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Exam appeal: Andrew Hunt on the importance of real understanding

In 1976 I was head of science in a comprehensive school. I was shocked by the first report I read on my pupils' CSE Chemistry paper. The examiners told us that any student who gained less than a grade 2 (modern grade B) showed no sign of having benefited from the course. This seemed scandalous at a time when a grade 4 represented average performance in CSE.

It convinced me of the need for an entirely different kind of science course for most young people.

Reading the borderline scripts of the elite group that take A-levels in the specialist sciences today can be similarly discouraging. Those who scrape together marks here and there to gain a pass generally fail to show they have seen their subject from the inside and appreciated the power and purpose of the ideas they are studying. They have merely gained scraps of knowledge.

Currently, as chair of examiners for the NuffieldYork University AS Science for Public Understanding course, I find myself reviewing borderline scripts in a different context. It is rewarding to see that even the weak candidates for this exam tackle the questions with energy, write plenty and clearly show that they have found the course engaging and meaningful.

This confirms the findings of the team at King's College London which evaluated the course and found that pretty well all the students found it enjoyable and interesting. In their report, Breaking the Mould, the evaluators commented on the achievement of recruiting nearly 60 per cent female students to a course where 50 per cent of the content is physical science.

The course has been running for two years as a full AS following a two-year pilot. Around 100 schools and colleges are involved but the entries from each centre remain quite small so the total entry has crept up to only towards 1000 candidates. Yet with entries for A level sciences falling year on year, the course deserves a wider uptake.

The course website has a link to the Breaking the Mould report (www.scpub.org).

Andrew Hunt is director of the Nuffield Curriculum Centre

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