Journal article published in Teaching and Teacher Education, Volume 27, Issue 4.

Access (paywall): Archer et al. (2017) via

Scope of Paper

Science in England is distinctive at GCSE in comparison to most other subjects in that there is a notable stratification of award routes. The most prestigious of these, ‘Triple Science’, or separate science, is championed by English government and industry.

Drawing on data collected via a national survey of over 13,000 Year 11 students aged 15/16 years and in-depth longitudinal interviews conducted with 70 students from this cohort (from age 10 to 16), the paper discusses how most students have little if any choice over which science ‘option’ they take at GCSE.

The consequence of this lack of choice is also examined, through the lens of Bourdieu’s theory of social reproduction.

Main Findings

It is found to be common practice among secondary schools in the UK that the choice of what to study at GCSE level is greatly reduced.

Most students do not have a ‘choice’ of science route at KS4 – either their choice is explicitly proscribed by the school or they are implicitly steered and channelled, through concerted pedagogic work, into making the ‘right’ choice.

The surveys identified that 61% of Triple students and 58% of Double Science students reported having had no personal choice of which route they took, and that their school had decided for them.

It is proposed that Triple Science, and the pedagogic work that creates and sustains it, can be thought of as reproducing inequality. The practice of selective science routes at GCSE promotes and sustains social inequalities because:

  1. It functions as a filter for the STEM pipeline.
  2. It produces (Bourdieu's principle of) symbolic violence, through the association of the Triple Science route with ‘cleverness’.
  3. It creates and reinforces differential cultures on the different routes (e.g. ‘excellence’ versus ‘normality’).
  4. Schools have a differential (inequitable) ability to offer the Triple Science route.

Therefore, it is suggested that the policy and practice of Triple Science is incommensurate with attempts to widen participation in post-compulsory science because it is premised upon notions of elitism.

The most socially disadvantaged students are almost three times less likely to study Triple Science compared to the most advantaged.

Black students are equally likely to be taking Double or Triple Science, but Asian and White students are more likely to be taking Triple.

More Detail

Bourdieu's theory of social reproduction

The paper's analysis was conducted through the lens of Bourdieu's theory of social reproduction. The theory proposes that it is the interaction of 'habitus' and 'capital' within 'field' that produces practice (social life).

Habitus refers to the socialised, internalised, interconnecting set of dispositions that guide our thoughts and actions, which can otherwise be summarised as our 'cultural capital'.

Habitus interacts with capital (economic, social and cultural resources) and is realised or deployed within the field. Field is the arena within which the individual operates, and can be thought of as society, or a subset of society.

As such, habitus is both affected by, and affects, field. For school students, their habitus is influenced by their field when developing a feeling of the extent to which science is ‘for them’ (or not).

Field determines the value of capital (the resources that a student may have) – and the deployment of capital, through interactions with habitus, will generate particular relations of privilege/subordination.

In this way, we can see how a combination of a student's cultural capital and the status quo in schools leaves little in the way of choice.

Bourdieu was interested in how institutions, such as schooling, play a role in the reproduction of inequalities. The paper draws on his notion of pedagogic work/pedagogic action to understand the ways in which schools can shape and guide students’ ‘choice’ of science route at GCSE.

Bourdieu proposed that pedagogic action is the ‘work’ undertaken by institutions to impose the culturally arbitrary. In other words, the taken for granted ‘culture’, normative assumptions, and power relations within an institution or field – the dominant notion of ‘how things are’. In this respect, pedagogic action generates 'symbolic violence' and perpetuates inequality:

All pedagogic action is objectively symbolic violence insofar as it is the imposition of a cultural arbitrary by an arbitrary power.
– Bourdieu and Passeron 1990

The social reproduction of GCSE 'choices'

It is the view of policy in the UK that more needs to be done to improve levels of participation in post-compulsory science, which is seen as vital for national economic competitiveness.

Despite decades of initiatives, the rates and patterns of participation in post-compulsory science remain constant. In particular, women, working-class and particular minority ethnic groups remain underrepresented.

The majority of interventions aimed at improving post-compulsory science participation have focused on trying to attract more students into science, for instance by making science more ‘fun’ or interesting, but recent research has shown that such approaches may be misguided as most students already find science interesting.

There is a 'somewhat baffling' array of GCSE and equivalent science qualifications, including the more traditionally academic (e.g. Double Award; Core and/or Additional Science GCSEs; GCSEs in all three single sciences; Further Additional Science, GCSE Single Award in Combined Science, and more) to more applied and vocational options (e.g. GCSE Additional Applied Science; GNVQ Science, BTEC Firsts in Applied Science, and OCR Nationals).

While there is a statutory requirement for all students to study some science up to the age of 16, there is considerable variation in what this might entail in practice.

The ‘Triple Science’ route was introduced as an entitlement for higher attaining students, to enable them to study science in greater depth and breadth. The entry requirement for Triple Science has since become vague.

Attainment and progression data suggests that students on Triple Science tend to 'do well'. However, these patterns in attainment are not unexpected given a selective intake.

There is a general policy push for schools to not only operate selective entry onto Triple Science, but also to encourage more students to pursue it.

Students who are eligible for free school meals (FSM)6 are under-represented on Triple Science. DfE 2012 data shows that 84% of state schools offered Triple Science GCSE, but recent findings suggest that students in deprived neighbourhoods are much less likely to attend schools that offer the route.

The overwhelming majority of students taking Triple Science indicated that they were happy with their allocation:

The school told me I was doing it … I felt all right about it. I mean I do like science. (Bill, Triple Science, school’s decision)
The school chose for us, but I would have chosen that anyway. (Poppy, Triple Science, school’s decision)

Students taking Double Science also largely suggested that they were either happy, or at least did not disagree, with the school’s decision:

We just knew that we had to do it and it wasn’t really discussed. It was just you’re doing it and no one really disagreed with it. (Millie, Double Science, school’s decision)

However, a number of students who had been allocated to Double science later reflected that, given the choice, they would rather have done Triple Science and now regretted their allocation/choice:

Um, yeah probably. I would’ve changed all of the options apart from PE […] it [doing Triple Science] would’ve been on the top of the consideration kind of list. (Ghost, Double Science, school’s decision)
The school decided that [allocation to Double Science]. But if I had a free option and one of them was to choose Science, I probably would have because I know it does help you a lot in future life. (Chloe, Double Science, school’s decision)

Such regrets tended to surface particularly as students came to the end of Year 11 and began to formalise their post-compulsory aspirations and plans:

I wish I did triple, but … … back then, I don’t know, I just didn’t pick it. But then I’m sure it won’t affect me that much. Cos if I’m doing Physics at 6th Form, afterwards [then] I [will] learn stuff like that anyway. (Josh, Double Science, own choice)

Students lamented that the ‘choice’ of Double versus Triple (either at Year 8, age 12/13, or Year 9, age 13/14) had come too early, before they had sufficiently formed their aspirations and future plans. That is, they now felt unprepared and disadvantaged by this early ‘streaming’, but in particular, felt that particular post-compulsory science-related routes were potentially closed down to them.

Largely, students seemed to accept their school’s pedagogic authority to decide who should be allocated to which route.

It was also notable that students’ choices (of Double or Triple routes) had also been influenced by their respective levels of cultural capital. For instance, students with higher levels of cultural and science capital seemed more likely to opt for Triple Science. In particular, these students’ parents had advised them about the transferability and status of Triple Science (as an ‘enabling’ choice) and, in some cases, exerted considerable influence to ensure their child took Triple Science.

A number of students reflected that, where students were offered a choice of GCSE science route, schools seemed to engage in considerable work to either explicitly, or implicitly, channel students into making the ‘right’ ‘choice’.

The authors suggest that the close alignment of Triple Science with the Science pipeline is counterproductive. It dissuades many students from considering post-compulsory science and feeds elitist, narrow constructions of science as being only for the ‘brainy’ few.

The equality case against Triple Science is that elitism and stratification are technologies designed to protect the benefits of the privileged few. Such processes of distinction are associated with problematic outcomes for most other students.

Suggestions for Better Practice

What might be done to make school science in England (at GCSE and beyond) more equitable and inclusive?

  • The authors propose that equity and pipeline concerns might both benefit from an approach in which students study a common science qualification route at KS4.
  • Coupled with this, they call for a broader vision for school science, in which science is repositioned as an enabling subject with far more open (less restrictive) entry practices at KS4 and KS5.
  • Make greater efforts to convey the utility of school science for all students and their future lives (rather than the current dominant alignment of school science with the ‘pipeline’).

The authors believe that enabling students to keep their options open and not forcing them into routes that can restrict their later choices, would be far more advantageous and fair.