Is GCSE Triple Science making the STEM skills gap wider?

When the 2006 GCSE reforms introduced the entitlement to take Triple Science from 2008[i], 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.

There is a clear divide between those who take Triple Science, and those who don’t.

Exam Hall

Triple Science students were found to have more positive attitudes and self-confidence relating to science than those not taking Triple Science. They were more likely to study science post-16, and more likely to aspire to work in STEM.  In contrast, those taking Double Science or alternative qualifications tended to question their ability in science, and few aspired to work in STEM – as exemplified by Georgia:

I was quite gutted that I didn’t get Triple Science, but obviously I’m not as good in lessons… I was planning on doing Triple Science and then obviously going on and doing a science career, but I didn’t get Triple Science, I didn’t get picked for it.  –  Georgia, Year 11

For Georgia, missing out on the chance to study Triple Science, due to her individual school’s policy, ultimately discouraged her from pursuing her ambition of becoming a marine biologist. It seems that, compared to Double Science, Triple Science has come to be seen as the elite option amongst students and their schools, instead of the equitable alternative it was designed to be. We want our research to help stop students feeling pigeon-holed as either ‘sciency’ or ‘not sciency’ so early on in their lives. Could the implementation of a common science qualification for all more fairly address the STEM skills gap?


This blog is a summary of the following open access article: Louise Archer, Julie Moote, Becky Francis, Jen DeWitt, & Lucy Yeomans. (2016). Stratifying science: a Bourdieusian analysis of student views and experiences of school selective practices in relation to ‘Triple Science’ at Key Stage 4 in England. Research Papers in Education.


Author: Emily MacLeod

Website: kcl.ac.uk/aspires

Twitter: @ASPIRES2science

Email: aspires@kcl.ac.uk


[i] The option of taking three science qualifications existed before the 2006 reforms, although most schools did not offer this due to timetable pressures.

7 Comments

  1. I agree with Billy – in Scotland the sciences are split at this point and you choose whichever combination of them you would like to. This removes the emphasis/stress that the option of Double or Triple seem to have generated. Is there any way to compare the students in Scotland with your pool of students?

    • ASPIRES 2

      March 22, 2016 at 3:27 pm

      Hi Helen.

      Interesting point. We’ll have a look for any research into students in Scotland re. science options – let us know if you find any (aspires@kcl.ac.uk).

      Thanks.

      • My daughter is currently choosing her options and would very much like to take triple science. However the school are taking every possible step to discourage this. Although additional time is allowed in the timetable for triple science, the school will only allow pupils to pursue this option if they are achieving level 7 in science, maths and english.

  2. Very interesting, can’t wait to read the article.

    Food for thought: If league tables were to be abolished, the insistence of schools to only allow ‘proven’ students to study triple science may reduce. In Scotland, secondary science is separated by biology, chemistry and physics very early on, although I am not sure which is a better approach.

    • ASPIRES 2

      March 8, 2016 at 4:28 pm

      Thanks Billy – it’s true that league tables may also have an influence on who takes Triple Science.

      We’ll let you know when the paper is published.

  3. Correct me if I am wrong but doesn’t triple science require more teaching time than double science?

    Did the study consider the following?

    When the school curriculum is under pressure of time to accommodate many subjects, triple science is fitted in by squashing it in and covering the material faster. Under these circumstances the only students who would be able to absorb the triple science material fast enough would be the most able students. Schools are not going to allow weaker students to take a subject when they know they will not be able to keep up with this fast track approach. The alternative of giving triple science enough time for weaker students to keep up would mean cutting one of the other subject options for academically weaker students. Not something that many students would choose, or which non-science faculties would be happy with, so schools are unlikely to offer this.
    So triple science for the most able is an inevitability and was so from the beginning. Who ever thought otherwise?

    • ASPIRES 2

      March 10, 2016 at 10:27 am

      Hi. Thanks for your comment.

      In the paper (of which this blog is a short summary) we do recognise this in more detail – during our discussion of the challenges that schools (particularly less well-resourced schools) encounter in providing triple science.

      We see this as another feature of how the stratification of science routes exacerbates inequalities.

      Please keep an eye out for when the paper is published.

      Thanks.

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