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ASPIRES research: project blog


Studying the science and career aspirations of 10-23 year olds.


Archive for the 'Social Inequalities' Category

SchoolsWeek: Why do students value science but not want to be scientists?

Emma V Watson3 August 2020

This article was originally published by SchoolsWeek.

With recruitment shortages and issues of representation still dogging the STEM professions, Louise Archer looks at the interventions most likely to have an impact.

Students say they learn interesting things in science and think that scientists do valuable work, but very few want to pursue careers in science or engineering.

Over the past ten years, the mixed-methods ASPIRES study at UCL has been investigating science and career aspirations, following a cohort of young people from age 10 to 19. The study is informed by more than 650 interviews with students and their parents, and more than 40,000 surveys with young people.

Our research has revealed that these aspirations are relatively stable over time. That is, similar percentages of students we surveyed at age 10-11 who said they would like to be engineers or scientists would still like to be engineers or scientists by age 17 or 18. We also found a considerable gap between interest and aspiration – while 73 per cent of young people at age 10 and 11 and 86 per cent of those aged 17 and 18 agreed that they learn interesting things in science, only 16 per cent of 10 to 11-year-olds (and 12 per cent of 17 to 18-year-olds) aspired to a career in a related field.

In recent years, we’ve been able to identify several key factors that shape young people’s science identities and aspirations. The factors are complex and multiple and can be grouped into three key areas – capital-related inequalities; educational factors and practices; and dominant educational and social representations of science.

Capital-related inequalities include the impact that “science capital” has on the extent to which a young person experiences science as being “for me” or not. Science capital can be thought of as a conceptual holdall that encompasses all of a person’s science-related knowledge, attitudes, interests, participation outside of school and science-related social contacts and networks.

Evidence shows that the more science capital a young person has, the more likely they are to aspire to and continue with science post-16 and the greater the likelihood that they will identify as a “science person”.

Teachers, careers education and school gatekeeping practices also have a big impact on young people’s science identity and trajectories. For example, restrictive entry to the most prestigious routes such as “triple science” at GCSE means that even many interested young people can find it difficult to continue with science.

And when it comes to educational and social representations, associations of science with “cleverness” and masculinity have also been found to restrict and narrow the likelihood of a young person identifying and continuing with science post-16. These stereotypes impact particularly negatively on female students, students from lower income backgrounds and some minority ethnic communities. While they impact on all the sciences, they are a particular issue in physics.

Based on the study’s findings, we have a number of recommendations for changes to education policy and practice. For instance, rather than just inspiring and informing, interventions can be more effective when they are longer term and focus on building science capital. In particular, changing everyday science teaching practice has a far greater positive impact on young people’s engagement with science compared with trying to change young people’s minds about science. Interested teachers and schools can access free resources, including the science capital teaching approach, by contacting us at the addresses below.

Our work is ongoing, but we already have a wide range of articles and resources to share. If you’d like to download any of the ASPIRES reports, or find out more about our research, please get in touch with us or head to our website.

Winners of the Panel’s Choice award at the 2019 ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize

qtnvacl11 July 2019

We are delighted to announce that the ASPIRES2 project has won the Panel’s Choice award at the 2019 ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize, and was finalist in the award’s Outstanding Societal Impact category.

Watch a video about our project impact here:

More information about the ESRC’s Celebrating Impact Prize 2019 here.

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

qtnvacl27 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.


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 in the Skills, Employment and Health Journal

IOE Digital6 December 2016


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?

IOE Digital18 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.


Book Launch: Science Education, Career Aspirations and Minority Ethnic Students

IOE Digital26 August 2016


Last month we attended the book launch of our former colleague Dr. Billy Wong, who was a Research Associate on the first phase of our study. Billy now lectures in Education Studies at the University of Roehampton and has published in science education and sociology of education journals.


His book, Science Education, Career Aspirations and Minority Ethnic Students, builds on his work on both the ASPIRES and Enterprising Science projects at King’s College London by exploring the science career aspirations of minority ethnic students. It investigates the views, experiences and identities of British Black Caribbean, Bangladeshi, Chinese, Indian and Pakistani youths in relation to science.

Order Billy’s book here.

Follow Billy on twitter.

Is GCSE Triple Science making the STEM skills gap wider?

IOE Digital21 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.


First ASPIRES 2 Project Spotlight Report is published

IOE Digital15 March 2016


— Emily MacLeod

Last month we launched the first of our Project Spotlight reports; ASPIRES 2 Project Spotlight: Year 11 Students’ Views of Careers Education and Work Experience.

The report, written by ASPIRES 2 Director Professor Louise Archer and Research Associate Dr. Julie Moote, summarises our project findings on careers education provision following our most recent data collection. Using survey data from over 13,000 Year 11 students, and interviews with 70 of these and 62 of their parents, we found that there is a demand for more and better careers education from students.Cultural-Capital-Info-236x300

One of our key findings was that careers education is not currently reaching those most in need it; careers provision is not ‘patchy’, but is ‘patterned’ in terms of social inequalities. Girls, minority ethnic, working-class, lower-attaining and students who are unsure of their aspirations or who plan to leave education post-16 are all significantly less likely to report receiving careers education.


Download the Project Spotlight here.

ASPIRES 2 responds to inquiry on careers education

IOE Digital10 February 2016

— Emily MacLeod

In January, ASPIRES 2 researchers Professor Louise Archer and Dr. Julie Moote submitted evidence to the House of Commons Sub-Committee on Education, Skills and the Economy’s inquiry into careers advice and guidance. The purpose of the inquiry was to assess the quality and impartiality of current careers provision, and evaluate how careers advice in schools and colleges can help to match skills with labour market needs. Following the submission Professor Louise Archer gave oral evidence to the Committee at the House of Commons on 8th February.

The evidence submitted used findings from ASPIRES 2’s national survey of over 13,000 15-16 year olds to report on students’ experiences of, and satisfaction with, careers education and work experience.