So, you are in Year 9 and it’s time to pick your options. (We’ll leave aside whether funding constraints leave you with many options). Which science route are you going to take? Triple science or combined science? Will your GCSE grades be roughly the same whichever route you opt for?

In this blogpost we look at the outcomes of pupils who pursued different routes in science at Key Stage 4. Bear in mind that we’re looking back at what happened in legacy GCSEs in 2016. Things might turn out differently with the reformed GCSEs that current Year 10 pupils will take next year. And then again they might not.

How many pupils take triple sciences?

In total, 89% of pupils who reached the end of Key Stage 4 at state-funded mainstream schools in 2016 were entered for two or more science GCSEs. This was up from 63% in 2011. Most of the increase was due to schools switching back to GCSEs from equivalent qualifications (e.g. BTECs) in response to changes to the accountability regime.

A quarter of pupils were entered for triple science in 2016[1]. As you would expect, those with higher levels of prior attainment were more likely to be entered for it.

Percentage of pupils entered for two or more science GCSEs by route, 2016

Contextual factors play a part in entry rates for triple science. Disadvantaged pupils, particularly those with higher levels of prior attainment, were less likely to be entered than other pupils with similar prior attainment. Some (but not all) of this gap is explained by disadvantaged pupils being more likely to attend schools where triple science is not offered. (The Wellcome Trust Science Education Tracker [PDF] investigates differential access to triple science among different groups of pupils.)

Percentage of pupils entered for triple science by disadvantage, 2016

What is also clear is that pupils entered for triple science tend to achieve higher grades in science than pupils with similar prior attainment who pursue other science routes at Key Stage 4. (For the most part this means core and additional science.)

As the chart below shows, pupils entered for triple science tend to achieve around three-quarters of a grade higher in each of their best two science GCSEs – the number of science qualifications counted when English Baccalaureate (EBacc) achievements are being considered – compared to pupils with similar prior attainment pursuing other science routes.

The pattern still holds if we make a rudimentary adjustment for context by not including Pupil Premium pupils and those with a first language other than English.

EBacc science points score by route, pupils entered for two or more science GCSEs, 2016

(Note that I have censored the triple science line in the chart above due to the low numbers of entries among pupils with a KS2 mean fine grade below Level 4).

What is causing this?

Most triple science entrants will have an advantage in the EBacc science measure in that the worst of their three grades can be discarded. But there are other issues at play.

Firstly, as we wrote here, core science and (particularly) additional science appear to be graded more severely than biology, chemistry and physics.

This seems to happen despite the efforts of awarding bodies to maintain standards between subjects with overlapping content.

However, that blogpost just looked at variation in pupils’ GCSE grades. It did not consider the possibility that pupils’ subject choices might be in part determined by their level of attainment at the time of choosing their options. The chart below suggests that this might be a factor.

It shows that pupils who took triple science tended to achieve higher grades in maths at Key Stage 4 than pupils with similar prior attainment who pursued other science options. Again, this pattern holds if a simple adjustment for pupil context is made. And a similar looking chart is produced if Attainment 8 is used as the outcome measure.

EBacc maths points score by science route, pupils entered for two or more science GCSEs, 2016

Is it something to do with school effectiveness?

There are some schools where no pupils (or very few) take triple science, and some where all pupils (or nearly all) do.

If the latter group tend to be more effective than the former then this might explain the higher attainment (taking into account prior attainment) among triple science entrants shown in the previous charts.

In the next chart we remove any schools at which fewer than 20 pupils took the triple science route, and any at which fewer than 20 took other routes to two science GCSEs. The same picture holds as before – as it does if we do the same for maths. So this does not look, superficially at least, like a school effectiveness issue.

EBacc science points score by route, pupils entered for two or more science GCSEs, schools offering both triple science and other double science routes, 2016

So is it the case that pupils who take triple science tend to be more motivated? Or does triple science somehow boost attainment in other subjects? Or a bit of both? Or something else entirely? Vote now!

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1. In the old days, triple science meant all three of biology, chemistry and physics. However, the definition was changed a couple of years ago, and it now means any three from biology, chemistry, physics or computing.Three per cent of pupils entered core, additional and further additional science in 2016. To be clear, I am not including this under the heading of triple science in this post.