The old pattern of a poor take-up of science and mathematics by women aged 16-19 is stubbornly persisting, according to researchers at the Policy Studies Institute.
In a report for the Department for Education and Employment, the researchers say that young women continue to be much less likely to choose the physical sciences and mathematics than young men - even when they have similar GCSE results. In the science field alone, the study found that the sex divide between the physical and life sciences still exists.
The report, which is based on an analysis of subject choices made by school and college pupils in England and Wales, also found that students are more likely to take physical sciences and life sciences at A level if they do well in mathematics GCSE. The researchers conclude that despite all the efforts in both primary and secondary school to make mathematics accessible to more children, "the fear of mathematics is clearly still a factor in young women's reluctance to study physics and chemistry".
Even the introduction of "balanced science" at GCSE, which gives equal coverage to physics, chemistry and biology, and is regarded as a key measure to help prevent girls from dropping physical sciences at 14, has not helped.
The PSI says that developing policy for 16 to 18-year-olds should be informed by a much better understanding of the reasons for the growing gap in the uptake of physical sciences and mathematics between students with good and those with poor GCSE grades. The report authors, Yuan Cheng, John Payne and Sharon Witherspoon add that the link between poorer grades and vocational options needs to be examined in detail with regard to the influence of schools.