Triple science has become a postcode lottery


The option for pupils to take triple science has become a postcode lottery, with many teachers forced to teach subjects not familiar to them, says Pauline Hoyle.

Last month the BBC published alarming figures gathered by the Open Public Services Network (OPSN) on how the secondary science curriculum was being taught across the England.

The statistics revealed an unnerving postcode lottery, with some students not having access to triple science GCSEs. Studying triple science, (one GCSE each in chemistry, physics and biology) is key to students progressing on to study more than one science at A level, having an impact on future careers, university choices and opportunities in their life ahead.

At this time of year, with students making important decisions about their GCSEs, and their future, a large number of students are restricted in choosing GCSE options from a limited list. Currently, only 22.4 per cent of pupils nationally are studying triple science, and the figure is lower when we look at certain groups, such as Pupil Premium students.

Findings from the OPSN report clearly show that the areas where the availability of triple science subjects is low strongly correlates with the more deprived areas of the country. Roger Taylor, chair of the OPSN and an RSA Fellow, said: “We can see that the curriculum taught to children in poorer parts of Britain is significantly different to that taught in wealthier areas.”

To hear this said of English education in 2015 is unsettling. We know taking triple science will not be the appropriate choice for every student – but it is essential that they do have that choice.

If we look at GCSE choices as paving the way for further education and careers, the importance of increasing the number of students choosing triple science is essential for the growth of the British economy. A student who graduates with a STEM degree earns a fifth more than the average, and with 100,000 STEM graduate jobs available each year there are many opportunities for young people with STEM qualifications.

There is widely reported concern that the British economy is being affected by the lack of skills to support progression to STEM careers, and it is estimated that 40,000 STEM roles go unfilled every year (Improving Diversity in STEM, Campaign for Science and Engineering, May 2014). 

Engineering companies report an expected 2.56 million job openings between now and 2022 (The State of Engineering, Engineering UK, January 2015), and it is vital that your students are given the opportunity to gain the knowledge and skills they will need to be able to take advantage of these jobs, and have access to the best science education possible. Encouraging our young people to study triple science will not just change their futures – it could also shape the future of Britain itself.

While the problem is clear, the root cause is less so. One factor is that many science teachers are leading lessons in subjects that are unfamiliar to them. A teacher with a physics degree may have had no subject-specific training in chemistry since they were at school themselves. Add to this the reluctance of many school senior leaders to release their teachers for training and professional development and timetabling constraints and we can perhaps begin to see why students are not being pushed to take triple science in the way they should be.

To address the problem, the Department for Education has funded the National Science Learning Network to deliver the Triple Science Support Programme (TSSP). 

The TSSP offers schools and teachers support to plan, develop and deliver triple science GCSEs. The free support includes: online communities and curriculum lead resources hosted on the National STEM Centre website and access to bespoke and formal subject-specific professional development.

Our teachers deserve support and training to feel confident in the classroom and students deserve to have access to a world class science education. 

Without a commitment by school leadership to invest in their staff’s knowledge, England will continue to be left behind in the science skills race.

  • Pauline Hoyle is associate director of the National Science Learning Network, the National Science Learning Centre in York and the National STEM Centre.

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