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Gear up for the gene generation

What should happen after the five-year moratorium on change in the national curriculum? Professionals involved in shaping things to come set the agenda

The end of the moratorium on the national curriculum approaches. To prepare for the changes you would like to see in science, please answer the following questions by this time next year: What is an appropriate science curriculum to equip school students for life and work in society in the next century? Should school science be a preparation for future specialists; a sieve to sift out the scientists needed to sustain the country's economic performance? Alternatively, should it aim to raise the general scientific literacy of children to meet the needs of a broadly educated populace required by an advanced industrial society? Or can it do both?

The number of students who continue in their study of the sciences post-16 remains a stable, small proportion of the year cohort while the proportion of young people choosing to continue studying other subjects post-16 has grown dramatically in the past few years. Moreover, school science seems divorced from science in the modern world in terms of its content, its portrayal of science and its failure to explore contemporary issues.

Some would argue that what is needed now is an imaginative and bold vision of what a science curriculum for the majority could be like - one that developed scientific literacy and an improved public understanding of science. New developments in science now impinge directly upon many aspects of people's lives, with individuals having to make personal decisions about a range of socio-scientific issues (for example, genetic screening, reproductive technologies, food safety) based on information - often disputed - available through the media. And these developments have happened in a context where major incidents, such as Chernobyl, Bhopal, Brent Spa and BSE, have made the public cautious about the impact of science and technology.

A science education which would prepare young people for this changing and uncertain world would require not only some scientific knowledge, but also an understanding of the way scientific knowledge is made (the nature of scientific evidence, the uncertainty and limitations of science), the nature of the work that scientists do (the relationship between science, business and society) and a consideration of the implications of scientific developments for individuals and society (including assessments of risks and ethical issues). This has implications not only for the content of the science curriculum but also the range and style of teaching activities in school science and would require changes in assessment and the organisational framework to cater for all abilities and interests. The lessons of history are that rapid and revolutionary changes would not be acceptable or sustainable. However, if there is a consensus for change, can it be achieved by incremental steps?

The Nuffield Foundation is funding a seminar programme, Beyond 2000: Science Education for the Future, in order to consider and provide answers to such questions and their implications for science in primary and secondary schools. A programme of four closed seminars and three open meetings is to be held over the next 18 months. A core group of more than 20 individuals attending the seminars includes many of the leading UK science educators, secondary and primary teachers, scientists, employers, HMI and representatives from the Association for Science Education and the Royal Society. The central questions under consideration are: What are the successes and failures of science education? What science education is needed and what criteria should be used for its selection? What might be the form and structure of a new model for the science curriculum? What are the problems and issues raised by the implementation of a new curriculum?

The group wishes to consult widely on its deliberations so far with teachers, science educators, employers and parents. The first open meeting will be held at the School of Education, University of Birmingham on Saturday July 5, where the intended audience is mainly teachers of science in primary and secondary education.

The aim is to establish a widespread debate about the nature and purpose of the science curriculum and to build a consensus among teachers, professional bodies and statutory bodies so that any new curriculum that emerges after the next review is at least a more considered and thoughtful response to the needs of a modern science education for the next decade.

Those interested in attending the first open meeting on July 5 or wanting more details should contact Caroline Gill, King's College London, Waterloo Road, London SE1 8WA. Tel: 0171 872 3189. Fax: 0171 872 3182.


Ros Driver is professor of science education and Jonathan Osborne is a lecturer in science education at King's College, London. Mick Nott is a lecturer in science education at Sheffield Hallam University

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