Who Chooses Science? Subject Take-up in Second-Level Schools

20/02/2003

Who Chooses Science? Subject Take-up in Second-Level Schools

Emer Smyth and Carmel Hannan

The proportion of students taking science subjects for the Leaving Certificate has declined in recent years. This has led to policy concern about a potential shortage of scientific skills within the workforce. However, little is known about why students do or do not take science subjects within second-level education and in the transition to higher education. Who Chooses Science? draws on a national survey of over 4,000 students to identify the factors which influence student take-up of Chemistry, Physics, Biology and higher Maths for the Leaving Certificate.

Key findings:

  • The vast majority of students study Science for the Junior Certificate. However, girls, students with lower ability levels and those in the ‘bottom’ class in streamed schools are less likely to take Science than other students. In order to enhance equity, it is recommended that Science be made a compulsory subject at junior cycle.
  • Gender differences remain in the take-up of science subjects at senior cycle, with Biology being mostly taken by girls and Physics mostly taken by boys. Chemistry is more gender neutral but is taken by only a tenth of Leaving Certificate students.
  • Boys who take Chemistry and girls who take any of the science subjects tend to be a selective group, disproportionately of higher ability and from professional backgrounds. In comparison, boys taking Physics and Biology tend to be from a range of different ability levels and backgrounds. Interventions to promote science should, therefore, challenge the view of science as an élite subject and promote ‘science for all’.
  • There are differences between schools in the take-up of Biology, Chemistry and Physics. However, schools with high take-up rates for Physics, for example, do not necessarily have high take-up in Chemistry and/or Biology.
  • Science take-up for the Leaving Certificate tends to be higher in schools which emphasise practical work and student participation in laboratory sessions. It is recommended that schools be provided with the resources, equipment and appropriate class sizes to allow for regular experimental work within Junior Certificate Science classes.
  • Science subjects are not made available to all students. The vast majority of schools provide Biology for the Leaving Certificate but a significant minority of schools do not provide Physics and Chemistry. These are mainly smaller schools and those serving more disadvantaged populations. It is recommended that all schools should be encouraged to offer Physics and Chemistry.
  • Schools also vary in whether they have ‘rules’ about which students may study science subjects and in the way they timetable science subjects. While schools cannot be expected to privilege particular kinds of subjects, time-tabling should facilitate the widest choice possible for students.
  • Students tend to take science subjects for the Leaving Certificate if they have had a positive experience of science at an earlier stage. An emphasis on the practical aspects of science and its relevance for everyday life would appear to result in more positive attitudes to the subject and, therefore, greater take-up.
  • The attitudes and occupational aspirations of students at age fourteen are highly predictive of the courses they will take in higher education. It is recommended, therefore, that attention be given to greater provision of careers information to junior cycle students.
  • The majority of students who take Physics or Chemistry for the Leaving Certificate go on to third-level education. When they do so, they tend to take science-related courses.
  • However, a minority of students enter engineering and computing courses without a science background or without higher level Maths. Further research is needed to see if these students are at a greater risk of drop-out or exam failure.

Members of the Press are invited to a Press briefing, to be held in the ESRI building on Thursday 20 February at 11 a.m.

For further information, contact:
Emer Smyth, Tel. 01-667 1525 (office) or
Carmel Hannan (UK), Tel 0044 1865 278651 (office)

Who Chooses Science? is published by Liffey Press in conjunction with the Economic and Social Research Institute.

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