Non-participation in science A Levels
: a longitudinal study of White British working-class students ages 11-16

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Patterns of post-16 science participation in the United Kingdom show an under-representation of those from White British working-class backgrounds. Recent research has suggested that while students from these backgrounds may enjoy science, they are significantly more likely than their middle-class peers to see science as ‘not for me’. This study draws on 83 longitudinal, semi-structured interviews with twelve White British working-class students and their parents, contextualised against descriptive survey data from the ASPIRES project. Interviews were analysed using a Bourdieusian theoretical framework to explore the role of their out-of-school science engagement in ongoing science participation – this analysis forms the first part of the thesis. Out-of-school factors could not completely account for why students’ early interest and engagement in science was not converted into participation of science A levels, thus the remainder of the thesis examines the role of in-school factors – in particular students’ choice between Double Science and Triple Science GCSE science awards. This thesis offers an original theoretical contribution in its exploration of the notions of use-value and exchange-value to understand how different forms of capital are converted by dominant groups into symbolic science-related capital(s), often at the expense of disadvantaged groups who are largely unaware of such conversions. The empirical contribution is a study of White British working-class students’ engagement in out-of-school science and an analysis of how the tension between the culture and structures of the science classroom and key characteristics of White British working-class culture can divert students from these backgrounds away from continuing their post-compulsory science studies. The study found the interplay between habitus, capital and field made Triple Science, and subsequently A Level science options, appeared too ‘high risk’ and represented little use-value for most students, while the few who pursued them produced a habitus distinct from their family background, so science became a viable choice. It is argued that the field of secondary science education presents science as prestigious, abstract and exclusive, resulting in the reproduction of the White British working-class habitus which does not wish to ‘rise above its station’ and will ‘make do’ when their aspirations are frustrated, rather than challenge the authority of the school. The result is the majority of students from these backgrounds self-exclude from academic science pathways, regardless of prior enthusiasm or out-of-school engagement in the subject.
Date of Award1 Jun 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorJill Hohenstein (Supervisor) & Becky Francis (Supervisor)

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