Numbers fall in separate sciences
A bid to encourage teenagers to study traditional academic subjects may have inadvertently resulted in fewer youngsters taking GCSEs in the separate sciences, it is suggested.
Figures show that exam entries for biology, chemistry and physics have fallen this year, after years of increases.
This decline could be an "unintended consequence" of the English Baccalaureate - a measure introduced by the government in 2010 which recognises youngsters who gain at least a C grade in a range of academic subjects at GCSE, according to Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment research at Buckingham University.
The Department for Education insisted that there were no evidence that an apparent decline in entries to single sciences was down to the Ebacc.
To pass the science part of the Ebacc, teenagers need to score a C or higher in core science GCSE and additional science GCSE, get A*-C passes in double science or take three separate science GCSEs out of biology, chemistry, physics and computer science, and gain at least a C in two of them.
Statistics published by the exams regulator Ofqual earlier this year showed that as of April, biology entries for Year 11 students were down 12% to 128,000, chemistry was down 11% to 130,000 and physics entries were down 9% to 132,000. But entries for GCSE Science were up 32% to 152,000 and additional science entries were up 18% to 297,000.
Prof Smithers said that these falls reverse growth in the separate sciences that have been seen since around 2006, when then Chancellor Gordon Brown introduced a new initiative which gave schools incentives to offer separate science GCSEs.
"There's a move back to overall science," he said. "Why is this? I think it is probably an unintended consequence of the English baccalaureate.
"The rules for the EBacc in relation to science are you can submit two separate sciences but students have to have been entered for all three at GCSE."
Prof Smithers added: "An easier way for schools to enter with the Ebacc is to enter for science and additional science."
He warned that the dip could have a knock-on effect and "pull the ladder away" from subjects like A-level physics, if youngsters do not take a GCSE in the subject. Fresh figures on entries to each subject will be published on Thursday, when hundreds of thousands of teenagers across England, Wales and Northern Ireland will receive their GCSE results.
In its document on GCSE entry patterns, Ofqual said that the changes may be down to changes in how the exams are being delivered.
"The suite of science subjects has been modular for some time and schools have had many years' experience of delivering these qualifications in a modular way.
"These changes in entries may reflect changes in the way schools approach the science subjects and in the timing of exam entry, now that qualifications are linear."
Nicole Morgan, of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said they were concerned about the decline in entries for the subject, but said there were aware this could be due to a combination of factors, rather than a single cause.
"Schools are having to cope with the move from modular to linear exams, league tables that discourage entering students for a subject more than once, timetable pressures, and the introduction of the EBacc which only requires two sciences.
"We will be monitoring the numbers closely and collecting more information to determine whether this is a short term impact of policy and structural changes or a real decline in the number of individual students studying chemistry."
A DfE spokesman said: "Last year saw a large rise in pupils taking physics, biology and chemistry at GCSE - the most for 16 years. There is nothing to suggest that entries as a proportion of all pupils taking GCSEs will change substantially this year.
"But there is no evidence that the apparent decline in the numbers of entries to single sciences this year is as a result of the introduction of the English Baccalaureate.
"Students who take core, additional and further additional science will also cover content that appears in the syllabus studied by pupils who choose biology, chemistry and physics as separate sciences."