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A chance to try GM foods and cloning

Schools have given a vote of confidence to a new science GCSE which seeks to replace traditional topics with discussions about genetically modified food, cloning and mobile phones.

Secondaries are expected to flock to the new "21st Century Science" GCSE when it becomes available next year. Trials of the new course emphasised broad support from the profession.

More than eight out of 10 secondaries which have trialled the GCSE since 2003 said they would recommend it to other schools.

But they said that the course - criticised by traditionalists when it was launched as an attempt to "dumb down" the curriculum - was proving harder for many pupils. Some said it was more difficult to teach.

The findings come in a review by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority of the course, trialled in 75 schools since 2003.

The new GCSE was developed amid concerns, voiced by the Commons science and technology committee, that conventional teaching of the subject has become outdated and boring.

As well as covering more topical issues, the course encourages a different style of teaching; replacing much of the didactic teaching of traditional GCSEs with classroom discussions and evaluation and analysis of scientific evidence.

Thirty-three of the 40 secondaries surveyed said they would recommend the course to other schools, with about half reporting that their students found the courses enjoyable, motivating and manageable.The seven schools visited for detailed interviews had become disenchanted with the conventional double-science GCSE, which was viewed as tired and lacking in relevance. Pupils also backed 21st Century Science.

But schools raised a number of problems. Most had to change their teaching to encourage discussions and role play. Many underestimated the amount of work this involved.One in three had difficulty teaching the new course.

Most of these said that they were being asked to cover too much ground.

Others complained about equipment being delivered late.

A clear majority felt the new course was at least as demanding as traditional GCSEs, with many arguing that it was more difficult for lower-ability pupils. Although tricky conceptual subjects such as atomic theory do not feature, the course demanded that students analyse evidence and understand ethical debates, both seen as tough requirements.

The new course, developed by York university and the OCR exam board, will be offered to all schools from 2006.

* warwick.mansell@tes.co.uk

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