Barriers to participation and attainment in science in post education

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When discussing the role education plays in the struggle for change, Hargreaves (1982) maintained that teachers need to be concerned with the political functions of education and ask questions such as 'What kind of society do we want?' 'How is education to help us realise that society?' (p92).

What is significant about policy making is that it involves a division of labour. The people who make the policies are only rarely those who are supposed to abide by them or carry them out. Policies designed to deal with one problem often generate new ones, which in turn must be addressed by further policies. This point is illustrated in the history of the National Curriculum, and the associated assessment regime, laid down for UK schools in the late 1980s.

Since the 1980s there has been a very marked increase in the participation levels in higher education (HE) in England (Gorard et al. 2007). At the same time the numbers of those students studying the 'hard' sciences of physics and chemistry have been shown to have fallen. This fall, together with a decline in biology and mathematics has become a cause for concern, especially as progress in technological fields and thus growth in the economy is thought to be linked to scientific development. In order to discover a possible reason for this shortfall in numbers and understand why participation has declined it is necessary to consider who is taking science post-16, who is not, and why. There have been policies designed to increase the participation of females in science in HE; produced as a result of specific research into the differing participation levels between males and females. Other studies have concentrated on science participation and subsequent attainment by students from different ethnic groups. This essay focuses on the social, economic and family background of students, considering which groups are under-represented in science at school and beyond, and why and is based on a review of current literature (Gorard and See 2008; Gorard et al. 2007; Hughes, G. 1997)

The word 'sciences' is taken by most people to mean the sciences of physics, chemistry and biology. This is the view adopted for this essay. It is however noted that the 'sciences' taken in a less narrow sense could include sports science, psychology, technology, engineering and information communications technology (ICT); amongst others (Bell 2001).

Participation and attainment in science are here taken to refer to formal episodes, almost inevitably institutionally based or perhaps provided virtually by such an institution (Sims et al. 2005). This is because concern over learning science is usually expressed in terms of certification. Again this relatively narrow focus should not mislead readers about the widespread nature of science learning in vocational and general education, extra-curricular activities and most importantly via informal and personally motivated learning. It is important to recall that scientific literacy, for example, could increase even where certification declines. Much of what many people learn is not taught, and almost none of that is certificated.

Current policy on education, training and employment is driven by the theory of human capital which, according to Ball, S., has a fatal flaw. It fails to recognise the complex interactional, intellectual and situated processes that constitute learning, it is socially 'disembedded' (Ball, S. J. 1990; Wearmouth et al. 2004).

With the new politics of ownership has come the celebration of individual rights and the 'moral duty of the parents to choose the best for their families' (Lloyd, J. 1996). However, some families value more highly or are 'better at choosing' than others and have greater financial and cultural resources to support their children in the post-16 arena, or elsewhere (Ball and Vincent 1998; Reay and Ball 1998).

This paper considers science education in relation to students' socio-economic status (SES) and family background. SES for young people usually refers to their parental and family background as assessed by the occupational status, educational qualification, and income of their parent(s). Classifications of SES vary over time and place and between studies. The concern here is with the least privileged groups whatever classification is used. It is generally unwise to separate consideration of SES from considerations of sex, ethnicity, first language, health, disability and geography. For example, the relevance of being middle class can vary over regions, for different cultural backgrounds and even for men and women.

How this links with course - block 1 the purposes of learning science, differences between learning science to become a scientist, or learning science to be an informed citizen. Block 2 - why learners should be educated in different ways in science. Theories of science learning and how these possibly link to socio-economic status of the learner. Block 3 - considers the theoretical and practical considerations of using information and communications technology (ICT) in formal settings for teaching and learning science. This links to work by Sims et al. on whether the 'digital divide' is a major barrier to participation in higher education. Block 4 - forms the major part of this essay and features inclusivity and diversity in learning science. The role of social context in developing an engagement with science is explored from a gender perspective and this is further expanded to consider the role of socio-economic status as a barrier to learning science. (877)

Approach (500)

When I submitted Question 1 my original title for this essay was - 'Is socio-economic status a barrier to attainment in science in the UK?' My tutor questioned whether I would be able to find in my searches sufficient relevant data to adequately answer this question. Following her advice I amended my search criteria and focused on post-compulsory education, participation and attainment in science.

This essay examines factors that might influence the participation or uptake and attainment of science subjects, especially the role of family background.

A systematic search was conducted of the OU library database and Google Scholar, using the keywords 'participation', 'socio-economic status' and 'science'. This search threw up a large number of articles especially those from international sources and from the 1980s and early 90s. Since the nature of the curriculum subjects, the breadth of choice in the curriculum, the standard of examinations, the structure of society and the economic rewards for science are liable to change over time the search criteria were refined further to include primarily research that was carried out in a UK setting, referred to post-compulsory education and was dated after 1997. A complimentary hand search was also undertaken of already owned books and journals. From the wealth of information available some twenty five sources were selected to inform this essay and are referenced therein (225).

Discussion (3500)

Only around one fifth of students in England who continue to study after the age of 16 take at least one science subject. The figures for physical sciences have declined somewhat since 2001/02, being largely replaced by newer science subjects such as technology and sports science (Gorard and See 2008). Students continuing to KS5 are generally stratified by SES (Gorard and See 2008). However, official datasets, e.g. Pupil Level Annual School Census (PLASC) and National Pupil Database (NPD), do not routinely collect occupational backgrounds for A-Level and equivalent students. Although there is no data available on parental occupation it is clear that students taking sciences at KS5 are substantially less likely to be from families living in poverty, as assessed by eligibility for free school meals. It would seem reasonable to conclude that stratification of entry to study sciences at HE is already largely present in the decision to study science at KS5.

How does this stratification arise? To the extent that participation in learning opportunities depends upon the actions of individuals, a conventional model of how and why people continue in education is based upon human capital theory. Individuals are deemed to participate in post 16 learning according to their calculation of the net economic benefits to be derived from education and training (Macrae et al. 1997). Therefore to promote wider access to learning opportunities for all, government policy tends to focus on the removal of the impediments or 'barriers' which prevent people from participating in education who would benefit from doing so (Nind et al. 2005).

There are institutional barriers, created by the structure of available opportunities, and dispositional barriers in the form of individual's motivation and attitudes to learning (Thompson, R. 2008; Thomas, G., Vaughan, M. 2005; Bevans et al. 2008). However, the most obvious barriers are situational, stemming chiefly from the life and lifestyle of the prospective learner (Sims et al. 2005) and financial cost (Gorard and See 2007; Sims et al. 2005; Sawyer, R.K. 2009), but there are others such as time, location of educational institutions and cultural access to education.

The most commonly cited barrier to educational participation post-16, relevant to SES, is the relative cost of education. Many students continue with extended education because they report believing, in accord with human capital theory that they will gain in the long term through enhanced earnings (Jenkins, E. W., Nelson, N. W. 2005; Wallace, S. 2002; Jenkins, E. 2003). Others leave for the same reason; they see education as a poor alternative to earning money in a job (Macrae et al 1997). But perhaps more important than these motivations is a calculation of the cost of education. The costs of continuing in education can be of the direct kind, such as fees, and they can be indirect, such as the costs of transport, childcare and foregone income (what they could have earned if they had worked instead). The costs of study may disproportionately affect potential students from low income families and non traditional students in general (Sims et al. 2005).

This metaphor of barriers to participation is an attractive one that apparently explains differences in patterns of participation between socio-economic groups, and also contains its own solution - removal of the barriers. However, there is little clear evidence of their impact in creating stratified access, and a consequent danger that they tend towards tautological non-explanations at the expense of more far-reaching institutional, lifelong and societal change (Gorard and Smith 2007). If cost is a barrier then removal or reduction of the cost should lead to increased participation from lower income groups. This is the logic underlying financial support packages such as Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA), grants, fees remission and means tested bursaries, but there is little direct evidence that these approaches are differentially effective for the groups for whom they are intended (HEFCE 2005).

Plausible as these ideas about barriers sound, it is important to recall that the research evidence is almost entirely based on the self-reports of existing participants in education. Whatever those participating say about science, for example, non participants usually cite other reasons for not continuing with formal education. Most importantly, although it seems plausible that barriers such as cost are differentially off-putting for students of different occupational backgrounds, it is not clear why this should be related to science in particular. Perhaps it relates to the relevant prevalence of local opportunities putting off those not wishing to study away from home, with traditional sciences more likely to be available in old and civic universities. Perhaps the perceived time demands of studying science leads to difficulties in combining part time study and part time work. Perhaps it is the direct support of professional parents that leads to greater participation in post-16 science by their children (Thompson, R. 2008; Sawyer, R. K. 2009). It might be that science, as taught, now represents a middle-class European and US dominated sub-culture (course notes), making it unfamiliar to lower SES students.

In general there is a pattern of typical learning trajectories which encapsulate individual education and training biographies. Some people leave formal education at the earliest opportunity. Some of these leavers return to formal learning at some time as adults, but a high proportion do not. Other people continue to extend initial education, but never return to formal learning once this is over. Others remain in contact with formal learning for a large proportion of their lives. Which of these trajectories, from lifelong non-participation to lifelong learning, an individual takes can be accurately predicted on the basis of characteristics which are known by the time an individual reaches school-leaving age. Replicated analyses have shown that the same determinants of post-compulsory participation appear each time (Gorard et al. 2007). This does not imply that people do not have choices, or that subsequent barriers have no impact at all, but rather that these choices occur within a framework of opportunities and expectations that are determined by the resources which they derive from their background and upbringing.

Parents from more affluent areas stated that they believe social status is not a barrier to achievement in school and career aspirations through all subjects. They suggested that a young person who has a genuine interest in science may progress through school science and post-compulsory study and obtain a scientific career through hard work and dedication which is not dependent upon social status. They described current school and higher education systems as affording opportunities for everyone who is prepared to commit to learning. However the majority of parents from areas of deprivation perceived the issue differently. They suggested that young people who reside in more affluent areas are far more likely to go into a scientific career than those from areas of deprivation. They stated that young people are influenced by their surroundings and what they see and experience within those surroundings. Accordingly, these parents felt that they would not normally aspire to scientific careers even if they had an intrinsic interest in the subject. This view of parents from areas of deprivation suggests that they perceive science as being of high status.

The selection of individual educational experiences themselves reflect learner identities built up over the life of the individual. Qualifications and route at age 16, and subsequent life events, can then make much less difference, perhaps because a learner identity has already been formed, with a subjective view of the apparently available opportunities that either includes, or excludes participation in learning. Gorard and Rees (2002) entered variables measuring five determinants - time, place, sex, family and initial schooling - into a logistic regression analysis in the order in which they occur in real life. Those characteristics which are set very early in an individual's life such as age, sex and family background, predict later learning trajectories with 75% accuracy. Family background is influential in a number of ways, but most obviously in material terms, but also in terms of what is understood to be the natural form of participation (Thompson, R. 2008). In one large study, for a number of those who participated actively in post-16 learning this is seen as a product of what was normal for their family or, less frequently, the wider community, rather than their own active choice.

Gender differences in science participation have been widely researched (Course notes), with females having a generally lower rate of participation than males, particularly in the physical sciences. This has been attributed to teacher's expectations, the type of career aspirations for girls and lack of female role models. The National Foundation for Educational Research (2006) found that boys were more likely than girls to express interest in quantitative fields of study. Boys were more likely to express interest in at least one area of science, engineering and technology (SET), with technology being more popular than science or engineering.

In a review of studies that seek to explain a declining number of girls taking post-16 physics it was concluded that girls' perceptions about their own competence in maths and physics, relative to boys', are important determinants of their decisions to continue to study physics. For girls interest and enjoyment also influence their subject choices more than future career options. The decline in interest in physics, relative to other sciences through schooling is more so for girls than boys. Perhaps this is due to early development of attitudes to maths, with boys generally having more positive views, which gave them the confidence to choose academic maths and physical sciences courses later. This effect however, can be mitigated by socio-economic background. For example, girls from high socio-economic backgrounds, particularly those with professional or managerial parents, were more likely to retain their confidence in their maths skills and thus to select post-16 maths or physical sciences options.

Another reason why physics is more popular with boys is because the method of approaching problems and investigations in physics is more closely related to the activities boys experience outside school, and these are often activities culturally defined as masculine. Sadker and Sadker (1994) suggest that traditional self concepts and real life opportunities merge such that men become 'technicians' adept at maths and science and women become 'people persons' adept at human relations. According to Murphy and Whitelegg (2006), girls are less likely to see themselves in physics and physics related careers. However, such perception can be countered, according to this account, by changes in the curriculum and in pedagogy. Context based courses alter how physics content is organised, and may impact positively, and on girls performance relative to that of boys.

In the Gorard and Rees (2002) model, adding the variables representing initial schooling (such as school type, qualification level obtained, age of leaving) increases the accuracy of prediction to 90%. One possible explanation for this finding is that family poverty, lack of role models, and a sense of 'not for us', coupled with poor experiences of initial schooling can act to create this kind of lifelong attitude to learning - a negative learner identity. In this case the obvious barriers such as cost, time and travel become largely irrelevant.

Course readers suggest a school effect; one way of encouraging more students to take up science post-16 is to make school experiences more relevant and engaging for young people. Course readers found that the proportion of students taking science subjects differs between schools, even controlling for the profile of students. It could be the quality of the individual teacher of pre-16 science that matters (course reader).

Positive experiences of schooling are crucial determinants of enduring behaviour in relation to subsequent learning. In contrast those who 'failed' at school often come to see post-16 learning of all kinds as irrelevant to their needs and capacities. Participation in post-compulsory education is not perceived to be a realistic possibility, and even work based learning is viewed as unnecessary. Whilst this is certainly not confined to those whose school careers are less successful in conventional terms, it is a view almost universally held amongst this group. People develop a subjective opportunity structure that seems to filter the actual opportunities available into only those suitable for 'people like us'.

For those who do continue immediately post-16, the low uptake in sciences, particularly physical sciences, after GCSE has been attributed to their perceived difficulty relative to other subjects (Thompson, R. 2008; course reader).

Of course, students with the lowest KS4 attainment scores (or none at all) are less likely to continue with post-16 full time study - whether of science or not. Changing the nature of opportunities available post-16 tends to have no impact on the non-participants. The total proportion of the 16 year old cohort remaining in education, government schemes and employment based training combined has remained constant for decades, even though the balance between routes varies according to the local history of funding and availability. Furthermore the proportion remaining in education and training continues to be stratified in terms of social class, ethnicity and region (course reader).

Since science is seen as a hard choice at A-level or equivalent, the most useful predictor of participation post-16 is again attainment at age 16, especially in science and maths. Mathematical skills are an important predictor of science uptake. Traditional science, unlike psychology for example, is not taken as an additional new subject, but as one in which the student has not failed before. To some extent this is a matter of choice, but it is often also a criterion imposed by schools and colleges. Either way, it leads to physical sciences being dominated by those with high GCSE level attainment, or equivalent; which is in turn linked to high attainment at each previous Key Stage, and to social class background. Those taking maths or science in any combination have, on average, higher prior attainment scores than other students taking A-levels or equivalent.

To a considerable extent, changes in the science curriculum and pedagogy combined with socio-economic developments have been associated with a decline in the gender gap for participation in sciences. Why is there not such a clear position for SES? Perhaps, first this is because the pattern for participation and SES is not as clear as it had been for participation in science and gender. SES has a less stable, but more multinomial (sum of a number of things) and non-biological definition than sex. And the problem of SES and attainment crosses the whole curriculum. It is not specifically a science problem. In nearly all large scale, cohort and longitudinal studies, if prior attainment by age 16 is taken into account in any analysis, then there is a very limited role indeed for SES in subject choice.

There are clear differences in overall attainment in sciences at KS4 between students of differing backgrounds (National Pupil Database; Pupil Level Annual School Census). However, these differences are no larger than, and often much smaller than the differences for all subjects. Whatever the problem is, leading to the differential attainment of social, ethnic and economic groups, it is certainly not one that is specific to science.

One of the most established findings of educational research is that social class and attainment at school are linked. Students from more prestigious social class backgrounds tend to obtain higher marks and examination grades irrespective of the subjects studied. Thus, students from more prestigious social class backgrounds tend, on average, to perform better in pre-16 science subjects than their peers (Tobin, K. 1987). Some of the critical factors that relate to the learning of science concern culture, access to economic resources, educational background of parents, language and living with only one parent. The level of income and the residual that is available to provide experiences for children to learn at home is obviously important. Thus having the income to have computers, books and other learning support resources is an issue. The values parents hold towards education affect participation. If they're not educated, they don't know how to motivate their children. Economics plays an important part in the learning equation. When expendable money is in short supply it is not spent on educational materials for children at home (Tobin, K. 1987).

Parents from more affluent areas stated that they believe social status is not a barrier to achievement in school and career aspirations through all subjects. They suggested that a young person who has a genuine interest in science may progress through school science and post compulsory study and obtain a scientific career through hard work and dedication which is not dependent upon social status. They described current school and higher education systems as affording opportunities for anyone who is prepared to commit to learning. However the majority of parents from areas of deprivation perceived the issue differently. They suggested that young people who reside in more affluent areas are far more likely to go into a scientific career than those from areas of deprivation. They stated that young people are influenced by their surroundings and what they see and experience within those surroundings. Accordingly, these parents felt they would not normally aspire to scientific careers, even if they had an intrinsic interest in the subject.

Those students most interested in taking science tend to be high achievers, interested in eventual university education, and also in practical work. Physics and chemistry as separate subjects have been more likely to be taken by academically able students, especially middle-class males from independent schools (Gorard and See 2008). General science (including combined, single and dual awards), on the other hand, has traditionally been studied by lower attaining students, girls, and those from working-class backgrounds.

Parental influence on how pupils perceive and engage with science was cited by all pupils as having a significant impact upon them. In general, parents are viewed as supportive and demonstrate strong encouragement to achieve. However, only a small number of pupils stated that their parents become actively involved with their homework through discussion of topics, specific knowledge or questioning. Pupils from schools in areas of deprivation indicated that their parents place more emphasis on English and mathematics achievement than on achievement in science. Those from schools in more affluent areas engage more in discussion with their parents about careers and/or post-compulsory school study than pupils from schools in areas of deprivation. The majority of pupils in affluent areas suggested that their parents expect them to attend university and enter a professional career. This is in contrast to the perception of pupils from schools in areas of deprivation. They suggested that their parents would welcome the idea of them attending university but do not expect it. They also added that their parents rarely engage them in discussion about post-compulsory school study and/or career options. They described their parents expectations as wanting them to work hard and achieve as highly as possible but not seeing university education or a professional career as probable outcomes, and that going to university should not be viewed by their children as the ultimate goal.

Perceptions of studying science after the age of 16 differed between parents. However, in the main, parents from more affluent areas expect their children to attend university, although not necessarily engaging in science-based study. On the other hand, most parents from areas of deprivation did not expect their children to attend university. (3201)

Conclusion (1000)

Socio-economic status (SES) is a measure of an individual's or family's relative economic and social ranking. A person's SES may be constructed from a number of variables related to their family's income, parental education and occupation, or indicated by a proxy measure such as a young person's entitlement to free school meals. National data on SES are collected annually in English schools as part of the Pupil Level Annual Schools Census (PLASC). Each young person's participation and attainment in national tests and qualifications such as GCSE and A-level are meant to be recorded on the National Pupil Database (NPD). The PLASC and NPD can be linked due to the use of Unique Pupil Number (UPN) and therefore, in theory at least, national datasets hold a wealth of information about how young people from different socio-economic groups perform in science education. The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and UCAS hold data on the Higher Education (HE) subjects applied for and then taken by all first time undergraduates, contextualised by gender, ethnicity, UCAS tariff points and, where provided, parental occupation. There are significant difficulties in determining the existence and strength of any links between SES and participation and attainment in science at school and beyond. These include substantial omissions in existing datasets, and no widely agreed definition of SES that would enable subject tracking and data collection to be consistent over time.

At present we have a system in England in which science, as narrowly defined, is a core subject from primary stage onwards. There is strong evidence of a link between SES and attainment in science among 5-11 year olds, but the effect is less than in some other subjects. Figures indicate that there is a negative relationship between living in an area of deprivation and science attainment at Key Stages 1 and 2, but the effect is substantially less than in reading and writing at Key Stage 1, and in English and mathematics at Key Stage 2 (PLASC/NPD 2005; Royal Society 2008).

Once students are faced with a choice of how to study science (usually around age 14 in England) or whether to study science at all (usually post-16), there is a dropping off of participation, especially in physics and chemistry. At GCSE level, students from lower SES backgrounds are less likely to attain highly in science than those from higher SES backgrounds. This effect is seen in other subjects, but may be more persistent over time in science. There are clear differences as expressed by points scores in science at Key Stage 4 between students of differing SES backgrounds as measured by entitlement to Free School Meals, but these differences are not specific to science.

This is not a new phenomenon and no evidence has been presented that it has worsened over the last decade. The drop-off in science participation is stratified to some extent by SES measures, which also relate to prior attainment. As far as we can tell the situation is not unique to science. There is a role for schools and teachers in inspiring students to continue studying science. In general, students are not encouraged to continue with science unless they have been successful in previous stages.

If prior attainment in science is used to determine future participation (and attainment), and because we know that SES and attainment are linked, then the situation we find is as expected. Science is seen as a hard subject post-16 and so whatever the benefits, human capital theory would predict low uptake. In addition, using a stratified and stratifying variable like qualification (ability, aptitude, attainment) to select students means that the student body will be stratified by SES. At GCSE, physics and chemistry as separate subjects are more likely to be taken by academically able students, especially middle SES males from independent schools. Combined dual, single and general science, on the other hand are studied more by lower attaining students, girls and those from lower SES backgrounds. These patterns are likely to be due to a combination of individual and family choices, school imposed choice criteria and guidance, and the availability of relevant expertise in specific schools. At age 16, the differences in attainment between social groups are no larger in science than in all subjects. But many other subjects do not require, or appear to require, such a high level of KS4 attainment in order to continue study.

Since students at A-level or equivalent are generally selected on the basis of high prior attainment by themselves and/or by their school or college, it is not surprising to find that those from low SES backgrounds are less likely to continue into science at A-level than others.

It is not reasonable to expect science teachers to overcome this society-wide stratification in isolation. Clearly if there is a school effect on aspirations the evidence strongly suggests that we must create as mixed a system as possible. Schools must not reinforce stratification even if they cannot do much about reversing it. If the purpose of studying science is not merely to enter HE and become a scientist, then several other possibilities arise. Perhaps prior attainment should not be used. It is possible in the future that the routine use of this stratifying variable will be deemed as unfair as selection by sex, class, ethnicity, sexuality, disability and age are now. We do not allow discrimination by sex, ethnicity or class but we do allow it in terms of a variable that is stratified by sex, ethnicity and class. Why should one be denied the possibility of studying in the future a subject because one had not done very well at a similar sounding subject in the past?

Of particular relevance to the UK is the reported lack of specialist teachers, which might affect the quality of teaching. Yet, in England one of the biggest employers of those continuing to study science and maths post-16 is the teaching profession (Gorard et al. 2007) - teaching for the large part the next generation of teachers - and so on. Course notes sound the caution that modern curricula for science, with emphasis on relatively straightforward undemanding tasks, such as recall and copying, present a lack of intellectual challenge making it appear dull and unchallenging for some students. So, should one even have to continue study of science pre-16 if one can go back to it afresh post-16? Perhaps non compulsion at an earlier stage of schooling will lead to greater interest later. Ironically, it is possible that making science a core subject, like mathematics, is at least partly responsible for its later stratification (1097).