How do we make chemistry fair for all?
By Izzi Monk, Programme Manager, Education Policy
In a world where global challenges and advances in technology bring both uncertainty and new possibilities, the chemical sciences have a critical role to play. A successful chemistry education will ensure we have a sustainable supply of people with the curiosity, knowledge and skills to address these global challenges. Through our education policy work we aim to influence decision makers such as government departments, regulatory bodies and awarding bodies on issues that affect the offer of an excellent chemistry education for all young people.
Now that schools and colleges across the UK and Ireland have broken up for the summer, this seems like an ideal opportunity to take a look at two areas we have been working on recently where we have significant concerns about the impact on chemistry education for all, and implications for our sector.
Level 3 Applied Qualifications are back on the political agenda again in England with the recent debate in Parliament about their continued funding. Around 25,000 students achieve applied science qualifications (e.g. BTECs and Cambridge Nationals) every year and this is an issue the Royal Society of Chemistry have been influencing around for several years.
These qualifications are disproportionately taken by students from less advantaged socio-economic backgrounds. We know that chemistry is less accessible for students from certain backgrounds; undergraduate students in chemistry are less likely to have family members with a background in routine and semi-routine occupations, compared to all subjects. We are concerned that removing funding from these qualifications will worsen equity, diversity and inclusion in our sector.
Applied science qualifications are essential
While A-levels, and the recently introduced science T-level, exist as alternatives to the applied science qualifications, these may not be accessible, or attractive, to students who would have taken BTECs. Although we welcome the introduction of T-levels as a progression route directly into specialised occupations such as laboratory technician and wish to see them succeed, T-levels are as-yet untested, and their success in supporting progression into higher education, higher apprenticeships and technical training, and the workplace, is unknown.
Chemistry and other science A-levels are widely perceived as being more difficult than many other A-level subjects. There is significant statistical evidence to suggest that grading standards across subjects are not aligned, meaning that chemistry is one of the hardest A-level subjects to achieve high grades in. When students’ characteristics are taken into account, earnings differentials for degree study are similar for the BTEC and A-level routes.
Alongside routes into degrees, applied science qualifications can support progression directly into the workplace or an apprenticeship and can also be studied as part of an apprenticeship. However, we have significant concerns about the decision by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) to remove the requirement for integrated qualifications or clearly defined knowledge criteria to support skills development in Level 4 and 5 apprenticeships. We believe that the inclusion of a substantial, mandatory knowledge-based qualification within an apprenticeship helps strengthen the apprenticeship overall, and their removal has had a detrimental effect on the quality of Level 4 and 5 qualifications. We have done, and will continue to, raise this with IfATE.
Overall, we think that applied science qualifications are important and valuable for our sector, so we welcome the news that, at present, funding will be maintained. However, we are concerned this is a temporary “stay of execution”. We are calling for the government to properly evaluate the potential impact of the removal of funding on chemistry and other STEM subjects – and give time for T-levels to embed – before further decisions about funding of these qualifications are made. Ultimately, we are concerned that removing applied science qualifications will create a provision gap that will lead to a reduction in numbers of students studying on science pathways at Level 3 and beyond.
Read our full briefing note on this.
Numbers of students picking chemistry at HE are falling
Reduction in numbers is something that we also picked up on in our response to the Careers Education, Information, Advice and Guidance (CEIAG) Select Committee inquiry, which has now been published on the Committee website. We have significant concerns that students do not understand the careers opportunities that chemistry can offer, and that this may be having an impact on student entry numbers to further study and careers.
UCAS figures available for chemistry show a 18 % drop in applications between 2015-2018. Since then, the most recent figures available for chemistry appear to show application numbers may have stabilised at this lower point, with a slight downturn in the figures for 2021. This decline is despite the numbers of students sitting A-level chemistry increasing. In England, numbers increased from 48,765 to 55,485 entries from 2017 to 2021, although have dipped slightly in 2022. The uptake for science apprenticeships has declined from 2016 to 2020; there were 3,150 new science apprentice starts in the academic year of 2019 to 2020, in comparison to 5,200 new starts in 2016-17[i]. At the same time, there is a particular challenge with attracting and retaining people in technical roles in the UK.
31%[ii] of chemistry A-level students answering the ASPIRES2 survey said they picked chemistry A-level because they were interested in the subject. Worryingly, only 17.4% of chemistry A-level students identified career relevance as one of their main motivations for studying chemistry A-level. This is much lower than for other subjects. In addition, only 7% of chemistry A-level students reported they intended to pursue chemistry, or directly related courses after school.
In Green Shoots: a sustainable chemistry curriculum for a sustainable planet we presented findings from a recent survey of 549 11–18-year-olds. 66% of respondents identified they are interested in future careers or study relating to sustainability. However, only 38% felt that studying chemistry can lead to lots of jobs in sustainability and climate change. As a result of this, and our other Green Shoots surveys, we are calling on governments to ensure young people have the skills and careers information needed to progress into green jobs in the chemical sciences and contribute to the future green economy.
We must continue to remove barriers
Chemistry for All was a five-year research and outreach study conducted by the Royal Society of Chemistry to explore and address the barriers to participation in post-16 UK chemistry education. The programme showed that targeting students from disadvantaged backgrounds can draw students into the chemistry pipeline and strengthen their identification with chemistry and was able to raise students' awareness of the careers available with a post-16 qualification.
In our response, we recommended to government that young people should come to understand the value of chemistry to society and to their future careers, by embedding this in the curriculum as an expected learning outcome. We also said that teachers should be supported with resources and ongoing professional development opportunities.
Alongside our recommendations on careers, we also want governments to urgently reassess long-standing barriers in education such as grading severity, inequality embedded by dual routes of study e.g. separate science vs double award GCSE, inaccessibility and confidence so that all young people have the opportunity of an excellent chemistry education.
[i] Data from Science Industries Partnership.
[ii] Moote & Archer, 2019, Contextualising Chemistry Choices: Analysis of A level Chemistry students’ aspirations, attitudes and choices in the ASPIRES 2 Year 13 dataset: Unpublished report for the Royal Society of Chemistry. London, UCL