This article represents a 10-year follow-up to research funded by the Equal Opportunities Commission for Northern Ireland. It examines the impact of government science education policy through the uptake of science A level subjects and patterns of attainment among boys and girls. The nature of the study allows for an examination of the consequences of developing changes in educational policy following the introduction of the new curriculum. The sample included 1600 year 12 pupils from 21 Northern Ireland selective grammar schools, representing 17% of the total population of pupils in this sector during the academic year 1994/95. The results show that on average, boys were taking more science A levels than girls. This held true for pupils in coeducational as compared with single-sex schools; for pupils in Protestant as compared with Catholic schools; and for pupils from non-manual work as compared with manual work backgrounds. Among boys the average number of science A levels taken in 1995 was lower than in 1985. Among girls overall, the average number of science A levels was higher in 1995 than in 1985, except for girls in Catholic schools. Focus group interviews conducted with lower sixth form girls suggested that they retain some stereotyped views regarding particular curriculum subjects. However, the girls’ improved expectations of employment prospects now, compared with 1985, appear to explain why they choose to take science A levels. The general increase in participation, therefore, may be explained by perceptions of wider labour market opportunities for women, rather than changes in attitude to the curriculum. Educational attainment, measured by General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) results, was higher for girls than for boys. In explaining this result, our evidence from the focus groups points to enhanced expectations and a reduction in general stereotyped views among girls. Whereas recent evidence from Britain has been popularly interpreted as showing the educational advantage of single-sex schooling, the evidence of this study suggests that pupils are more likely to take science A levels in coeducational schools. Boys, in particular, are more likely to achieve high attainment in such schools. There appear to be no grounds from the present results for either separate schooling for boys and girls or single-sex setting in coeducational schools as a means to encourage greater participation by girls in science.
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