Pupils and the Core Subjects: A Study of the Attitudes of Some Pupils Aged 11  16
Dave Miller, Peter Parkhouse, Ruth Eagle and Tricia Evans
Keele University
Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Sussex at Brighton, September 2 5 1999.
Abstract
Over 6000 pupils in 9 secondary schools completed an attitudinal questionnaire in one of the three core subjects of English, mathematics and science. Many of the questions were common to all three subjects. The questions were grouped into a number of categories including interest, enjoyment and relationship with the teacher. Responses have been considered in terms of subject, gender and age. This paper reports on our initial findings.
Keywords: ATTITUDES, PUPILS, SECONDARY, ENGLISH, MATHEMATICS, SCIENCE
Overview
The purpose of the survey was to examine the attitudes of pupils to English, mathematics and science  the core subjects in the English National Curriculum. This survey was undertaken in nine schools in the Keele University Partnership in the late spring term of 1998. The schools were selfselecting and comprised five 1118 schools (all semirural), three inner city 1116 schools and one small town 1116 school. A total of over six thousand pupils in years seven to eleven took part. Each pupil answered one questionnaire on either English or mathematics or science. To achieve random samples, the booklets were distributed to schools so that each subject went to every third pupil.
Each questionnaire consisted of sixty items, forty of these were common for all three subjects except for the change of word, ‘English’ or ‘mathematics’ or ‘science’ in place of the word ‘subject’ which is used in this paper. The remaining twenty items were different, some eliciting ‘factual’ information, (such as year, gender) others relating to subject specific issues. The attitudinal questions required a response on a 4 or 5 point Likerttype scale, with most requiring a response strongly agree, agree, not sure, disagree and strongly disagree. Immediately after completing the questionnaire, pupils were invited to write an open response to what they liked or disliked about learning the subject. We shall be reporting on these open responses separately.
Thirtytwo of the forty common questions showed a high overall consistency in the way pupils responded (Cronbach’s a = 0.93). These items were used to determine the overall attitude scale as follows: strong agreement with positive statements scores 2, agree scores 1, not sure scores 0, disagree scores 1 and strongly disagree 2. When statements have a negative tone, strong agreement scores 2 and so on. Thus the average score for an individual item lies between a theoretical maximum, positive attitude, of +2 and a minimum, negative attitude of 2. The overall attitude of an individual pupil was then calculated by taking a mean of the 32 individual item scores. The overall attitude scale was then calculated by taking the mean of these mean scores.
Within the overall scale, 5 distinct scales were identified enjoyment (4 questions, Cronbach’s a = 0.85); interest (4 questions, a = 0.80); effort (2 questions, a = 0.71); relationship with the teacher (9 questions, a = 0.86); and perception of the subject as important (7 questions, a = 0.79). The other 6 items in the overall attitude scale did not belong to any of these scales.
The overall attitude scale
Figures 1, 2 and 3 show the overall attitude score for English, mathematics and science respectively, averaged by year and gender over all pupils in all schools. They also show the maximum and minimum average values for the overall attitude scale across the nine schools by year and gender. Figure 4 shows the overall attitude scale by year, gender and subject.
These four figures show what some would argue to be a predictable gender difference, with boys tending to be more positive towards mathematics and science than girls, but in English, where the girls are more positive, the gender gap is wider. For English there is a statistically significant difference (at the 0.05 level – the level used throughout this paper) between girls and boys in all years except year 7. For mathematics years 9 and 10 show a similar statistically significant difference, whereas in science such a statistically significant difference is only found in year 9.
For girls in mathematics and science and for boys in all three subjects, there is a statistically significant difference in the overall attitude scale between years 7 and 11. Generally the overall attitude scale shows a decrease between consecutive years, with statistically significant differences between years 7 and 8 for all combinations except girls in English and for all combinations between years 9 and 10. Though there are some increases between scores in consecutive years in the overall attitude scale, particularly between years 8 and 9, the difference is only statistically significant for girls in English.
Where percentages are quoted in the text that follows, we have amalgamated agree and strongly agree into a single percentage, and similarly disagree and strongly disagree. The percentage not sure can be deduced, since the total should be 100%, subject to minor errors caused by rounding. (Where pupils omitted an item they are not counted in the total for that item.) The items in italics refer directly to the statements used in the questionnaire.
Enjoyment of the subject
Of all the attitude scales, the enjoyment scale has the least positive mean scores, with a negative mean score for girls and boys in years 10 and 11 for mathematics, for girls for science in year 10 and for boys for English in year 11. (See Figure 5.) For English in each of the five school years there is a statistically significant difference between the girls and boys (with girls more positive). The only other statistically significant differences between girls and boys are found for science in years 9 and 10 (with boys more positive).
Just under a half of all pupils look forward to English/science lessons, but only one third do for mathematics. However a considerable proportion (one fifth in English and science, and one third in mathematics) do not. One out of every 4 pupils in mathematics wish they didn’t have to go to maths, whereas the proportion for science is 1 in 5 and for English it is 1 in 6.
It is encouraging to find that 40% of pupils agree that English/science is fun, but only 27% think so for mathematics. Despite general trends, just over half the pupils express the personal feeling that they like English/science more as they have got older, compared to 44% for mathematics, whilst 21% say they like English/science less with the corresponding figure for mathematics at 26%.
Interest in the subject
Broadly speaking, the interest scale is similar to that of enjoyment – though slightly more positive (see Figure 6). Negative mean scores are found for both girls and boys in year 10 for mathematics, and boys for both English and mathematics in year 11. The only statistically significant differences between girls and boys are found only for English in each of the four school years from 8 to 11, where girls are more positive than boys.
Only 1 in 8 pupils finds mathematics interesting for most of the time, whereas 1 in 5 pupils agreed with the similar statement for English/science. Almost half of the pupils in each subject find it interesting for some of the time. This leaves just over a quarter of pupils in English/science who rarely or never find the lesson interesting with just over one third reporting likewise for mathematics. Similar proportions are found for pupils who agree that the ‘subject’ we do is boring.
In all subjects homework is perceived as distinctly less interesting than the lessons. Nevertheless, some 14% in mathematics, 17% in science and 21% in English do find homework interesting always or often, but 51%, 46% and 38% respectively claim rarely or never to be interested by the homework in the subject.
Similarly, in response to the stronger question, ‘How often in your ‘subject’ lessons do you get so interested in your work that you don’t want to stop?’ just under 10% (all subjects) say in most lessons, 40% in mathematics/science and 46% in English say some lessons, and the rest, say rarely or never.
Enjoyment, interest and more negative views
The eight items above form a very coherent group, perhaps indicating the core of a pupil’s attitude to the subject. It is noticeable that scores tend to be lower than for the other factors i.e. effort, teacher relationships, and importance of the subject.
Effort in the subject
This is the most positive of all the scales (see Figure 7). In every year there is a statistically significant difference between the reported effort attitude of girls and boys in English. In years 7 and 11 a similar statistically significant difference is found in science whereas it is found in years 8 and 10 in mathematics.
Pupils who claim usually to try hard in ‘subject’ lessons are generally consistent in saying that they always or often work as hard as they can in ‘subject’. Averaging responses to the two items, it seems that some three quarters of all pupils in each subject claim to make a good effort and only about 5% admit they do not.
Interestingly, responses to ‘We have to work hard in ‘subject’ lessons’, do not fit well in the overall scale nor particularly well with the two items above. This suggests that willingness to work hard is different from simply ‘having to’ and that having to work hard does not necessarily generate a positive attitude, although teacher encouragement to work hard, my ‘subject’ teacher encourages me to work hard, does fit in the overall scale. Over 80% agree that they do have to work hard in ‘subject’ lessons and 7% disagree.
Relationships with the subject teacher
There are many factors which contribute to good teacherpupil relationships and we have explored only some of them. On this questionnaire, pupils emerge as consistently more positive about their subject teachers than about enjoyment or interest in the subject itself. The scale can be seen in Figure 8.
Statistically significant differences are found between the boys and the girls on this scale in year 9 for English (girls reporting more positively) and mathematics (boys more positive); and in year 11 for English and science (both girls).
Predictably the quality of teacher explanations is significant. While two thirds of pupils feel that their teacher explains maths very clearly, the corresponding figure for English is three quarters with science midway between the two. When it comes to understanding the subject teacher, figures are higher still with 80% of, pupils in English, 76% in science and 73% in mathematics reporting that they usually can. The statement, ‘When I’m stuck in ‘subject’ I can usually get help’ does not mention the teacher, but responses correlate well with this group, and particularly well with being happy to ask my teacher for help. In all three subjects 80% are happy to ask and 8% are not. It appears likely that an approachable teacher is a main source of help for pupils in learning the subject.
Three more items seem to encapsulate a positive feeling that the teacher is supportive: ‘My ‘subject’ teacher takes time to help me’, my ‘subject’ teacher encourages me to work hard’ and ‘How often does your ‘subject’ teacher try to get the best out of you?’ The response is at least 63% positive for each of these three in both English and mathematics and 58% in science and no more than 19% negative in all subjects, with an average of about 20% per subject answering not sure or only sometimes.
In this overall positive picture, pupils seem less certain about whether their teacher enjoys teaching them, and less positive about the frequency with which they receive praise for effort. This is shown by the size of the middle category in the table below:
Agree 
Not sure 
Disagree 

My ‘subject’ teacher seems to enjoy teaching us  English Mathematics Science 
51 47 46 
32 34 35 
17 19 19 
Always or Often 
Sometimes 
Rarely or Never 

How often does your ‘subject’ teacher praise you when you have tried hard?  English Mathematics Science 
50 44 42 
32 33 35 
18 23 23 
Table 1: ‘teacher enjoys teaching us’ and teacher praising pupils
Perception of the subject as important
Each subject is a core curriculum subject and widely regarded as important, but how do pupils see it? For the subject importance scale (Figure 9), there is a statistically significant difference in all subjects between girls and boys in both years 9 and 11. The more positive responses are from girls in English and boys in mathematics and science. Interestingly in year 7 girls are more positive in all 3 subjects (but not significantly so), however there are statistically significant differences in year 8 in mathematics and science (boys more positive in both) and in year 10 in English (girls more positive) and science (boys).
Table 2 shows the percentages agreeing and disagreeing with each of the seven statements in the scale. Where the English and mathematics figures are within 4% of each other the average figure is used in the table.
The following statements approach the issue from various angles.

Agree E and M 
Agree Science 
Disagree E and M 
Disagree Science 
Theoretical value in the jobs market: Being good at ‘subject’ helps you to get a good job 
73, 80 
53 
6 
14 
The immediate feeling about school work, from opposite poles:  
I can see the value of the ‘subject’ we do  60 
54 
8 
10 
Most of the ‘subject’ we do is a waste of time  16, 21 
20 
65,58 
60 
Personal commitment and expectations:  
It is important for me to do well in ‘subject’  85 
69 
3 
11 
I would like to continue with ‘subject’ after year 11  26 
23 
33 
39 
I expect to use what I learn in ‘subject’ after I have left school  65 
48 
9 
17 
I shall probably need ‘subject’ for my job  64 
37 
8 
25 
Table 2: Perception of the subject as important
Figures 10, 11 and 12 show a more detailed response to the question I would like to continue with ‘subject’ after year 11. By gender for all three subjects, except for boys in mathematics, the proportion agreeing with the statement in years 7 to 9 stays reasonably constant for the subject. For boys in English and all pupils in mathematics the proportion agreeing after that drops considerably and is roughly the same in years 10 and 11. However for girls the proportion dips in year 10 before rising to 45% in year 11. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly the proportion agreeing with the statement for science remains much more consistent across all five years – though the proportion for boys is slightly higher than that for girls. The figures also show, as one would expect, that as pupils get older they are more likely to agree or disagree, rather than respond ‘not sure’ – though even in year 11 at least 20% respond in the ‘not sure’ category.
The response to this statement does raise the question – what happens in mathematics between years 9 and 10?
Other common items
Resources
Pupils’ views about the textbooks/worksheets they use are similar for boys and girls, showing a higher level of agreement in science (71%) than in mathematics (65%) or English (58%). In all subjects the proportion in disagreement is about 15%.
The frequency of computer use is not in the scale, but interesting for comparison. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly it is almost the same in all three subjects.
Most lessons 
Some lessons 
Rarely 
Never 

How often do you use computers in your ‘subject’ lessons?  1% 
7% 
28% 
64% 
Table 3: Frequency of computer use
Confidence in themselves
There is a statistically significant difference in pupils’ response by gender to the question about speaking up and answering questions in mathematics and science.
Agree English 
Agree M and S 
Disagree English 
Disagree M and S 

I can speak up and answer questions in
‘subject’ lessons
Girls

69 71 
63 74 
11 10 
17 10 
Table 4: Aspects of confidence
The response of boys to the statement ‘subject’ is easy for me is almost identical in all three subjects (agree 37%, disagree 27%), whereas the responses for girls in English are 40% and 21% respectively, in science are 31% and 29% respectively and in mathematics are 26% and 39% respectively. In all subjects this gender difference is statistically significant.
Just over a half of the girls report that they have found the subject easier as they have got older compared to just over a quarter finding it harder. For boys the corresponding figures are 60% and 21%, with a statistically significant difference by gender in mathematics and science.
Homework
Time spent on homework barely correlates with the overall scale. Interestingly there is a weak correlation with the pupils’ reported ability  but in a negative way suggesting that those spending less time on homework show a slight tendency to selfreport with higher ability. Is it that those reporting themselves as more able actually find themselves with less homework to do?
A detailed breakdown by year and gender can be found in Table 5.
Girls 
Boys 

English 
Mathematics 
Science 
English 
Mathematics 
Science 

less than 10 minutes  5 
7 
9 
13 
15 
17 
over ten minutes but less than half an hour  24 
27 
29 
25 
31 
32 
over half an hour but less than one hour  42 
43 
47 
41 
37 
39 
over one but less than two hours  21 
17 
13 
15 
13 
9 
over two hours  8 
6 
2 
7 
4 
2 
Table 5: Time spent on ‘subject’ homework per week
Conclusion
On all measures of attitude used here in virtually all years the most positive responses are found from girls for English. On almost all scales (effort is the exception) for girls for English the response with time has a similar ‘w’ shape where the mean in years 8 and 10 dips. In each of these cases although the mean score in year 11 is lower than that in year 7 the difference is not statistically significant. This is in contrast with all the other subject/gender scales (including effort for girls for English) where there is a statistically significant difference (a decrease) between years 7 and 11. We hope that an examination of the open responses may help shed further light on why the mean score for girls in English on five of our scales, but not effort, does not decrease significantly with time.
In general the scales tend to show that pupils feel most positively about English, then science and finally mathematics. The response to the item on continuing with a subject after year 11 needs further investigation and may provide information that helps to increase the number of pupils taking ‘A’ level mathematics.
The response to the item on computer use shows that there is a lot still to be done with only 8% of all pupils responding that they use computers in most or some lessons. Perhaps, more surprisingly is the similarity of the response across the subjects.
Finally should we have expected a slight negative correlation with selfreported subject ability and homework. Is ‘finish this for homework’ a common homework and if so, does this explain the correlation? This will be investigated.
Figure 1: Overall attitude to English by year and gender
Figure 2: Overall attitude to mathematics by year and gender
Figure 3: Overall attitude to science by year and gender
Scales by year, gender and subject
Figure 4: Overall scale
Figure 5: Enjoyment
Figure 6: Interest
Figure 7: Effort
Figure 8: Relationship with the teacher
Figure 9: Perception of the subject as important
Figure 10: English  ‘I would like to continue with subject after year 11’
Figure 11: Mathematics  ‘I would like to continue with subject after year 11’
Figure 12: Science  ‘I would like to continue with subject after year 11’
Figure 10: Girls  ‘I would like to continue with subject after year 11’
Figure 11: Girls  ‘I expect to use what I learn in subject after I have left school’
Figure 12: Girls  ‘I shall probably need subject for my job’
Figure 13: Boys  ‘I would like to continue with subject after year 11’
Figure 14: Boys  ‘I expect to use what I learn in subject after I have left school’
Figure 15: Boys  ‘I shall probably need subject for my job’
This document was added to the Educationline database on 26 May 2000