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What sort of selection stops students studying physics?

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I wanted to find out whether there is some element of selection going on when it comes to the subjects students choose to study at A-level, and whether it is any different for physics compared with other subjects. The evidence suggests the answer to both of these questions is probably – yes.

By selection, I mean occasions when students would otherwise choose to study a subject at A-level, but don’t, thanks to perhaps not achieving a high enough grade in the subject at GCSE. Selection may be down to formal or informal requirements in the school, or to self-selection by students.

It appears likely that there are students who would like to, and would benefit from, studying A-level subjects, who are not doing so thanks to selection. It also appears that selection affects different subjects very differently.

This first post is something of an introduction to the issue, and looks at the potential scope for selection occurring. The second post, which you can read here, looks at the link between GCSE grades and A-level participation and attainment.

The data was sourced from the National Pupil Database, available from the Department for Education.

Is there selection?

A simple way of identifying the potential extent of selection was to look for the number of school sixth forms where the entrants to A-level subjects come exclusively from students who achieved an A* or A in that subject at GCSE. As you can see, there are many more schools that have no entrants below an A for physics, chemistry and maths, compared to English literature, history and geography.

Schools having no entries to subjects from students who achieved below an A in the subject at GCSE may be down to chance. However, when one looks at the large numbers of schools for physics (720), chemistry (723) and maths (764), it appears likely that at least one significant external factor is at play.

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School sixth forms with three or more entries to the facilitating A-level in question: Did any of the entrants to the subject at the school achieve below an A in that subject’s respective GCSE (schools with 30 or more AS or A-level entrants)

Students who study any subject at A-level in school sixth forms do not achieve exclusively A* and A grades at GCSE – far from it. There are 22,727 students who studied any subject at A-level and achieved a B in physics GCSE (not many fewer than the equivalent 28,699 who achieved an A, or the 26,770 who achieved an A*).

With this in mind, it seems increasingly less likely that chance is responsible for 720 school sixth forms having no entries to A-level physics from any students with below an A in physics GCSE.

We can compare students’ GCSE and A-level results by linking the Key Stage 4 and Key Stage 5 National Pupil Database (NPD) data sets. Doing this is simple, as each student has a unique, anonymous identifying code, which is consistent between NPD data sets and years.

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GCSE grades of students who continue on to sixth form study

For this piece of work I linked three NPD data sets: 2011 and 2012 Key Stage 4 NPD and 2014 Key Stage 5 NPD. I needed to go back as far as the 2011 Key Stage 4 records to pick up GCSE information for as many 2014 A-level students as possible. Maybe surprisingly, more than 10% of A-level physics students in 2014 were only linkable to a GCSE record from three years prior (2011), and not to a record from one or two years before they sat the A-level.

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