Maths claims don’t add up

January 10th, 2014

Young girls are not struggling with their confidence levels. In my experience, when it comes to choosing which subjects they wish to study at A-level, girls know what they are interested in and they do it.

The reason I think many girls are put off studying maths and physics is simply because they’re not inspired enough. In my school, which I left last year, these subjects were largely male-dominated and many of us girls found it hard to relate.

Education and child care minister Liz Truss has claimed that the gender-gap among boys and girls studying maths and physics at A level comes down to girls’ lack of confidence. A report by the Institute of Physics showed that between 2010 and 2012, two thirds of pupils taking A-level maths were male. Four times more boys than girls studied physics.

But there are a number of reasons why young people choose different A-level subjects, and it’s usually not down to self-belief (or lacking it). In some cases, young girls may already have their sights on a particular job or industry. Others may just have grown up with certain interests.

A friend of mine who grew up in a bilingual household took three languages at A level because she was inspired by the language school that we both went to and had an obvious natural talent for them. Another friend has been an impressive piano player since she was five and has only ever been concerned with studying music.

For me, my A-level subjects were influenced somewhat by my teachers. I studied history, politics, French and drama. My history teacher invested so much in the subject and inspired me greatly to study more essay-based subjects at A level. Same goes for my politics teacher. Drama was already a natural interest of mine. French – I had to do it; I went to an international school which celebrated languages, but I enjoyed it and it gave me a real life skill.

I never thought to do science or maths, purely because the subjects didn’t thrill me and the teachers didn’t convince me they were worth studying. It wasn’t because I wasn’t good at them, I just couldn’t see the career path or why they were relevant to me.

Of course, career paths aren’t so obvious these days and there aren’t many well-known women in science/ maths that our generation can look up to in the field and say, “I want to be like her.” Off the top of my head, I can only really think of men in these fields (e.g. Professor Brian Cox, Stephen Hawking) but struggle to think of modern women equivalents. Science subjects did feature to an extent among my friends – some studied biology but never considered physics or maths. Again, mainly because they didn’t find it compelling. Many of them knew what kind of job they wanted after A-levels or what they wanted to study at university and none of those routes required hard maths skills.

Looking at my female mates around me, I don’t get the impression they’re a group too nervous or unsure to embark upon the so-called “macho” subjects of physics and maths, but instead a group of determined young women who know what direction they want to head in.

The question still stands why wasn’t that direction linked to either maths or physics?

The greater task for schools and society at large is to step away from these gender-stereotypes. Why is it that many of us still think of maths and physics as being “boys’ subjects”, but the arts courses are largely seen as a girls’ domain?

We need to steer away from an obsession with gender because it’s really not something schoolgirls (or boys) are thinking about.

Teachers should be equipped to let pupils know that they are capable to do anything they want to do and go in any direction they want regardless of their gender. Teachers are the ones on the front line talking to pupils everyday, and it should be their job to tell young people where a physics or maths degree can take you and why that place is worth going to.

It is also about creating role models who are really excited about the field of study and can bring it alive for students. But crucially it is about making the study of physics and maths more exciting and relevant to their lives. Some university technical colleges already exist to teach science and maths in a really practical, engaging way and these seem to be working to inspire a new generation of engineers, physicists and scientists. Perhaps we need more of these?

Interestingly, research from the Girls’ Schools Association (which represents girls’ only schools) shows that girls are 75 per cent more likely to take maths and two and a half times as likely to take physics than at mixed schools. President of the GSA, Hilary French, attributes this to the fact that “in a girls’ school, the pressure to opt for the subjects which are perceived as more ‘feminine’ just doesn’t exist and so the potentially talented female scientists and mathematicians are able to pursue their interests and achieve their full potential.”

Coming from a mixed, state school the reality is, however, that these figures can differ drastically in state schools. What is of real concern is the way in which we encourage young people to make the important life decision of what career they want to go down at the age of just 16.

We’ve decided for them that they can’t vote, they can’t drink but they can limit themselves to up as many as four areas of study that may dictate the direction the rest of their professional life will go in.

If the Government is really serious about tackling the gender divide between certain subjects at school, then it should think more broadly about the choices young people are forced to make from such an early age – which may, in truth, be nothing to do with their gender, and more to do with the barriers of the system they are working under.

Many young British girls today are full of confidence and self-belief when it comes to their abilities in the classroom. What they need is a more flexible and engaging education system rather than being bound by outdated stereotypes.

Emma Pearce is a news reporter on University Radio Nottingham (URN), a writer for Impact magazine and a broadcast assistant at BBC Radio Nottingham.

Article reproduced with kind permission of The Daily Telegraph.

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