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My PhD – Why are increasing numbers of students dropping Physics and MFL?

By qtnvacl, on 4 December 2017

By Sandra Takei

My PhD research investigates how students make choices in post-compulsory education. Subject choices made in post-compulsory schooling can have a profound impact on students’ future trajectories. Therefore, understanding the factors which influence subject choice can provide some insight into the declining participation in certain subjects and lower participation of certain groups.

For my thesis, I will focus on Physics and Modern Foreign Languages which have been identified as crisis subjects due to their declining uptake in post-compulsory schooling. Both have been identified as ‘facilitating subjects’ by Russell Group universities meaning that an A-level in either of these subjects are entry requirements for a high number of undergraduate programmes.

Few studies have examined the reasons for subject choice across multiple subject areas. Therefore, my study offers a comparative analysis that hopes to contribute to a new understanding of the issues which impact subject choice in each discipline. Language teachers have been concerned about the declining numbers taking A-level languages for some time but they have not received the same amount of attention as many of the science subjects such as physics. Comparing the reasons that students choose and drop these subjects can hopefully shed some light on whether these factors are subject specific or more general.

Although these subjects may share a several factors in common, such as their high status in the curriculum and declining participation, they have one major difference. While physics uptake has consistently been around 80% male for several decades, the uptake of languages has been skewed in the other direction. Roughly one third of A-level language students are male. I am particularly interested in what these gender differences can tell us about gender biases in subject choice generally and in these two subject areas. Hopefully, findings from this study can offer some useful recommendations for ways to make the curriculum more equitable and gender balanced.

I am currently in my second year of PhD studies. In addition to analysis of ASPIRES Year 13 survey and interview data related to subject choice, I will also be collecting additional qualitative data in secondary schools and sixth form colleges.

 

Sandra Takei is a Doctoral Researcher at the School of Education, Communication and Society, King’s College London

To find out more about Sandra’s research contact her via email.

 

Using Science Capital in the classroom

By qtnvacl, on 20 November 2017

The Science Capital Teaching Approach has now launched. Watch the video to find out about the approach.

Download a copy of the pack here.

The Science Capital Teaching Approach

By qtnvacl, on 16 October 2017

This month saw the launch of the Science Capital Teaching Approach, by our sister project Enterprising Science.

The approach is designed to support teachers in helping students find more meaning and relevance in science and, as a result, engage more with the subject.  The ideas for the approach were co-developed and trialled over four years between Enterprising Science researchers and 43 secondary science teachers in England.

Learn more about the pack, and download a copy, here.

“It’s kind of putting us in a difficult situation as students”: Responses to this year’s A Level Reforms

By qtnvacl, on 22 August 2017

Last week’s A level results day marked a number of milestones. Notably, this was the first year that students in England sat linear (also referred to as ‘tougher’) A levels; students studying one of the already-reformed A level subjects sat courses with little, or in most cases no, coursework and a final exam testing their knowledge of both years of the course rather than only the final year. There was plenty of analysis surrounding this – the headlines informed us that the reforms may have played a part in boys overtaking girls in top grades and that there was a drop in attainment for those subjects which have already been reformed, which includes all three sciences.

pexels-photo-289740Missing from much of this analysis was any student opinion of these reforms – what did the young people affected by these changes think of them? Last winter, as part of a data collection cycle for the ASPIRES 2 study[1], we interviewed 51 Year 13 students from around the country ahead of their A level exams. We asked these students, and some of their parents, about their schooling and future plans. Although the A level reforms were not a planned interview topic, 10 of these students, and a small number of their parents, shared their thoughts about the changes – mostly in response to a question about the challenges faced by young people today.

In this blogpost we share the emerging themes from these conversations, in order to shed light on student opinion of these part-introduced reforms. However, please note that due to the small sample size we recommend more in-depth research into this topic before drawing meaningful conclusions.

As the blog’s title (a quote from one of our students) indicates, many students felt pressured by the new reforms. The impact of this pressure upon mental health was not unexpected by some education experts; the “hastily reformed curriculum… created unnecessary stress and concern for pupils and teachers alike” said Rosamund McNeil from the National Union of Teachers ahead of last week’s results day.

The “memory game”

Some students disliked that the new linear courses required them to remember additional material for their A level exams. It’s “almost a memory game” said one student, Victoria1[2] (studying A level Maths, Politics, Design & Technology), who said that it felt like students were now “expected to recite something word for word… From two years ago, rather than just learn it, do it, learn it and then it would like stay there.” Worryingly, this was also cited as a reason to drop certain subjects, especially those seen as particularly content-based. For example, Louise (A level Psychology, Dance, Combined English) used the reforms as a justification for dropping Biology, her only STEM subject; “Um, I am pleased I dropped it, not necessarily because I didn’t enjoy it… there was just so much, but it was more, the fact was like how A levels are now structured – so I did all my AS stuff, did my AS exams, but for this year I’d have to remember everything from last year and then a whole new set of stuff.

Another student added that this requirement to remember additional information may lead to decreased enthusiasm for, or interest in, some subjects; “I think because [the AS and A2 exams] have been stuck together, people are just losing focus over time… that’s definitely an issue. Like I know it’s definitely hard to stay motivated with what you’re doing” said Neb (A level Physics, Maths, Further Maths).

No room for mistakes

The reforms also meant that some students felt pressure not to ‘make a mistake’ in choosing or taking their A level options, as many thought that the reforms made it more difficult to drop, change or retake options. Two students we spoke to raised concerns that the reforms limited their access to the possibility of retaking exams, which will now only be available once, instead of twice, a year; “I prefer the old system where we did the AS papers and they counted towards the A2 and you could retake them” said Preeti (A level Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Maths). “There’s just so much stuff to remember, there’s so much content and you just feel so pressured to remember everything, and you get stressed out… if [students] did want to like resit they’d have to redo the whole year, so it’s a lot” said Celina1 (A level Psychology, Sociology, History), who was also worried that the A level changes meant that no suitable past papers were available to her.

Reforms come with uncertainty

Being the first cohort to experience these reforms was also something that played on the minds of the students and parents we spoke to; “changing the A Levels to being linear, it’s kind of put my year group in a slightly difficult situation” said Bethany2 (A level English Literature, Sociology, Applied ICT). This was seen not only from the perspective of students but also teachers; “the teachers haven’t really taught this type of course before” said Bethany2, something echoed by one student’s parent who called the changes “disruptive” and thought this year’s students had been put at a disadvantage as the first year group to experience the changes.

 

Strikingly, most students who raised the topic of the new A level curriculum with us expressed views that this year’s reforms contributed to the exam pressure they were already under. Whether this is something which will lessen as the reforms continue to be rolled out over the coming years remains to be seen. In any case, insights from our research suggest that the government, schools and parents must be aware that young people are concerned that the new A level curriculum places unwelcome additional pressure on students.

 

By Emily MacLeod, Research Officer on the ASPIRES 2 Project


[1] This was the fifth round of interviews with this cohort. The ASPIRES teams first started speaking to these young people and their parents when they were 10. For more information about, and findings from, this longitudinal project please visit: ucl.ac.uk/ioe-aspires

[2] Pseudonyms are used throughout, to protect the identity of all interview participants.

ASPIRES 2 Research featured in Education and Employers Research Report

By qtnvacl, on 20 May 2017

Following the 2016 International Conference on Employer Engagement in Education and Training, where ASPIRES 2 Research Associate Dr. Julie Moote presented project findings on careers education provision, our research has been published in ‘Research for Practice: Papers from the 2016 International Conference on Employer Engagement in Education and Training’, edited by Anthony Mann and Jordan Rehill.

Our contribution to the paper presents findings based on data collected in the first data collection cycle of ASPIRES 2, when students were in Year 11, aged 15-16. Alarmingly, our data showed that careers education provision in England is not just ‘patchy’, but ‘patterned’ in terms of existing social inequalities. Our findings therefore indicated that schools are not only failing to provide careers education to all, but that the students most in need of this support are the least likely to receive it.

Watch Dr. Moote’s presentation here.

The full paper can be found here.

The ASPIRES Project Spotlight on careers education provision can be accessed here.

In an-depth analysis of our findings on careers education can be found here.

Are the white working-class an underrepresented group in science?

By qtnvacl, on 27 April 2017

By Lucy Yeomans, Doctoral Researcher on the ASPIRES 2 Project

Campaigns to improve diversity in science have often focussed on gender, with the lack of women participating in Physics being an ongoing concern within science education policy and practice. The work of ASPIRES has certainly made contributions to these debates, but also advocates a more intersectional approach to understand gendered, classed and racialised inequalities in science fields. Prior attainment has often been raised as the most reliable determinant of future science participation, however even when attainment has been taken into account students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to pursue science pathways than their peers. The government’s recent concerns regarding white working-class underachievement in education as a whole begs the questions: are the white working-class an underrepresented group in science? If so, how can we make sense of why this might be? Is it because, as has been suggested in policy discourse, they suffer from a deficit of aspiration? Do they simply lack the academic attainment to enable their future success in science?

As a doctoral student working on the ASPIRES project my research aims to explore the sociocultural factors which may influence white working-class students’ future science participation. I am currently in the third year of my study, and having confirmed that white working-class students are indeed underrepresented in post-compulsory science fields, I have drawn on the ASPIRES longitudinal interview and survey data to investigate whether white working-class students are less likely to conceive science as being ‘for me’ and whether this is a consistent construct or something that changes over time.

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As in the wider ASPIRES project, my analysis so far has led me to reject the ‘deficit aspiration’ discourse and move beyond the rationale of prior attainment as the sole important determinant of future science participation. I am currently exploring white working-class participants’ (now aged 18) histories of engagement in science outside of school both to determine their levels of ‘science capital’ and to see how they differ, or correspond, with students from different sociocultural backgrounds, including looking for differences in gender. The next step will be to look at participants’ aspirations in science and how they may change when students leave primary school and progress through secondary school.

Access to participants’ interviews dating from their final year of primary school through to their final year of compulsory education has provided unparalleled insight into the evolving values and dispositions of these white working-class students as they navigate various changes in themselves and their environments. Through this research I expect to provide some improved understanding of how the changes, and the differential strategies used by students of different sociocultural backgrounds to manage these changes, inform white working-class students’ non-choice of science. Widened access to higher level science subjects is important for citizens operating in an increasingly sophisticated technological world, while a diverse scientific workforce is important for economic prosperity and for reasons of social justice. I hope that my research will provide some useful and important new insights for policy and practice.

Lucy Yeomans, Doctoral Researcher on the ASPIRES 2 Project


 

ASPIRES 2 moves to the UCL Institute of Education

By qtnvacl, on 1 March 2017

Following the appointment of ASPIRES 2 director, Professor Louise Archer, to the Karl Mannheim Chair of Sociology of Education based in the Department of Education, Practice and Society at the UCL Institute of Education, the ASPIRES 2 project will be moving from King’s College London from 1st March.

Our longitudinal study, funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council, began with the ASPIRES project in 2009 at King’s College London’s School of Education, Communication (formerly the Department of Education and Professional Studies). Since 2009 our study into young people’s STEM and career aspirations has enabled us to track our cohort from primary, through secondary school and now, in our final round of data collection, at further education.

In the project’s eight years ASPIRES and ASPIRES 2 researchers have:

  • tracked students’ aspirations from age 10 to age 18
  • surveyed over 37,000 students
  • conducted regular interviews with over 90 students
  • spoken regularly with over 80 parents
  • analysed over 600 hours of transcribed qualitative interviews
  • visited schools across the country

Throughout the move our final round of fieldwork is ongoing, so look out for our emerging findings in the coming months.

We look forward to continuing our research at the IOE.

 

The ASPIRES 2 Team

ASPIRES 2 in the Skills, Employment and Health Journal

By IOE Digital, on 6 December 2016

SEH-Journal-Graph-300x231

Following a presentation by ASPIRES 2 Director Professor Louise Archer at Learning and Work’s Youth Employment Convention 2016 on 5th December, we wrote an article for the Skills, Employment and Health Journal.

The piece sets out our project findings in the context of social mobility, and how science has the potential to a powerful tool in promoting active citizenship. The key findings detailed are:

1. Lack of interest in science is not the problem

2. Careers provision is not reaching all students

3. Science Capital is key

4. Science is seen as only ‘for the brainy’ and ‘a man’s job’

Our recommendation is to change the system, not the students; we call for a review of both the stratification of science at KS4 and the longer-term desirability of A levels.

The full article can be found on the Skills, Employment and Health Journal’s website here .

(Why) is femininity excluded from science?

By IOE Digital, on 18 November 2016

— Emily MacLeod

The lack of gender diversity within science is well documented and well researched. Many have attempted to pinpoint the reasons for the lack of women participating in science, and/or generate methods to solve the sector’s lack of diversity. However, whilst there remains a great deal of focus on the subject of Women in Science, discussion is lacking when it comes to the role femininity plays within this.

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Who says you need a ‘boy brain’ to do Physics?

By IOE Digital, on 6 September 2016

— Emily MacLeod

Despite many attempts to raise awareness of, and widen participation in, STEM subjects the lack of diversity in the field of Physics is a continuing concern for science educators and policy makers. Research shows that this may be due to multiple factors including the influence of teachers[i] and the prevailing view that Physics is seen by many as ‘for boys’[ii].

From our recent survey of 13,421 Year 11 students it is clear that female exclusion from Physics is a real trend; only 35% of the students interviewed intending to take Physics A level were female (in our relatively ‘science-focussed’ sample). Nationally, this percentage drops by over ten per cent.

In addition to surveying students, for our 10-year study into the science and career aspirations of young people we have conducted four rounds of interviews with a smaller cohort of students. In 2015 we conducted interviews with 70 of the students, now in Year 11 (age 15/16), and 62 of their parents, in which we asked about the under-representation of women in Physics in order to analyse whether, and why, people think that ‘Physics is for boys’.

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