Students want to do more science experiments at school but have less access to practical work, says Royal Society and EngineeringUK survey

24 April 2024

A new survey for the Royal Society in partnership with EngineeringUK looking at attitudes towards science subjects, has revealed that despite 71% of students in years 7–11 wanting to do more practical science in schools (68% across years 10–11), access to hands-on practical work has declined.

Access to hands-on practical science for GCSE pupils has almost halved – possibly accelerated by COVID lockdowns – with video demonstrations on the rise, replacing hands-on practical work and teacher-led demonstrations. The proportion of years 10–11 (GCSE) doing hands-on practical work at least fortnightly dropped from 44% in 2016 to 26% in 2023. 

Doing practical science is a key incentive to learn science for students in years 7–9, with 52% choosing this as a motivating factor. Other encouragement factors include having a good teacher, finding science interesting, and relevance of science to real life. However, only two in five (42%) young people in years 7–13 consider an understanding of science as important to their everyday life.

Professor Ulrike Tillmann FRS, Chair of the Royal Society’s Education Committee, says: "The wonderful thing about science is that it has a practical side. It is not just in your head, you can touch and feel it – whether in the classroom or as part of everyday life. Access to effective hands-on learning that students can tangibly connect to the real world will help make science feel more relevant and meaningful and provide valuable skills for life and work. The present situation means many young people may emerge from school without a sound appreciation of scientific methods, which are crucial for understanding how science works and being able to engage with scientific issues."

Appetite for more practical work is higher among groups with lower levels of engagement in science, including students who are not interested in science or who see science as ‘not for me’. The ‘not for me’ group is most likely to include girls, and students with a white or mixed ethnicity, and makes up 32% of young people surveyed in years 7–13.

The report also shows a drop in students’ interest in science and computer science subjects. Interest in science at school has declined from 76% in 2019 to 71% for years 7–9, and a clear gender gap has developed. In 2019, boys and girls in this age group were closely aligned in interest (77% vs 75%), but while interest has since dropped slightly to 76% for boys, there is a sharp fall to 65% for girls.

Lack of confidence or perceived ability in the subject is impacting interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) subjects and careers, particularly among girls. The perception that science is difficult is cited as the main barrier to studying science in years 7–9 by half (50%) of girls compared to less than a third (31%) of boys. Girls in this group are also less likely to think they are ‘good’ at the subject (43% vs 53% boys). 

Students are also increasingly less inclined to pursue a STEM career as they progress through school (especially girls in relation to technology, engineering and mathematics). For those in years 10-13 not interested in a STEM career, 57% of girls say this is because they don’t enjoy the subjects (vs 41% boys) and 38% (vs 20% boys) say they don’t feel they are good at them.

Dr Hilary Leevers, Chief Executive of EngineeringUK, says: "We need hundreds of thousands more people entering STEM careers to get on track to meet net zero, to improve sustainability, and for the UK to prosper. The evidence of a declining interest in science is a serious wake-up call. It is clear that any future government must ensure that science and computer science are taught in a way that better interests students and boosts rather than undermines girls’ confidence. We must also ensure that all students have careers experiences that highlight opportunities in areas like engineering, that are barely visible in the current curriculum, but have critical workforce needs."

For students in years 10-13 who are interested in a STEM career, motivating factors include pay (42% for girls vs 50% for boys), societal benefits (35% for girls vs 26% for boys) and wanting to help others (37% for girls vs 18% for boys). According to the report, this may suggest the need for students to be better informed about the range of STEM career options available.

The survey was commissioned by the Royal Society in partnership with EngineeringUK, with support from Wellcome. More than 7,000 students between years 7 and 13 (aged 11–18) in state-funded schools and colleges in England during July to September 2023 were surveyed as part of the Science Education Tracker to assess young people’s attitudes towards and experiences of science education and careers. The first iteration of the survey was run by Wellcome in 2016 and repeated in 2019. This report is the third iteration and is the first to include questions about engineering.