If you don’t do triple science, you’re doomed – or whatever happened to broad and balanced?

“Pupils in some parts of England are unlikely to take exams that could be vital to their job prospects – such as sciences and languages – due to a subject “desert”, a study has found.”

That is how the BBC website introduces a new report from the Open Public Services Network which has researched the availability and take up of certain GCSEs in English schools. The focus is on triple science and modern languages and the message is the increasingly familiar one that lazy schools are letting poor pupils down by not letting (making?) them take supposedly hard courses.

Before we accept this simplistic view, a little background may be useful. The National Curriculum when first established expected all students to follow a broad and balanced curriculum up to 16. It set out positively to counter the narrow specialisation at 14 that was then common. 20% of curriculum time was normally to be spent on science – even then it was hard to fit all areas of experience into the week but it was possible to get a decent balance. Before 1988 there was massive gender stereotyping in science subject choices and integrated science courses were designed to challenge that.

Let’s be clear – triple science either means kids have a seriously unbalanced Key Stage 4 programme or they are forced to do it in the time normally given to two GCSEs. Neither of these is desirable but nevertheless this has become one of those supposed signs of rigour that some schools and parts of the media are in love with. It’s become a badge that a lot of schools feel they have to have if they’re going to be taken seriously academically – another of those ways in which they try and attract the right kind of parent.

According to the report pupils’ life chances are at stake and “One important reason why bright children from low and middle income pupils miss out on the best universities is that they don’t take the right subjects at school.” Notice the assumption here that what the “best universities” say they want is automatically what we need to be doing.

Nowhere does it ask the question, just how many students’ job prospects are at stake. As ever we’re talking about the tiny minority that might want to do some very particular courses at a very particular group of universities. But somehow, the impression is given that just about everyone is at risk.

And in fact nowhere is it written down that triple science is needed for anything. Not one single medical school demands it and most are quite specific in saying they accept double science on an equal basis. It may of course be that under the surface this kind of thing is noticed but if it is, it is one more example of how university entrance is a “secret garden” open only to those already on the inside.

It’s claimed that students doing triple science are more likely to do science A levels and do better at them. Of course if they’ve specialised to this extent at 14, they have far fewer choices at A level so, to slightly misquote, “they would wouldn’t they”. And if you enter the ablest students and those keenest on science for triple science, yes they probably will do well in the future – who’s surprised by that?

We should be standing on the principle that young people deserve a balanced curriculum that keeps options open at 14. And we need to resist the view that says only the subjects of the 1950’s grammar school curriculum are worth anything. We really should not allow a small group of universities to distort the experience of young people by driving narrowness and specialisation further and further down the school.

The other feature of this report is the assertion that there is a relationship between deprivation and the curriculum available and that schools in deprived areas are gaming the system by stopping kids doing “hard subjects”. It asserts that “There is a link to deprivation and affluence – with schools in wealthier areas more likely to offer triple science.”

If you look then at the map provided you find that the 16 areas where the fewest schools offer triple science include Torbay, Kent, Milton Keynes, York and Camden and Kensington and Chelsea. Whereas 100% of schools offer triple science in Wigan, Barnsley, Sheffield, Newham and Barking and Dagenham. Hardly a simple pattern!

To the extent that there is truth in this analysis, in reality it comes back to inequality. We know how strong the relationship between economic circumstances and educational attainment is. But we keep on pretending that if only schools did something different, the relationship will go away. And as ever, our definition of social mobility is whether we can rescue a few bright kids from challenging areas and never mind what happens to the rest. So that, we’re told, must have absolute priority in deciding what we teach and how we use our resources.

I wonder how long it will be before we have a report condemning schools too few young people get an apprenticeship or go on to a vocational course in FE . That might be one small sign that we are taking challenging inequality more seriously

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2 Comments on “If you don’t do triple science, you’re doomed – or whatever happened to broad and balanced?”

  1. Mike Newman says:

    John is quite right. Double science is perfectly adequate for A level entry. Both our sons did double science and one has a 1st in biological science from Warwick and the other has a PhD in plant genetics from York. The 3 sciences thing was re-introduced so that grammar schools and would-be grammar schools had a way of increasing their status. The original balanced science was brought in to end the sexual selection within single science GCSEs (boys for physics, girls for biology). The BBC as always gets the Tory end of the stick.

  2. pauljmartin2014 says:

    Would having single, double or triple science my improve employment prospects in Sandwich, Kent where one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, Pfizer, has announced the loss of 2,400 jobs?