An investigation of the relative progress of science students from GCSE to A-level
John F Bell and Mike Forster
Research and Evaluation Division
University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate
1 Hills Road
Fax: 01223 552700
Paper Presented at the Annual Conference of the British Educational Research Association
University of Leeds, England, September 13-15, 2001
Keywords: Science education, A-level, GCSE
A-level science students usually have to take one of two types of science GCSE course combinations: either a double award science examination or separate examinations in the science subjects. It is frequently argued that the latter are a better preparation for A-level science. This paper will investigate this proposition. In particular, the effect of differential performance on the different science subjects will be investigated by choosing a GCSE syllabus that has separate components for the science subjects. Students taking GCSE science tend to perform unevenly on the various components of science (Bell, 1997). This is important because, for example, while a good performance on separate subject Physics means that the student did well in Physics, a good performance on double award science may be only a mediocre performance in Physics compensated for by excellent performances in other components of science.
In the last quarter of the twentieth century, there were major changes in the provision and uptake of science in England by pupils aged 14-16 (Bell, 2001a and b). This is a result of the introduction of the National Curriculum. To satisfy the requirements of this curriculum pupils in England have to follow a course in science leading to either single award, double award, or three separate GCSE science examinations. These are external examinations that are usually taken by pupils at age 16. It has been argued that pupils who will continue studying science by taking science A-levels (an external examination usually taken at age 18) have been disadvantaged if they take courses leading to double award GCSE rather than the three separate science subjects. Pupils taking single award science rarely go on to study A-level science subjects. In particular, it has been suggested that pupils who have followed a double award GCSE course are not as well prepared for A-level science as those who have studied the separate sciences. For example, in the Dearing Report (1996) it was stated that a candidate with GCSE Chemistry would expect to gain three quarters of a grade higher in A level Chemistry than would a candidate who had studied double award science at GCSE.
Before the introduction of the National Curriculum, pupils tended to consider combinations of the three separate sciences (Johnson and Bell, 1987; Archenhold et al., 1988). Many organisations have advocated that all pupils should take some science until they reached the end of year 11 (Daniels and Bell, 1987). In 1985, the DES published a statement of policy and this indicated that there should be a broad and balanced science curriculum and proposed the following:
“The first essential in achieving balance is to ensure that all pupils, including all girls as well as boys, are able to pursue their studies in both the biological and the physical sciences up to the age of 16,…” (DES, 1985).
However support for the change was not universal and there were objections to the introduction of the Double Award GCSE (Holman, 1986; Reed, 1986; Plackett, 1989). A number of objections were identified. Some schools offer pupils the opportunity to study for a Double Award GCSE only. This means that pupils who wish to specialise in science receive less science teaching in particular science subjects that if they were able to study the separate sciences. There are other objections. One of these is that teachers are expected to teach science topics outside their area of specialisation. For example, at Key Stage 4 the percentage of those teaching a science topic without an A-level in the subject were as follows:
26% of those teaching Biology;
13% of those teaching Chemistry;
and 29% of those teaching Physics[JFB1].
The equivalent figures for teachers without a degree in the subject were 39%, 51% and 66% respectively. This is matter of concern. For example, Timmins and Fraser (1990) carried out a study involving “exemplary” science teachers chosen for the high quality of their science classes. They found that these teachers were not identifying pupils’ misconceptions when teaching outside their specialist area. They tended to use inappropriate analogies that confused their pupils and sometimes used factually incorrect material. As Doherty, Goodwin and Benson (2000) noted, there is likely to be an imbalance in the science disciplines in the teaching profession for the forseeable future.
There has been some research into the introduction of double award science. The Council for Science and Technology (1998) noted that:
The results of another 3 studies into the transition from GCSE double award balanced science to A levels are to be published shortly by the QCA. Essentially, the evidence from these is that the transition from the GCSE double award to A level science is less smooth for most double award science students than for their contemporaries who have followed courses in all three separate sciences to GCSE level. The former do marginally less well in A level science but this may be due to the particular characteristics of the students or the institutions in which they study.
Institutional arrangements for supporting and helping students make the transition are clearly critical. More generally, it seems that double award science has been a qualified success in terms of achieving its twin aims of providing a broad and balanced science education for all at GCSE level while offering an adequate foundation for those students who wished to study one or more of the science subjects at A level. However, it still seems double science GCSE has yet to establish itself fully as a worthy curriculum component in the eyes of some parents, students, employers, schools, colleges and HEIs at least.
By using a linked database of GCSE and A-level results together with more detailed data for certain OCR syllabuses, this paper will investigate whether these different courses have a long-term influence on A-level grades.
The structure of the examinations and the data used in this study
Before considering the relative progress of students following the different science courses, it is necessary to consider how the various GCSE qualifications are graded. The key factor is that the grading systems for all GCSEs allow candidates to compensate for poor performance in one component of an examination with a good performance on another part of the examination. For double award science, the candidates are awarded a double grade, A*A*, AA, BB, etc. This grade does not give a very good indication of performance on an individual science attainment target. This means that it is possible for a candidate to perform poorly on one attainment target, e.g. Sc4: Physical Processes, but compensate for this on other components, e.g. Sc3: Materials and their properties, Sc2: Life Processes and Living Things and Sc1: Scientific enquiry. In contrast, a candidate who has obtained a good grade in Physics GCSE must have performed well in Sc4: Physical Processes because assessment of this attainment target represents three quarters of the whole examination. In an earlier paper, it has been noted that performance in Double Award Science Syllabuses is very uneven (Bell, 1997). This means that comparing simple cross-tabulations of GCSE grades and A-level grades is not particularly helpful.
There are three different structures for Double Award Science GCSE. Firstly, the three attainment targets can be completely mixed so that they can all be found in individual questions (as in Science: Double Award Syllabus C (Salters) (1774)). Secondly, each question in a written examination assesses only one attainment target but all three attainment targets are assessed in each written examination (as in Science: Double Award Syllabus B (Suffolk) (1777)). Finally, the three attainment targets are assessed in separate examinations. This is the structure considered in detail in this paper. The OCR syllabuses used are:
GCSE Science: Double Award (co-ordinated) (1794)
GCSE Science: Biology (1780)
GCSE Science: Chemistry (1781)
GCSE Science: Physics (1782)
These syllabuses were chosen because of their structure. The double award has seven components: one coursework component and six written papers. Three of the written papers are for candidates entered for the Foundation Tier (grades GG-CC) and the other three are for the Higher Tier (DD-A*A*). For each tier there is one paper for each of Sc2, Sc3 and Sc4. The separate sciences (1780, 1781 and 1782) all have the same structure. They consist of five components: one coursework component and four written papers. Two of the papers are for the Foundation Tier and two of the papers are for the Higher Tier. Within each tier, one paper is identical to the appropriate paper in the double award and the other is an extension paper covering the additional material associated with the separate science. Further details of these syllabuses can be found on the OCR website ( The data used in this paper are from summer 1998 GCSEs because these candidates sat their A-levels in 2000.
In addition to the OCR data for the above syllabuses, information about all the 1998 GCSE science results and the 2000 science A-levels were extracted from the 16+/18+ database for the year 2000. All GCSE results for a particular year’s A-level students are matched in this database. This database includes only the overall grades and not the component grades or marks for individual GCSE syllabuses. The matched results for the GCSE and A-level candidates were extracted from this database. These data were merged with more detailed data for the OCR syllabuses.
Performance on GCSE separate and Double Award Sciences
In this section, the performance of candidates on the GCSE syllabuses is considered. The cumulative grade distributions for the syllabuses have been presented in Table 1. This table shows that candidates entered for the separate sciences tend to obtain better grades than candidates entered for the double award. For example, 41.8% of candidates entered for Biology 1780 obtained at least a grade A, whilst only 15.3% of candidates entered for Double Award 1794 did similarly. The figure for those who entered any double award syllabuses, with any board, was lower still at 11.6%.
Table 1: Grade distributions for the GCSE Science syllabuses: June 1998Biology / Chemistry / Physics / Double Award / Double Award
Grade / 1780 / 1781 / 1782 / 1794 / all syllabuses
A* / 13.3 / 20.7 / 16.6 / 5.0 / 3.6
A / 41.8 / 44.5 / 42.2 / 15.3 / 11.6
B / 66.1 / 66.4 / 65.8 / 29.0 / 24.7
C / 87.4 / 90.4 / 88.5 / 55.8 / 50.7
D / 96.7 / 98.0 / 97.0 / 77.2 / 72.0
E / 99.0 / 99.5 / 99.1 / 89.8 / 86.7
F / 99.6 / 99.7 / 99.6 / 96.4 / 94.8
G / 99.7 / 99.8 / 99.7 / 98.7 / 97.9
U / 100.0 / 100.0 / 100.0 / 100.0 / 100.0
The differences between the grade distributions of different syllabuses reflect differences in the quality of entry, e.g. the mean of the mean GCSE scores are as follows:
Double Award 17944.88
Double Award (All syllabuses)4.49
For every candidate, the average (mean) of all their GCSE grades was calculated (A*=8, A=7, B=6, etc.). For the five syllabuses above, the mean of these mean GCSE grades was calculated for all the candidates who took that syllabus. Thus it can be seen that the mean GCSE grade for the Biology, Chemistry and Physics syllabuses are very similar, whilst the equivalent means for the Double Award syllabuses are much lower. This suggests the more able candidates (i.e. those with high mean GCSEs) tended to be entered for separate science syllabuses, whilst the less able (i.e. those with low mean GCSEs) tended to be entered for Double Award science. One reason for the differences between the grade distributions is the differences in the types of examination centres (usually schools) that enter for the different science syllabuses. In Table 2, the examination centres have been classified into three categories:
- comprehensive and modern schools;
- independent and grammar schools;
- all other examination centre types.
As expected, the selective independent and grammar schools obtained better results in each syllabus, followed by the comprehensive and modern schools, and finally the other centres. Independent and grammar school candidates did better on Chemistry than on Physics, followed by Biology, and then Double Award Science. A similar though less stable pattern held for Com/Mod centres as well. This ties in with the mean GCSE results, which suggested that Chemistry had the most able candidates; then Physics; then Biology; and finally Double Award Science.
Table 2: Cumulative grade distributions by centre type for science syllabusesSubject / Type / A* / A / B / C / D / E / F / G / U / n1 / %2
Com/Mod / 2.6 / 9.1 / 19.8 / 46.8 / 71.5 / 87.1 / 95.5 / 98.5 / 100 / 30047 / 78.7
Double 1794 / Ind/Gram / 13.9 / 37.7 / 61.9 / 88.4 / 98.2 / 99.6 / 99.9 / 99.9 / 100 / 8052 / 21.1
Other / 1.5 / 5.9 / 11.7 / 50.8 / 71.1 / 92.8 / 98.6 / 98.6 / 100 / 69 / 0.2
Com/Mod / 6.1 / 26.2 / 51.6 / 80.0 / 94.4 / 98.2 / 99.2 / 99.3 / 100 / 1858 / 23.3
Biology 1780 / Ind/Gram / 15.9 / 47.8 / 74.4 / 91.9 / 98.2 / 99.9 / 99.5 / 99.6 / 100 / 5754 / 72.1
Other / 0.3 / 1.4 / 5.8 / 40.3 / 79.4 / 92.7 / 96.5 / 97.3 / 100 / 368 / 4.6
Com/Mod / 7.7 / 24.0 / 46.6 / 81.0 / 96.1 / 99.3 / 99.6 / 99.6 / 100 / 1726 / 30.6
Chemistry 1781 / Ind/Gram / 26.4 / 54.2 / 76.7 / 95.4 / 99.3 / 99.8 / 99.9 / 99.9 / 100 / 3759 / 66.7
Other / 2.6 / 5.9 / 14.5 / 56.6 / 87.5 / 96.1 / 97.4 / 98.1 / 100 / 152 / 2.7
Com/Mod / 7.0 / 27.3 / 49.6 / 79.3 / 94.2 / 98.5 / 99.4 / 99.6 / 100 / 1738 / 24.7
Physics 1782 / Ind/Gram / 20.4 / 48.9 / 74.6 / 93.0 / 98.8 / 99.7 / 99.9 / 99.9 / 100 / 5041 / 71.5
Other / 0.0 / 4.1 / 12.6 / 57.6 / 80.1 / 90.4 / 93.7 / 95.6 / 100 / 271 / 3.8
1number of candidates born between 1 Sep 1981 and 31 Aug 1982
2percentage of candidates in each centre type
The different centre type distributions for double science and the separate sciences has implications for the progress at A-level. Candidates who have sat the separate sciences are much more likely to go on to study for A-levels in the independent sector, than are those who sat double award science. This has possible implications for the rate of progress made by candidates with a different GCSE science background.
Comparison of progress from GCSE and A-level by considering grades
The GCSE results for science were merged with the A-level results for Biology, Chemistry and Physics. In Tables 3-5, the A-level grade distributions for the different GCSE backgrounds have been presented. For example, looking at Table 3, 37.3% of those entered for A-level Biology after taking GCSE double science obtained at least a grade B. This compares with 57.7% for those who had studied Biology at GCSE as a separate science. Again it should be stressed that these differences are influenced by the quality of the candidates. This is illustrated by the inclusion of the mean of the mean GCSE score for each of the different backgrounds. The results for Biology in Table 3 show that Biology (1780) had the highest mean GCSE, then Biology (all syllabuses), followed by Double Award Science (1794), and finally Double Award Science (all syllabuses). The grade distributions reflected these differences, e.g. candidates who took Biology (1780) had the highest mean GCSE grade, and the best A level Biology grade distribution.
Table 3: Cumulative grade Distributions for A-level Biology by GCSE courses followedDouble Award / Double Award / Biology / Biology / All
A-level grade / 1794 / All syllabuses / 1780 / All syllabuses / Candidates*
A / 19.9 / 16.0 / 37.2 / 33.3 / 20.8
B / 41.9 / 37.3 / 59.0 / 57.7 / 43.0
C / 63.4 / 59.4 / 78.3 / 77.1 / 64.3
D / 82.7 / 79.8 / 90.6 / 90.2 / 82.7
E / 96.6 / 95.9 / 98.7 / 98.7 / 96.6
Mean GCSE / 6.33 / 6.21 / 6.66 / 6.61 / 6.32
No. of Cand. / 3101 / 25221 / 1792 / 9532 / 35505
* born between 1 Sep 1981 and 31 Aug 1982
In Table 4, the results for Chemistry have been presented, and the results follow the same pattern that was found with Biology. The Chemistry syllabuses had better candidates, based on mean GCSE grade, and better results at A level, than did the Double Award Science candidates.
Table 4: Cumulative grade Distributions for A-level Chemistry by GCSE course followedDouble Award / Double Award / Chemistry / Chemistry / All
A-level grade / 1794 / All syllabuses / 1781 / All syllabuses / Candidates*
A / 26.6 / 22.2 / 41.6 / 38.1 / 28.1
B / 49.9 / 45.3 / 65.3 / 62.9 / 51.9
C / 70.8 / 66.4 / 82.9 / 80.8 / 71.8
D / 86.3 / 84.1 / 91.9 / 91.9 / 87.0
E / 96.3 / 96.3 / 98.3 / 98.5 / 97.1
mean GCSE / 6.53 / 6.43 / 6.84 / 6.79 / 6.56
No. of Cand. / 2346 / 18596 / 1433 / 10402 / 29707
* born between 1 Sep 1981 and 31 Aug 1982
Table 5: Cumulative grade Distributions for A-level Physics by GCSE course followedDouble Award / Double Award / Physics / Physics / All
A-level grade / 1794 / All syllabuses / 1782 / All syllabuses / Candidates*
A / 26.8 / 21.9 / 38.7 / 38.0 / 27.9
B / 47.0 / 42.4 / 62.8 / 61.6 / 49.5
C / 67.2 / 63.1 / 79.7 / 78.8 / 69.0
D / 84.3 / 81.0 / 91.8 / 90.8 / 84.7
E / 96.2 / 95.1 / 98.2 / 98.1 / 96.3
Mean GCSE / 6.39 / 6.30 / 6.67 / 6.69 / 6.44
No. of Cand. / 1980 / 14930 / 1512 / 8530 / 24069
* born between 1 Sep 1981 and 31 Aug 1982
In Table 5, the results for Physics have been presented, and again the results broadly follow the same pattern that was found with Biology and Chemistry. The Physics syllabuses had better candidates, based on mean GCSE grade, and better results at A level, than did the Double Award Science candidates.
In Tables 6-11, the A-level results have been compared with GCSE results for the four syllabuses described above. Using Physics as an example, comparisons have been made between A level Physics grade and:
- Science Double Award GCSE grade – all syllabuses, all candidates;
- GCSE Physics grade– all syllabuses, all candidates;
- The Physics component of Double Award Science (1794);
- The written component of Separate Science Physics (1782) (which is an identical paper to the Double Award Science paper in the previous bullet point).
Tables 6-8 compare performance on the syllabuses in the first two bullet points, whilst Tables 9-11 compare performance on the syllabuses in the last two bullet points. Columns headed ‘D’ are double award syllabuses, whilst those headed ‘S’ are separate science syllabuses. In the tables the cumulative column percentages have been presented, e.g. 79.5% of candidates with a grade A* in Double Award Science later obtained at least a grade B in A level Physics (Table 6). This can be compared with the equivalent figure (90.9%) for those who studied separate science at GCSE.
Table 6: GCSE Physics grade against A level grade for
all Double Award Science GCSEs/all Physics GCSEs.GCSE Physics grade
A* / A / B / C / D
A level / D / S / D / S / D / S / D / S / D / S
A / 52.1 / 71.5 / 11.7 / 23.5 / 2.1 / 4.3 / 0.6 / 1.8 / 0.0 / 5.9
B / 79.5 / 90.9 / 36.1 / 56.8 / 10.5 / 20.1 / 3.3 / 5.5 / 5.3 / 5.9
C / 93.2 / 97.6 / 64.0 / 80.9 / 32.2 / 45.5 / 11.7 / 22.4 / 13.2 / 5.9
D / 98.0 / 99.4 / 85.5 / 93.8 / 62.0 / 74.2 / 33.2 / 52.4 / 23.7 / 11.8
E / 99.7 / 99.9 / 98.2 / 99.3 / 91.3 / 95.4 / 67.3 / 81.0 / 52.7 / 47.1
Table 7: GCSE Chemistry grade against A level grade for