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Studying the science and career aspirations of 10-19 year olds.

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Is GCSE Triple Science making the STEM skills gap wider?

By Jason Ilagan, on 21 April 2016

— Emily MacLeod

When the 2006 GCSE reforms introduced the entitlement to take Triple Science from 2008, it was hoped that this widely praised three-qualification route would go some way to addressing the country’s STEM skills gap. But following the data collected from our national survey of over 13,000 Year 11 students, in addition to our longitudinal interviews with 70 of these students, researchers at ASPIRES 2 are questioning whether the Triple Science route really is serving society’s STEM needs. Emergent findings suggest:

  1. Socially disadvantaged students are less likely to study Triple Science – In our study, the most socially disadvantaged students were two and a half times less likely to study Triple Science compared to the most advantaged. We also found that students in middle and bottom sets were much less likely to study Triple Science than their peers in top sets.
  2. Students don’t choose their KS4 science options – their schools do – Despite the notion of ‘choice’ surrounding the GCSE selection process, 61% of the students surveyed taking Triple Science had this decided for them. What’s more, many of the remaining students indicated that they had been steered into taking a particular choice by their school.
  3. Students think that Triple Science is only for the ‘clever’ kids – Triple Science was overwhelmingly seen as the route for those who are ‘clever’ and ‘sciency’, both by those taking it and those taking alternative options. Our interviews showed that this left Double Science and Science BTEC students feeling inferior, especially in schools which  threaten to ‘bump down’ Triple Science students to Double Science if they fail to achieve the top grades.

There is a clear divide between those who take Triple Science, and those who don’t.

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Triple Science students were found to have more positive attitudes and self-confidence relating to science than those not taking Triple Science. They were more likely to study science post-16, and more likely to aspire to work in STEM.  In contrast, those taking Double Science or alternative qualifications tended to question their ability in science, and few aspired to work in STEM – as exemplified by Georgia:

I was quite gutted that I didn’t get Triple Science, but obviously I’m not as good in lessons… I was planning on doing Triple Science and then obviously going on and doing a science career, but I didn’t get Triple Science, I didn’t get picked for it.  –  Georgia, Year 11

For Georgia, missing out on the chance to study Triple Science, due to her individual school’s policy, ultimately discouraged her from pursuing her ambition of becoming a marine biologist. It seems that, compared to Double Science, Triple Science has come to be seen as the elite option amongst students and their schools, instead of the equitable alternative it was designed to be. We want our research to help stop students feeling pigeon-holed as either ‘sciency’ or ‘not sciency’ so early on in their lives. Could the implementation of a common science qualification for all more fairly address the STEM skills gap?


This blog is a summary of the following open access article: Louise Archer, Julie Moote, Becky Francis, Jen DeWitt, & Lucy Yeomans. (2016). Stratifying science: a Bourdieusian analysis of student views and experiences of school selective practices in relation to ‘Triple Science’ at Key Stage 4 in England. Research Papers in Education.