Is Wales in a science-education crisis?

By Wendy Sadler (@wendyjsadler), Director of Science Made Simple. The first picture is of Zoe, a science made simple presenter in action. The second picture was also taken by science made simple, during one of their events. 


zoe csfI’m a scientist on a mission to get Wales passionate about science and engineering. I run a Cardiff-based social enterprise called science made simple taking science to people all over the UK (and to 27 countries overseas so far!). Just like Soapbox Science, we want to try and reach those who wouldn’t normally attend a science festival or a museum. But I have to say I sometimes worry about education in Wales, and the effect some devolved decisions could have on the scientists and engineers of the future.


There are three areas that seem to be more of an issue in Wales than the other nations. Firstly, the number of girls choosing to study physics at a higher level; Secondly, the number of physics-specialist teachers; and finally the effect of the compulsory Welsh Baccalaureate qualification.


Girls studying physics in Wales

Of the devolved nations Wales has the lowest proportion of girls choosing A level Physics. Of course STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) is broader than just physics, but A level physics is a good indicator of how likely someone is to take a STEM related subject at a higher level. The Institute of Physics (IOP) has conducted two key studies on this issue in England. The first, ‘It’s different for girls’, found that girls have different learning patterns from boys and that trainee teachers need to be made aware of this. The follow-up study ‘Closing Doors’ looked at the gender stereotypes embedded within the school culture. Schools that send very few girls on to do A level Physics, also had a lower than average number of boys choosing non-stereotypical subjects. The report suggests that some schools have much more damaging stereotypes embedded and that this adversely effects girls and boys. The recommendation to address this was to add gender awareness assessment as part of a school OFSTED/ESTYN inspection.

Northern Ireland has the highest proportion of girls that go on to study A level Physics of any of the UK nations. Is this just because there are a higher proportion of single sex schools there? About one-third of all schools in Ireland are single sex schools, so it must be a factor. However, research about singe-sex schools is complicated as all other social and admissions factors have to be taken into consideration. There’s an interesting summary of the research in this area by Carolyn Jackson from Lancaster University here.

The biggest factor at play could be confidence. Girls who lack confidence can thrive more in a single-sex school where generally it is cool to be good at any subject without any stereotypes of which subjects are more ‘male’ or ‘female’.

So much of the problem is about confidence or self-identity. The ASPIRES report from Kings College London has shown that students between 10 and 14 years of age have a high regard for science at school; they find it interesting, they see the value to the world and their parents think it is important – but do they want to be a scientist themselves? No.


Specialist science teachers – crisis for Wales?

SMS audienceOne of the biggest indicators of whether a student will choose to go on to study science at a higher level is whether they are taught by a specialist science teacher. In Wales we are facing a crisis at both ends of the pipeline. A report by the Institute of Physics in Wales shows a large number of teachers are leaving the profession, and we just aren’t attracting physics graduates. The Welsh Government have stepped up to this challenge recently by offering higher incentives to physics graduates, but the incentive to train in England is still higher and is scaled on a higher level for those who get higher degree marks. This means that the very best graduates who do decide to train are often tempted out of Wales and may never come back.

Although the specialism and enthusiasm for a subject of a teacher can affect all students, it has been shown to be more of a factor for girls. In England, DfES has supported the IOP Stimulating Physics Network, which supports and coaches non-specialist teachers, and that has had enormous success – especially in encouraging girls to continue physics to A level. The Welsh Government have now funded this scheme in Wales on a smaller pilot scale. The experience in England took up to 8 years to see the results come through, so we need to hope that a long-term view will be taken to give this scheme chance to have an effect.


Welsh Baccalaureate

There are plenty of pretty derogatory blogs out there from pupils who have taken the compulsory Welsh Baccalaureate. They are united in their feelings that it just isn’t fit for purpose and it also actually limits some Welsh pupils from choosing to take a fourth A level which may be more useful. This is particularly an issue for those wanting to go on and study science, or those who want to add Further Maths to their A Level choices. One student doing a Nuffield Placement (shadowing scientists in a research lab) actually lost out because her work couldn’t be used in any part of the Baccalaureate scoring system! The idea of a Baccalaureate when done properly (like the International Baccalaureate – or IB) is a rigorous qualification that encourages a much wider degree of study to a higher level so that all students continue with some languages, humanities and sciences. Some experts say that the IB diploma is equivalent to 6 A levels but the compulsory Welsh Baccalaureate actually prevents students taking extra A levels which may help them get into the very best Universities. Surely this needs reviewing?


Let’s hope the brilliant scientists at SoapBox Science in Swansea can help inspire more girls to take up STEM subjects – but let’s also try to campaign for strategic policy decisions that will address these issues affecting girls in STEM as well.

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