in 1994 and 12.24% in 2004, while the corresponding figures for Double Award science were 10.21% of all GCSE entries in 1994 and 9.68% in 2004. 3. Entries for geography have fallen (with the exception of 2001), from a high of 270,091 entries (6.44% of all GCSE entries) in 1996 to 197,123 entries (3.98% of all GCSE entries) in 2004. This 3 These data are based on the cohort information in the DfES Statistical First Release. However, population statistics have been amended since this SFR was published so some of the calculations presented may be erroneous. 8
  9. 9. downward trend continued in 2005, with GCSE entries down by 4.9% from 2004 figures (QCA 2005). 4. Entries for French GCSE rose from 295,211 in 1994 to 321,207 in 2001, but have declined since (289,756 in 2004). However, as a percentage of all GCSE entries there was a slow decline from 7.92% in 1994 to 7.26% in 2001, and a much faster decline from 2001 to 5.85% in 2004. Entries for German GCSE rose (with some fluctuation) from 110,446 in 1994 to 130,627 in 2001, but have declined since (there were 116,347 entries in 2004). As a percentage of all GCSE entries German entries rose from 2.96% in 1994 to a high of 3.07% in 1999, but have declined since (to 2.35% in 2004). Entries in Spanish, on the other hand, have risen steadily both in raw numbers and as a percentage of total entries, but from a very low base (from 28,000 (0.75% of all GCSE entries) in 1994 to 53,539 (1.08% of all GCSE entries) in 2004). The timing of the sharp decline in the number of entries for French and German suggests that it may be associated with the disapplication of MFL for some pupils since 1998. However, no definite causal relationship can be claimed from this data alone. 3.2 Time series data – GCSE disaggregated by gender GCSE time series data disaggregated by gender are displayed in Appendix 1. They reveal important trends which are not evident in the aggregate data: 1. Chemistry has consistently been taken by more males than females, and this gap has not narrowed significantly between 1994 and 2004. There is a similar pattern for physics, with the gap between males and females being possibly slightly wider than for chemistry. 2. Entries for double award science do not reveal a significant gender gap but still more males than females are entered for GCSE examination. This gap appears larger for the percentage of total GCSE entries than for the number of entries. 3. The numbers of males and females entered for GCSE mathematics are close but there are more male than female candidates. Mathematics is a compulsory subject for all pupils till 16, and overall there are more female than male GCSE entries. This suggests that a higher proportion of male pupils than female pupils are entered for examination. Further research would be needed to establish the reasons for this difference. Moreover, there is a sharp dip in mathematics entries as a percentage of total entries for both males and females in 2002 which is not visible in figures 1-3 but evident in these graphs owing to the large scale. 9
  10. 10. 4. More females than males are consistently entered for French, German and Spanish GCSE. Whilst for French the gap between males and females has become slightly wider since 2000, the gap has narrowed for German. This gap existed even when one MFL GCSE was compulsory for all students. Perhaps it can be explained by more females than males taking a second MFL GCSE as one of their optional subjects. 5. Geography has been optional throughout the period, and has been consistently taken by more boys than girls. QCA (2005) suggest a figure consistently close to 45% girls. 10
  11. 11. 3.3 Time series data – A-Level Fig. 4. A-Level/SCE Higher entries (UK) 1993-2004 100000 90000 80000 70000 60000 Chemistry number of entries Physics Mathematics 50000 Geography French German 40000 Spanish 30000 20000 10000 0 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 year Fig. 5. A-Level/SCE Higher entries (UK) 1993-2003 as % total entries A-Level/Higher entries as % total entries 12.00 10.00 8.00 Chemistry Physics % total entries Mathematics 6.00 Geography French German Spanish 4.00 2.00 0.00 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 year 11
  12. 12. Fig. 6 A-Level/SCE Higher entries (UK) as % age cohort A-Level/Higher entries as % of age cohort 14.00 12.00 10.00 Chemistry 8.00 Physics % age cohort Mathematics Geography French 6.00 German Spanish 4.00 2.00 0.00 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 year These data are for the UK as a whole and include entries for Scottish Highers as well as A-Levels.4 At A-Level (unlike at GCSE) no subjects are compulsory: all subjects have the same statutory status within the curriculum. Therefore, examination entry data for A-Level reflects, more than for GCSE, students’ decisions and preferences. Nevertheless, students are constrained in their decisions by what subjects and courses institutions offer. Key trends in the time series data for A-Level/Higher entries are as follows: 1. The main trend in chemistry, physics, geography, French and German between 1993 and 2004 has been one of decline (in the total number of entries, in the percentage of total entries, and in the percentage of the age cohort entered for the subject). This decline has been most marked in French. 2. Mathematics has consistently had the highest take-up of all these subjects. The number of entries rose (with some fluctuation) between 1993 and 1996 but has declined thereafter. The 4 The dataset used here does not disaggregate between A-levels and SCE Highers. This dataset was deemed relevant because young people in Scotland might apply to HEIs in England and Wales, and young people in England and Wales might apply to HEIs in Scotland. 12
  13. 13. percentage of total entries has been relatively stable at between 9 and 10 percent till 2001, with a decline to just over 8% since then. Entries as a percentage of the age cohort follow a similar pattern to the number of entries but the fluctuations are greater. 3. Spanish is the exception to the general pattern of decline in Languages. Entries have risen (as raw numbers, a percentage of total entries and as a percentage of the age cohort entered for examination in the subject). Indeed, the graphs suggest that entries for German have declined at the same time as entries for Spanish have risen: the two appear to be converging. 4. Data for physics, chemistry and geography reveal a general trend of declining entries with some minor fluctuation. Entries for chemistry, however, rose between 2003 and 2004. 3.4 Time series data – A-Level/SCE disaggregated by gender A-Level/SCE data disaggregated by gender is displayed in Appendix 2. With the exception of chemistry, gender gaps are greater than they are for GCSE. Some researchers (e.g. Stables and Stables 1997) suggest that once students have freer choice over which subjects to take, their decisions are influenced by gender stereotypes to a greater extent than at GCSE when the National Curriculum constrained choice. Such patterns could, however, also be influenced by what subjects and courses educational institutions offer, option blocks, and timetabling constraints. 1. For chemistry, the number of entries for males was greater than that for females in the mid- 90s. However, towards the end of the decade numbers converged and from 2002 onwards more females than males have been entered for advanced level chemistry. Entries for chemistry A-Level/SCE remain higher as a percentage of all male entries than as a percentage of all female entries, though the gap has narrowed.5 2. Entries for mathematics have fluctuated between 11% and 14% of total entries for boys, and between 6% and 7% of total entries for girls. The gap between male and female entries has reduced slightly, but has changed relatively little during the period examined. 3. The gap between male and female entries is largest for physics. As with mathematics the gap has reduced slightly, but has remained relatively consistent over time. 5 The gap between male and female entries almost closed in 2001 (male Chemistry entries made up 5% of all male A-Level entries and female entries 4.89% of all female entries) but has been wider since 2002. 13
  14. 14. 4. The number of female entries for MFL has been substantially higher than the number of male entries throughout the period. The gap is more substantial for all languages at A-Level/SCE than it was for GCSE. For French the gap in entries narrowed slightly: in 1994 25,000 females and about 10,000 males were entered for French A-Level/SCE, while in 2004 the corresponding numbers were about 13,000 female and 6,000 male. This shows that most of the numerical decline in entries was among females, but the proportionate decline for males and females was similar. A similar pattern can be observed for German: a consistently greater number of female entries than male entries, the steeper numerical decline being in female entries, and a relatively consistent gap between female and male entries (which has perhaps decreased very slightly). In Spanish there is a relatively consistent gap between male and female entries. However, unlike French and German, this is within the context of an overall rise in entries for both males and females. 5. Geography A-Level, like geography GCSE, has consistently been taken by more males than females, within an overall trend of declining entry. The gap between male and female entries has remained relatively constant, although it narrows slightly after 2001. Geography entries in 2004 were 55% male, 45% female (QCA 2005). 3.5 Additional data The analysis of time series data can be supplemented by data collated by subject associations and researchers. Some of this these additional data pre- or post-date that in the time series, allowing the trends observed in the time series data to be contextualised within a longer time span. In addition, survey and case study data point to differences between localities, types of school, individual schools which are masked by overall trends in the aggregate data. Geography Some of the additional data available regarding Geography pre-date those in the time series. In an analysis of geography examinations entry data for the Royal Geographical Society, Grimble and Mansell (2004) note that geography GCSE entries have declined since 1988, with the overall number of candidates falling by 77,743, except for a brief revival between 1994 and 1997. This is in the context of a consistent increase in total GCSE entries year on year. For A-Level they note a more erratic pattern, with a steady increase of entrants from 1989 to 1994, and a general pattern of decline (but with fluctuations) since then. Walford (2000) found that for most of the twentieth century geography entries at public examinations aged 16 and 18 improved both in absolute numbers and in numbers in relation to other subjects year by year, peaking in 1994-96. 14
  15. 15. There are also significant differences between schools. QCA (2005) note that entry figures for individual schools range from 0% to 80% of the cohort, that entries within an individual school can fluctuate over time, and that geography appeared to maintain or strengthen its position in more “academic” schools or schools with strong geography departments, even in the context of an overall downward trend in entries 2000-04. Weeden (2005) similarly found differences between schools in their rates of entry for geography GCSE. MFL Much of the additional data on Modern Foreign Languages examination entries is provided by the CILT, the National Centre for Languages. For instance, the CILT website gives access to data on A-Level entries between 1975 and 2003. These data indicate a 36.4% decrease in entries for French, an 11% decrease for German, but a 124% rise in entries for Spanish (though from a very low base). Within this overall time-frame, entries for all three languages increased between 1985 and 1995. These data also report A-Level and Scottish Highers separately and so reveal differences between England and Scotland which are masked in the time series data (for instance Higher entries for German and French in Scotland have risen since 2001 – after the introduction of a new Higher in 2000 – while A-Level entries fell).6 This suggests that entry data for A-Level alone would reveal starker declines in French and German entries than are evident in the DfES dataset used. In addition, the CILT Language Trends survey reveals regional and local differences, and differences between types of school, beneath the aggregate national data. For instance, the 2004 survey found that of the schools surveyed those in the north of England were more likely to make MFL optional than those in the south. The same survey also found variation between types of schools, with languages at KS4 being compulsory in 97% of the independent schools but only 30% of the state schools surveyed. It also found that the independent schools surveyed reported a strong growth in Spanish while 44% of the maintained schools surveyed reported a decrease in Spanish provision. (CILT 2004c). Finally there is evidence of significant differences between individual schools in their interpretation of ‘entitlement’, with some schools guiding only top sets to do languages, while others see languages as open to all (CILT 2004c, QCA 2004c). Mathematics and science 6 See and [both accessed 4 October 2006]. 15
  16. 16. Additional data on mathematics contextualises that in the time-series with a longer time-scale. For example, London Mathematical Society reported that the number of A-Level mathematics candidates fell from c.85,000 in 1989 to 53,000 in 2002, in the context of an increase in participation in post-16 education and training over this period (LMS 2002). Institute of Physics data demonstrates a rise in the proportion of female candidates for Mathematics A-Level from 33.6% in 1991 to 35.9% in 1998 (IoP 1999). Institute Physics data (1999) also indicates that the low proportion of female candidates for A- Level physics has been almost constant from 1988 to 1999 (at around 22% of physics candidates), and also important differences between England and Scotland (where females made up about 31% of physics Highers candidates in these years). Data for chemistry, on the other hand, indicates a narrowing (and even a closing) of the gap in the number of A-Level entries for males and females between 1985 and 2004.7 With mathematics and science being compulsory subjects in the national curriculum, it is unsurprising that there is less additional evidence of differences between schools in entry rates than there is for MFL and geography. Nevertheless, according to data on the Institute of Physics website, single science subjects are more likely to be offered in independent than in state schools. 7 16
  17. 17. 4. Interpreting the trends This section analyses how subject experts and relevant research literature have interpreted the trends in examination entries outlined above. Evidence examined includes reports by government agencies (particularly QCA and Ofsted), literature from subject associations, major reports on particular subjects (e.g. Smith 2004), and research literature on subject choice, subject preference, and pupil motivation. 4.1 The evidence base Much of this evidence does not set out directly to explain trends in public examination entries in these subjects, but offers useful insights into a number of concerns and issues behind the trends observed. QCA and Ofsted reports aim to assess the general condition of the subject in question, with examination entry data being only one factor considered. Nevertheless, they offer useful insights into government curriculum policy, the subject curriculum and assessment, and the teaching workforce which might influence trends in examination entries. Subject associations provide both useful data and evidence on the views and experiences of their practitioner members. However, the role of subject associations as “preservers” of their own subject and as lobbying bodies should be borne in mind. The research evidence is patchy. First, much of the literature does not deal directly with examination entry patterns or even with subject choice. Studies on pupil attitudes and motivation in the classroom, or of subject preference (as distinguished from choice) are more common, but motivation and preference may not correlate with actual decisions over examination entry. Nevertheless, insights into motivation and preference can offer useful insights which could, potentially, help us understand the static or declining entry levels observed in most of these subjects. Second, researchers can interpret concepts such as motivation or preference in different ways. As Lord (2003) observes, some researchers investigate enjoyment, others positive attitudes, others liking or not liking, others preference. This makes it difficult to develop a cumulative picture of research findings. 4.2 Interpreting the trends in examination entries A range number of issues have been raised in the evidence examined which might help us understand the trends in examinations entries in geography, chemistry, physics, mathematics and MFL. 17
  18. 18. 4.2.1 Teaching and learning For all the subjects included in this paper, downward or static trends in examination entries have been attributed to poor teaching and a shortage of specialist teachers (see below). In some cases this has been seen as a vicious circle, with a shortage of specialist teachers leading to poor teaching and declining examination entries, which limits the supply of those qualified to become specialist teachers in the future (e.g. Lipsett 2004). Geography Ofsted reports reveal that geography has performed poorly at KS3 compared with other subjects in terms of teaching and student achievement, with most lessons being judged ‘satisfactory’ (Ofsted 2004a). Problems with teaching have been linked to problems with teacher recruitment, leading to teaching by non-specialists particularly at KS3 and below and a lack of continuing professional development opportunities for geography teachers (Lambert 2005; QCA 2004a; QCA 2005; Weeden 2005). QCA (2004a) also found a tendency to teach for coverage of examination specification content rather than for the deep learning of ideas, leading to “safe” lessons rather than motivational teaching (QCA 2004a). Research on pupils’ perspectives on geography lessons also reveals that too much passive learning and a lack of variety in teaching approaches could put pupils off geography at KS3 and KS4, with pupils appreciating more proactive, practical and varied learning activities (Bidduph and Adey 2003; Biddulph and Adey 2004; Norman and Harrison 2004; QCA 2005). Westaway and Rawling (2001) suggest that the quality of teaching affects student choices at KS4, that ‘satisfactory’ lessons at KS3 may not be enough to convince students to take geography at GCSE. These authors also note that, despite improvements between KS3 and KS4, geography is ‘outperformed’ by history in terms of quality of teaching and student progress at KS4. Moreover, as noted already, GCSE entry levels vary widely between schools. Factors identified as contributing to higher levels of entry include: a reputation for successful teaching and good examination results (the “school grapevine effect”), and specifications and/or approaches to learning which allowed topical content to be covered and provided good quality fieldwork experiences (QCA 2005; Weeden 2005; Westaway and Rawling 2001). MFL Teacher shortages, particularly for languages other than French, and problems with teacher retention, have also been identified as serious issues for MFL (e.g. Aplin 1991; Fisher 2001; CILT 18
  19. 19. 2005).8 Yet there is evidence that a good teacher, and a good student-teacher relationship, can be a powerful influence on student attitudes. For instance, Clark and Trafford (1995) found that a positive relationship with the teacher was more important than any other variable in influencing pupils’ attitudes to the subject. Pupils appreciated qualities such as friendliness, professionalism and an ability to make lessons lively. Similarly, Fisher (2001) found that, among the A-Level linguists in her study, the teacher was of vital importance to their enjoyment or otherwise of the GCSE course. Fisher suggests that the importance of pupil-teacher relationships is so important in languages because of the communicative nature of the subject, which requires the teacher to be able to communicate with and draw communication from pupils. Research on subject preferences, however, suggests that languages are often among the least preferred subjects (e.g. Stables and Wikeley 1999) and are, according to Williams et al. (2002) seen as neither interesting or enjoyable. Fisher (2001) suggests that the issue is not so much that pupils actively disliked languages, but more that other subjects were more enjoyable. She also found that even when pupils liked the teacher, they often did not like what they were required to do. These perceptions, it is suggested, could have a direct influence on both motivation and subject choice (Fisher 2001, Williams et al. 2002). Mathematics Severe shortages of specialist teachers in mathematics have been widely reported (e.g. LMS 2004; Mathematical Association 2002a; Ofsted 2004b; Smith 2004; Watson 2005). For instance, in a survey of about 400 schools QCA (2004b) found that about 20% of mathematics teachers did not have a qualification in mathematics, and also that temporary contracts and vacancies were common in a number of schools. This lack of specialists has been linked with ineffective mathematics teaching. Furthermore, there have been criticisms of uninspiring and unimaginative teaching. Ofsted (2004b) contend that teaching and learning styles in mathematics are limited compared with other subjects, and that teachers often dictate too much instead of encouraging pupils to find things out for themselves. Indeed, subject associations suggest that students can be put off taking the subject at A-Level by rote learning and repetition in mathematics teaching up to 16 (QCA 2004b). Physics and Chemistry There is a shortage of specialist teachers of physics and chemistry in many schools. Lipsett (2004) sees this shortage of specialist teachers as a problem not only for A-Level teaching which explicitly requires specialist knowledge, but also for GCSE even in the majority of schools which 8 In a debate in the House of Lords on 24 January 2005, Baroness Walmsley cited the most “recently available figures” which indicated that 380 secondary teachers of modern foreign languages recruited to the service in 1997 had left the service by 2003. 19
  20. 20. offer double award science. The physics and chemistry components of the double award GCSE are, Lipsett argues, often taught by non-specialists who lack detailed subject knowledge and also lack the enthusiasm necessary to inspire pupils to take the subject further. 4.2.2 Perceived difficulty A second issue identified in the literature examined is that of perceived difficulty of these subjects. Declining examination entries have been attributed to perceptions that geography, MFL, mathematics, physics and chemistry are ‘difficult’ compared to others. Geography Evidence regarding the difficulty or otherwise of geography is mixed.9 On the one hand, there are reports of anecdotal evidence that geography is perceived as the ‘easiest’ humanities subject at GCSE (Westaway and Rawling 2001; QCA 2005). On the other hand, higher rates of entry for Geography GCSE are found in “academic” schools which gain high GCSE results (QCA 2004a; Weeden 2005). Also, quantitative evidence based on GCSE results (Stott et al. 1997) and qualitative case study evidence from one school (Weeden 2005) suggests that the cohort which opts for geography is weighted towards high achievers. Elements of difficulty identified by teachers and students include the quantity of work involved, the requirement to think independently and express opinions, and the need to use geographical terminology and concepts (Biddulph and Adey 2003; QCA 2005; Weeden 2005). Furthermore, it appears that elements of ‘difficulty’ such as the need to think independently may put some pupils off, but appeal to others as a positive challenge (Biddulph and Adey 2003; QCA 2005). Thus the evidence available does not allow a firm conclusion on whether the perceived difficulty of GCSE geography discourages students from pursuing the subject further at A-Level (Westaway and Rawling 2001) MFL There is a much evidence that both teachers and students perceive languages as difficult. Research reveals that pupils feel that innate ability in the subject is important, that you have to be “good at languages” to succeed (Graham 2002; Stables and Stables 1995). Furthermore, students have argued that a GCSE in a foreign language is more demanding than other GCSE subjects, particularly in demands on concentration and memory (Clark and Trafford 1995), with even the highest attaining students, including those who went on to take languages at A-Level, finding MFL difficult compared with other subjects at GCSE (Fisher 2001). Researchers (Fisher 2001; Graham 2002) have also found a discrepancy between pupils’ internal perceptions of 9 This evidence on the perceived difficulty of geography relates mainly to GCSE. 20
  21. 21. progress or ability and their predicted or actual GCSE grade. Even pupils with a good grade at GCSE did not feel competent in the language, perhaps owing to unrealistic expectations of fluency (Graham 2002). Perceptions of difficulty appear to discourage students from taking languages at GCSE and beyond. There is evidence that less academic students have been discouraged from taking languages at GCSE and beyond, either through their own lack of confidence, or through school timetabling and options arrangements and/or the careers advice they receive (Aplin 1991; Atlas 2003a; Atlas 2003b; CILT 2004c; QCA 2004c; Smith 2004). Difficulty was the most common reason which the Year 11 students in Graham’s (2002) study gave for not wanting to continue studying French beyond GCSE. Fisher (2001) suggests that students who may have considered pursuing a language post-16 were “warned of the difficulty of the subject” by older students already engaged in A-Level study, while Graham (2002) also found that year 12 pupils perceived a big jump between elements of the GCSE course and A-Level study. Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry There have been persistent claims about the relative difficulty of mathematics and physical science from pupils, teachers and professional associations. What is the research evidence for these claims? Bell, Malacova and Shannon (2003) contend that mathematics AS and A-Level has increasingly become the preserve of pupils with overall high levels of attainment (as represented by GCSE results). Fitz-Gibbon (1999) argues, on the basis of a statistical analysis of A-Level grades linked with prior attainment at GCSE, that it is more difficult to get a high grade in Mathematics and science (and MFL) than in most other subjects, and that this indicates the relative difficulty of these subjects. However, Goldstein and Cresswell (1996) highlight difficulties in assessing “standards” and particularly in making comparisons between subjects and over time. Whatever the technical issues over measuring standards and comparing the ‘difficulty’ or otherwise of different subjects, many teachers and pupils evidently perceive mathematics and science as particularly difficult. Pupils gave lack of self-confidence in ability in these subjects as a key reason for not liking the subject at GCSE (Gallagher et al. 1997; Stables and Stables 1995; Stables and Wikeley 1997), while students who disliked arts subjects tended to describe them as boring and pointless rather than difficult (Gallagher et al. 1997). There is also a gender dimension to these perceptions: for instance, some of the girls in Gallagher et al.’s (1997) study perceived physics as a ‘male’ subject which boys were better at than girls. On the other hand, QCA (2004b) attribute negative views of mathematics to the design of the GCSE qualification, 21
  22. 22. particularly the quantity of work involved and the three-tier structure,10 more than issues of ability per se. Perceptions of difficulty have been linked to declining or static A-Level entries in these subjects. With reference to mathematics, QCA (2004b) suggest that students find the higher tier GCSE harder than GCSE papers in other subjects which are not divided into tiers, and that this puts them off progressing to A-Level. Furthermore, it has been argued that examination entries for mathematics and science have suffered because pupils, sometimes with encouragement from their teachers, have opted for ‘easier’ subjects in order to maximise A-Level examination scores (e.g. ACME 2004; Fitz-Gibbon 1999, LMS 2003). On the other hand, Garratt (1986) found that the perceived level of difficulty was the factor which had least influence on A-Level subject choice for students taking science A-Levels.11 4.2.3 Curriculum and assessment design Geography Dated and content-heavy examination specifications, and a lack of curriculum time to cover these specifications, have been identified by teachers as important factors in declining numbers (QCA 2004a). GCSE and AS/A-Level geography courses have not been subject to a full curriculum review since the mid-1980s, and commentators (e.g. Rawling 1991) note that exciting developments in the academic subject of geography in universities have not filtered down to the school curriculum. A new geography GCSE with focus on cultural, social and economic geography, and active learning approaches is currently being piloted (QCA 2005). What light does research on pupils’ attitudes and decisions shed on this issue? Many researchers, as noted above, see teaching processes as the most important factor in forming pupils’ attitudes to geography. Norman and Harrison, on the other hand, note that “subject content, as much as the mode of delivery,” is important to students (Norman and Harrison 2004, p.11)12 There is also evidence that pupils dislike the tendency of GCSE and A-level courses to repeat topics from KS3 (QCA 2005). 10 QCA has now introduced a two-tier structure for mathematics GCSE, for first teaching in 2006, on a similar model to two-tier GCSEs in other subjects such as English and science. Students entered for the Foundation Tier can achieve Grades C-G, those entered for the Higher Tier Grades A*-C. QCA (2006). 11 It should be noted that this study was conducted before examination league tables and the UCAS point system were introduced. 12 This comment relates to Year 9 students. 22
  23. 23. Findings from the pilot GCSE are instructive. While most teachers welcomed the new style of teaching and learning, there were concerns over the risks involved. Some teachers preferred to stick to the well-resourced and familiar traditional specifications. There is a potential conflict, therefore between pupils’ desire for new content, and teacher’s desire for continuity and consistency of results (QCA 2005). The same report also noted a danger that exam papers and assessment tasks could move away from the intended innovative content and approaches to learning. MFL The content of the GCSE language curriculum has been criticised. Research indicates pupils’ frustration at a repetitive curriculum and the lack of a cultural dimension, and a feeling that what they learned was unrealistic and mundane. Teachers also criticized a vocabulary-driven and packed syllabus which left little time to practice new language or to use language for genuine communication. As Clark and Trafford put it: “The communicative approach underpinning the GCSE syllabus may all too often have given pupils merely an unsystematic, repetitive acquaintanceship with undemanding, perhaps anodyne, transactional language” (Clark and Trafford 1995, p.321; Fisher 2001). Mathematics There is a consensus in the literature examined that much mathematics teaching has been geared to preparing students for examinations (Ofsted 2006). The emphasis on external assessment in the subject has been seen to limit opportunities for enrichment or ensuring that pupils understand and are able to manipulate mathematical concepts (LMS 2003; Watson 2004; Ofsted 2006), and to undermine pupils’ enthusiasm for the subject (ACME 2005). Moreover, particular problems have been identified with the three-tier design of mathematics GCSE. There is evidence that schools can sometimes ‘play safe’ by entering some pupils who might have been capable of the higher tier paper for the middle tier. This strategy ensures that, for school league table purposes, the pupil can achieve a ‘good’ GCSE pass and avoids the risk of failure in the higher tier. Nevertheless, some pupils could be stopped from progressing to A-Level. (e.g. Smith 2002; LMS 2003; QCA 2003).13 Physics and Chemistry Ofsted (2004d) suggest that pupils are not motivated by the “heavily examination-oriented” science GCSE curriculum. This finding is reinforced by research by Parkinson et al. (1998) found that 13-14 year old pupils who had enjoyed practical work in science lessons felt less motivated 13 C is the top grade available for the middle tier paper. 23
  24. 24. when the level of practical work declined at KS4. The Applied Science GCSE, with a greater practical focus, could potentially be more motivating (Ofsted 2004d). 4.2.4 Public image of the subject Geography The evidence evaluated highlights problems with the public image of geography. Lambert (2005) and Rawling (2001) have noted a public perception of geography as a traditional, utilitarian subject, involving low level learning about countries and natural landscapes, while Brown (2001) suggests that geography lacks “street cred” with potential undergraduates. Moreover, the evidence suggests that pupils see the utility of geography in a narrow way, limited to reading maps, knowledge about countries that can be used when traveling. Pupils also link geography to careers in a naïve way, seeing it as useful only for jobs in the travel industry (Adey and Biddulph 2001; Biddulph and Adey 2003; Biddulph and Adey 2004). MFL As with geography, the literature examined highlights pupil perceptions that languages are not useful in employment, and misconceptions about the kind of employment opportunities open through the study of languages (Atlas 2003a; Aplin 1991; Blenkinsop et al. 2006; Clark and Trafford 2005; Graham 2002; Stables and Wikeley 1999; Williams et al. 2002). Misconceptions are attributed to inadequate guidance from careers advisors or parents (Aplin 1991; Fisher 2001). Graham (2002) also found that a perceived usefulness was among the most often mentioned reasons given for not continuing with French post-16 (Graham 2002). Other studies, however, found that students were aware of the importance of languages for employment, but saw other subjects as more important for career progression (e.g. Fisher 2001; ATLAS 2003a; ATLAS 2003b). Another possible indication of a public image problem is the declining popularity of MFL over time in subject preference studies (Colley, Comber and Hargreaves 1994a; Colley and Comber 2003; Stables and Wikeley 1997; Wikeley and Stables 1999). There are also gender differences in attitudes, with boys often found to be more negative than girls. Some researchers suggest that boys may be put off by lack of male role models (Clark and Trafford 1995; Williams et al. 2002) Mathematics The influential Smith Report (Smith 2004) argued that young people were often perceived maths as “boring and irrelevant”, and were unaware of the importance of mathematical skills for future career options and advancement. QCA (2004b) concur that pupils do not see their mathematical skills and knowledge as useful in themselves. Nevertheless, there is evidence that pupils are 24
  25. 25. aware that mathematics GCSE is important for progression to a university place or to employment (Blenkinsop et al. 2006; QCA 2004b; Stables and Wilkeley 1999). Physics and Chemistry The evidence reviewed suggests that students perceived the career usefulness of physics and chemistry, but are less aware of the significance of science in their everyday lives (Blenkinsop et al. 2006; Parkinson et al. 1998). The research also suggests gender differences in attitudes. Parkinson et al. (1998) found that boys had more positive attitudes to science than girls. The girls who took part in research by Gallagher et al. (1997) and Garratt (1986) felt that boys were better at physics than they were, and also that physics was appropriate for careers suited to boys more than careers suited to girls. The issues discussed so far have been pertinent to all subjects covered by this paper. The issues which follow relate only to some subjects. 4.2.5. Government curriculum policy Geography The evidence reviewed suggests that geography, along with other subjects decoupled from the compulsory national curriculum after 1995, have been squeezed as the time devoted to core subjects has been increased to 70%. Brown (2001) argues that “geographers everywhere are alarmed that this vital discipline is under attack, not as a deliberate policy, but by default, because the government’s priorities are elsewhere.” Norman and Harrison (2004) suggest that geography is marginalized even before KS4, with the emphasis on literacy and numeracy at KS3. These curriculum policies are seen as problematic not so much in themselves but in combination with options and timetabling procedures in schools (Walford 2000; QCA 2005). Nevertheless, we lack the evidence which allows us to argue that changes in curriculum policy in themselves lead to changes in examination entries. It has also been argued that the uptake of geography, along with other optional subjects at GCSE, has been affected by the rise in the number of alternative subjects (Grimble and Mansell 2004; QCA 2004a; Weeden 2005; Rawling 2001). This has been seen as a Bell’s (2001) quantitative analysis of examination entries, however, reveals that students generally took more subjects in 1997 than they did in 1984. Westaway and Rawling (2001) suggested that the impact of pre-16 vocational qualifications (such as Part 1 GNVQ leisure and tourism) which could potentially attract students who otherwise might have taken geography GCSE was probably limited, as the take up of these vocational programmes was low. The greater opportunities to take alternatives to GCSE through the Increased Flexibility Programme could potentially have a greater impact on GCSE entries for geography and other optional subjects. 25
  26. 26. MFL There has been a sharp decline in numbers taking GCSEs in French and German within a few months since MFL was made an entitlement subject in September 2004. Teachers have suggested that making MFL entitlement subject sent out negative message about its status (CILT 2005; QCA 2004c). Stables and Wikeley (1999), however, noted a worsening of attitudes of 14-15 year old pupils in relation to subject preference, and no real improvement in attitudes as to career usefulness, between 1984 and 1996 when MFL was compulsory under the national curriculum. 4.2.6. Modular structure of post-16 qualifications It has been argued that the modular structure of post-16 qualifications is a disadvantage for subjects which are linear and cumulative in nature, such as mathematics and modern foreign languages. Mathematics has been described as “cumulative and interconnected” and “intrinsically interlinked”, and subject associations have argued that modular assessment tests only fragments and does not provide the opportunities for practice and reinforcement which students need (LMS 2003; LMS 2005; Mathematical Association 2003c). This view was also expressed by mathematics tutors who took part in focus groups conducted at HEIs as part of the work of the Nuffield Review. Similarly, MFL has been described as a “sequential subject” (Clark and Trafford 1995). Although modularity has been noted as a hindrance to effective learning in these subjects, there is no clear evidence that this has a direct impact on examination entries. However, LMS (2005) suggest that under the UCAS tariff system (where subjects are of equal worth), modular structure is damaging for sequential subjects which depend on “second passes” and reinforcement more than other subjects do. 4.2.7 Double Award science and progression to A-Level The vast majority of pupils now take double award science at GCSE rather than single science subjects. The advent of double award science means that many females now take chemistry and science in a significant way to age 16 (subjects which were previously heavily male dominated) (e.g. IoP 1999). However, problems with progression from Double Award GCSE to A-Level science subjects have been noted. Science teachers have argued that the step in content from GCSE to AS level was too big, especially for non-mathematicians (QCA 2004d). This view was echoed by HE admissions tutors in our focus groups. That HE admissions tutors are concerned about this could, if these views influence admissions decisions, prove a barrier for social inclusion and widening participation, as take-up of single science is concentrated in selective schools. 4.2.8 Problems with the design of GCSE and AS-Level specifications For some of the subjects examined, problems with the design of GCSE and AS-Level specifications have been identified as a barrier to further progression in that subject. In the case of geography, 26
  27. 27. schools have expressed concerns that in the original AS specification under Curriculum 2000 there was too much content to cover in the time available, and that this discouraged pupils to continue to A-Level (QCA 2004a). For MFL, it has been argued that ‘teething problems’ with the revised GCSE specifications, which were revealed in the sharp drop in the proportion of students getting A*-C for the first cohort examined on the basis of the new specifications in 2003, was linked to the sharp decline in GCSE entry levels in 2004. It has also been argued that the difficulty of AS specifications could discourage students taking AS from progressing to A-Level. (QCA 2004c). Criticisms of mathematics examination specifications have been particularly severe (and highly publicized). The sharp decline in the number of A-Level candidates in 2002 was attributed to initial problems with the design of the AS and A-Level mathematics specifications under Curriculum 2000. (Mathematical Association 2002a; QCA 2004b; Ofsted 2004b; Smith 2004). (Although entries rose slightly in 2003 and 2004 they are still far below their 2001 level.) Much criticism has been directed at AS specifications. ACME (2005) have argued that a rushed AS experience which left students no time to consolidate or practice new techniques or to understand new concepts, as reflected in poor results and high failure rates, deterred some students from taking the subject on to a second year (See also Mathematics Association 2002b). Part of the problem also seems to be with the transition between GCSE and AS/A-Level; it has been argued that the gap is too large and that GCSE offers insufficient foundation in important techniques and concepts such as algebra (Smith 2004; QCA 2004b). Also, as noted previously, it appears that students entered for the middle tier exam of the three-tier mathematics GCSE may have trouble progressing to higher levels of study in the subject. 27
  28. 28. 5. The effects of changing patterns of subject take-up What have commentators perceived to be the effects of the changing patterns of subject take-up observed? These perceived effects are varied: from an impact on HE, to an impact on the ‘status’ of the subject as a whole, to an impact on the national economy and international competitiveness, to social polarization. Impact on higher education There are complex economic and political reasons for the closure of university departments, but a decline in the supply of students with appropriate qualifications has been seen by some commentators as a major contributory factor in the closure of degree courses and university departments (e.g. Smith 2006; McLeod 2004a; McLeod 2004b; Curtis 2005). Furthermore, focus groups discussions conducted as part of the work of the Nuffield Review in a range of HEIs revealed that chemistry, physics, and languages departments, even in highly selective institutions, were often in ‘recruitment’ mode and admissions tutors said they found it hard to attract candidates with the qualifications or other attributes which they desired. Loss of the specific contribution to understanding the world which the subject could make QCA noted regarding geography that the decline in GCSE and A-Level entries could potentially affect “the level of geographical understanding in the nation as a whole.” (QCA 2005 p.9) Brown (2001) argued in a similar vein that declining take-up of the subject potentially depriving citizens of skills and knowledge vital to an understanding of the world and for meeting future environmental and political challenges. In the case of MFL it has been argued that a decline in languages could lead to an inability to appreciate cultural diversity which is vital in a multi-cultural society and a globalised world (e.g. NfER 2003). Damage to the economy Concerns have been expressed about the potential damage which a decline in numbers taking mathematics and science subjects at Level 3 and above could inflict on the national economy. This has been a mantra in successive government documents, for example the SET for success report of 2002 (Roberts 2002). Similarly, it has been argued that a decline in numbers taking languages will have a negative impact on country’s economic output and ability to do business (Fisher 2001; QCA 2004c) and on the competitive position of individual applicants within a European labour market.14 14 Language specialists and non-specialists alike raised this particular concern in focus groups with HEI admissions staff conducted for the Nuffield Review. 28
  29. 29. Social polarisation Fears of polarisation have been noted particularly in relation to MFL. Given the evidence that MFL is most likely to be optional in state schools, especially those in deprived areas, several commentators are concerned that languages will again become elitist subjects and lose the broad base which they attained under the national curriculum (QCA 2003; CILT 2004c; CILT 2005). In addition, admissions tutors have expressed a preference for single subject science GCSEs over double award for the purposes of progression to HE (Wilde et al., 2006). This could be a cause for concern, as single science is concentrated in selective schools. 29
  30. 30. Conclusion Three main points can be made in conclusion. First, this examination has highlighted the importance of looking not only at the raw numbers of examination entries as an indication of change over time. Clearly, headlines which only report the number of examination entries in a subject (without reference to the total number of GCSE or A- Level entries or the age cohort) could give a misleading impression. Second, there are serious weaknesses in the evidence base which limit the strength of the conclusions that can be drawn. Inconsistencies in methods of data-collection over time are problematic for the construction and analysis of time-series data. Third, the evidence examined has not provided robust causal explanations of declining or static examination entries. This investigation has revealed common issues across the different subjects examined. Nevertheless, many of the recurring issues raised (a restrictive curriculum and assessment regime dominated by content rather than process, narrow teaching methods) have been raised as concerns in relation to subjects generally perceived to be in a ‘healthier’ state (including history and English). Some of these concerns appear to be part of the ‘system’ as a whole, and are not peculiar to these subjects. 30
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  35. 35. Appendix 1: GCSE entries disaggregated by gender Chemistry GCSE entries (England) GCSE Chemistry entries as % of total entries 30000 1.40 1.20 25000 1.00 number of entries % total entries 20000 0.80 male male 15000 female 0.60 female 10000 0.40 5000 0.20 0 0.00 94 95 96 97 98 99 00 01 02 03 04 94 95 96 97 98 99 00 01 02 03 04 19 19 19 19 19 19 20 20 20 20 20 19 19 19 19 19 19 20 20 20 20 20 year year Physics GCSE entries (England) GCSE Physics entries as % of total entries 30000 1.40 25000 1.20 number of entries % total entries 1.00 20000 male 0.80 male 15000 female 0.60 female 10000 0.40 5000 0.20 0 0.00 94 95 96 97 98 99 00 01 02 03 04 94 95 96 97 98 99 00 01 02 03 04 19 19 19 19 19 19 20 20 20 20 20 19 19 19 19 19 19 20 20 20 20 20 year year 35
  36. 36. Double Award Science GCSE entries (England) GCSE Double Award Science entries as % of total entries 350000 15.00 300000 14.50 number of entries 250000 14.00 200000 male 13.50 male 150000 female 13.00 female 12.50 100000 12.00 50000 11.50 0 11.00 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 94 95 96 97 98 99 00 01 02 03 04 19 19 19 19 19 19 20 20 20 20 20 year year Mathematics GCSE entries (England) GCSE Mathematics entries as % of total entries 350000 13.50 300000 13.00 number of entries 250000 % total entries 12.50 200000 male male 12.00 150000 female female 11.50 100000 50000 11.00 0 10.50 94 95 96 97 98 99 00 01 02 03 04 94 95 96 97 98 99 00 01 02 03 04 19 19 19 19 19 19 20 20 20 20 20 19 19 19 19 19 19 20 20 20 20 20 year year 36