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Breadth but with a humanities bias

Mary Ratcliffe on the effects of the Dearing Review on post-16 science qualifications. The Dearing review of qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds makes a number of recommendations which could assist in developing a flexible, skilled workforce. However, it seems not to solve the problem of deciding what is an appropriate post-16 education in scientific capability for the majority and specialisation for the minority.

Scientific capability includes curiosity; skills in investigation; an understanding of science and the way science works; creative thinking; and a critical awareness of the role of science in society. Education in these attributes should be an important part of student's experience.

The Dearing proposals for clarifying the nature and equivalence of post-16 qualifications into four levels may allow coherence and progression. Although the use of national records of achievement will help students to plan at an individual level, education for adaptability is not facilitated by proposals which seem to prevent cross-over between vocational and academic routes. There is a considerable challenge to produce common curriculum modules which are appropriate for both A-level and GNVQ Advanced awards in the sciences if both are to fulfil their existing purposes.

The proposal for a Diploma through A-levels (National Advanced Diploma), in which four strands are covered (sciences, languages, humanities and "society"), is interesting. This may give depth and breadth to those wishing to pursue a humanities-based career and is to be welcomed. The award is unlikely to cater for those wishing a science-based career, as maths, sciences, engineering and technology are grouped in one strand. Anyone wishing or needing to do two or more of these subjects will need to undertake much more than the required minimum which is already demanding: at least two A-levels, two AS-levels and an AS in key skills.

The Dearing Review devotes a whole section to the issues in mathematics and science, perhaps because of the difficulty of physical sciences at A-level and the level of uptake in these subjects. A number of important points are highlighted from the evidence base used, which unfortunately is by no means comprehensive: * The review of qualifications in mathematics and science concentrates on the fit between GCSE and A-level. While this is important and provides some useful information, the evidence base is selective and relates only to a fraction of the post-16 clientele.

This review did not explore the usefulness of GCSE sciences and mathematics for other post-16 routes. A national study, which examined the progression from GCSE Sciences to a variety of post-16 routes, would help to inform the debate about uptake of science post-16 and the nature of suitable courses.

* Dearing reinforces the need for a minimum of 20 per cent curriculum time to be given to double award GCSE science. We must aim to equip pupils with a science background that will allow them to pursue science at whatever level they wish post-16. Single award GCSE science or a cramped delivery of double award could seriously affect pupils' entitlement and progress.

* The Review has an emphasis on the importance of key skills of communication, numeracy and IT. While agreeing with this, demonstration of skills is inevitably contextualised. Here the use of scientific contexts will help in the development of scientific capability - an aspect of post-16 education which should be a core entitlement.

* Dearing's view that the promotion and investigation of science courses should be high on the national agenda is welcome, particularly in the light of the need for both science specialists for industry and the desirability of scientific capability for all.

Considerably more research needs to be done in examining post-16 issues in science, particularly in course suitability and students' attitudes towards science. The Association for Science Education strongly supports lifelong learning in science and accessibility to appropriate science education. There is a need for high quality interactive learning packages to support students in achieving an understanding of scientific ideas. We are currently engaged in wide consultation about the nature of science education after the year 2000, particularly its purposes and the nature of effective teaching and learning strategies in all phases including post-16. ASE is also hoping to undertake research, with a longitudinal element, into the factors affecting students' perceptions of science and science education.

Because Dearing was given a remit which did not allow re-evaluation of the nature of A-levels, the outcomes of the review are not revolutionary. Whether suitable education for a scientifically able workforce evolves from the proposals remains to be seen.

Dr Mary Ratcliffe is chair-elect of ASE and lecturer in science education at the University of Southampton.

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