Education Secretary Nicky Morgan tells teenagers: Want to keep your options open? Then do science

Roger Titcombe's picture
This story was covered in the Independent of 11 November 2014

'Teenagers should steer away from the arts and humanities and opt for science or maths subjects if they want to access the widest range of jobs, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has said.'

'In previous decades students would only study maths or science if they wanted to follow a specific career such as medicine, pharmacy or engineering, but Ms Morgan said that now “couldn’t be further from the truth”.'

This has predictably provoked critical responses, especially, but not only, from journalists that are not known for their mathematical and scientific literacy.

Nigel Carrington, vice-chancellor of the University of the Arts London, added: 'This absurd discrimination between ‘hard’ STEM and ‘soft’ arts subjects will damage the next generation of entrepreneurs. The Government needs to recognise that creativity is vital to the economy and should be taught.'

As usual, both sides of the argument are missing the key points.

First, are they talking about the pre-16 or post-16 curriculum? If the former, then they are both right. All pupils of all abilities should follow a full broad and balanced curriculum that closes no doors to further study or career choices. This was the main principle of the Technical and Vocational Educational Initiative (TVEI), introduced by the Conservative government in the 1980s.

However, both DfE and the Labour opposition are now promoting various recipes for curriculum specialisation at 14+ or even earlier.

Second, why do so many students, especially girls, reject STEM subjects for their post-16 studies? The answer in most cases is that they find these subjects too difficult and lack confidence in their ability to succeed in them. The 'creativity' distinction is a red herring. Maths, sciences and technology are potentially just as creative as the arts and the humanities.

I argue that the underlying reason is that sciences and especially maths are increasingly badly taught - and the reason for this is the marketisation of the education system and the consequent domination of the C grade threshold, on which all schools are judged and head's jobs depend.

The key gateway subject is maths and the rot set in when a C in maths became required for the league table generating 5+A*-C measure for every school. This was introduced as the first attempt to mediate the easy vocational equivalent scam. However, the result was to infect maths (and English) with the same curriculum degradation that was evident in the vocational 'equivalents'.

Since 2003 I have been researching school improvement. The pinch point for school managers has now become GCSE maths. This has resulted in a rich variety of behaviourist entrepreneurial pedagogy, bribery, early entry, teaching to the test and pressure on maths teachers to deliver the goods.

The result has been soaring GCSE C grade pass rates in maths, especially in the most improved schools. In the earlier history of astonishing school improvement the emphasis was on IT and science with the most improved schools substituting GCSEs with 4 x C grade 'equivalents' for both of these subjects. Yes, there were highly 'improved' schools that did not teach GCSE sciences to any pupils at all. Such schools frequently got outstanding judgements from OfSTED, especially if they were the new sponsored Academies.

The maths problem remained to be cracked, however the most 'improved' cracked it. The consequence is only revealed by the subject-by-subject grade distribution data for such schools (not readily available). Typically and unsurprisingly such distributions peak sharply at C. However the cost is often in grades, E, D, B, A and A*. A much 'improved' school could have a completely distorted distribution where the next most common maths grade below C is not D or E but F. There is also likely to be a dearth of B grades.

This is obviously bad enough in terms of A Level progression but this is not the worst of it. Early entry can take potential A level maths students out of the picture as early as year 8 and certainly by Y10.

But this is still not the worst of it. To want to study maths and sciences post 16 requires students to have been inspired by the teaching of these subjects lower down the school. This requires teaching methods that emphasise the development of the sophisticated personal concept structures needed for deep understanding, alongside an attitudinal culture that encourages learning resilience and the desirability and normality of finding things hard to understand - an experience that only becomes positive when shared with peers and a teacher that knows what he/she is doing and is given the space and encouragement by Heads/Principals to do just that.

Does this describe the direction in which our school system is going?

The answer is both clear and obvious, but the consequences are so unpalatable for both the market obsessed Nicky Morgan and the utterly clueless Tristram Hunt that we remain a long way from a solution to the problem.
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Helen Saunders's picture
Tue, 11/11/2014 - 17:24

Very interesting and of course science subjects are important for everyone.
When you mention "the easy vocational equivalent scam" are you referring to the BTEC?
My particular interest is in Steiner Free Schools; the percentage of pupils attaining 5 GCSE grades A - C for the Steiner Academy Hereford dropped this year from 71% to 29% due to the BTEC not being included. There was a drop nationally but nowhere near as dramatic as this.
This state-funded school does not teach science subjects beyond year 9, instead a BTEC in countryside and environment.
Given the acknowledged importance of science subjects state-funding seems inappropriate in this case.

John Wadsworth's picture
Tue, 11/11/2014 - 18:00

The suggestion that girls don't pursue science because "they find these subjects too difficult and lack confidence in their ability to succeed in them" is over simplistic. In the case of girls (particularly those at mixed schools) science is seen as geeky and unfeminine. in single sex schools uptake of science tends to be higher possibly because girls don't have to compete with boys and put up with negative, damaging comments from boys and teachers. This perception needs confronting head on and credit is due to ScienceGrrl for going all out to challenge it.

The need for more inspirational maths and science teaching is evident but the new Primary science curriculum with its emphasis on facts with practical investigation being pushed to the margins will do little to inspire future generations.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 11/11/2014 - 18:50

John - You are right on all counts. Back in the 1980s TVEI was also successful in increasing the numbers of girls taking science A levels. I don't recall a time when gender polarisation in school subjects has ever been greater. There is a lot that could and should be done by schools to counter this. However the greater the number girls that take up sciences the more normal it seem.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 13/11/2014 - 17:19

Roger - I, like you, was a fan of TVEI. It increased awareness of general vocational education and the importance of a work experience and work-related activities as part of careers education and guidance. The progress made then seems to have disappeared if not gone backwards.

I also remember a scheme called WISE - Women Into Science and Engineering. I'm pleased to see it's still going but despite its best efforts it doesn't seem to have increased the number of women in these careers.

I used to say there also needed to be a campaign to encourage Boys On Nursing and Child Care Courses but the acronym BONCCC didn't quite work.

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