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Get chemistry out of the evaporating dish

Exam chiefs must take note of empty seats at the periodic table when they review science, says Douglas Buchanan

THE commitment of the Scottish Qualifications Authority to review chemistry courses, an outcome of the recent review of National Qualifications, should be welcomed. A failure to act now could be damaging to the future health of the subject.

It is worth remembering that the revised Higher grade course was specifically designed to "articulate with Standard grade" and the development of Higher level was very much driven by a "minimum change" agreement. In trying to satisfy the principal criterion for each reform, what now remains is a rather fragmented course that tries to cover too many unrelated topics.

Between 1997 and 2001, there was a steady decline in the popularity of Scottish chemistry degree and HND courses. There was a 27 per cent drop in degree applications and a 30 per cent fall in acceptances. It is little consolation to know that this is a worldwide phenomenon. Two contributory reasons are not hard to find.

After a steady candidature from 1990-97, there was a steep fall in school numbers taking Higher chemistry from 11,805 in 1997 to 9,730 in 2000. This decrease would also seem to have been accompanied by a decrease in the number of students showing a real interest in chemistry rather than just taking it as a "service subject", perhaps to follow a course in medicine.

Any list of factors would certainly include the unattractive labs and outdated equipment, the expansion of the curriculum and poor careers advice. However, for many teachers the students' perception of chemistry as a difficult subject is perhaps more to blame.

Four important outcomes of the revisions have been recognised:

* Each change seems to have entailed the removal of some of the more difficult chemistry.

* With Standard grade, as well as changes in the Higher course, there is less breadth to the examination.

* The questions are, in general, more likely to be tightly structured, precisely worded and therefore more accessible to all candidates.

* There is a higher proportion of short-answer questions, thought to be particularly advantageous to the weaker candidates.

With this in mind, it is rather puzzling that Higher chemistry has relentlessly climbed the national ratings "difficulty table" from - 0.38 in 1998 to - 0.51 in 2001, a figure which indicates that the subject was approximately half a grade or one band more difficult than the norm.

Although many believe that this trend says more about what is happening in other subjects than it does about chemistry, it is surely having an impact on uptake.

Now with the cut-offs for the grade boundaries in the public domain, there is an added dimension to the "difficulty" debate. For Higher in 2002, a cut-off of 47 at the passfail interface suggests that the paper is still very demanding for students of "average" ability. However, in spite of a cut-off of 77 at the AB boundary, the percentage achieving an A grade is relatively high compared to many other subjects. This suggests that for the study of chemistry, "those who can, can but those who can't, can't".

Of course, there are no simple solutions but the following would provide a useful starting position: a reduction in the content of what students regard as overloaded courses; linked to an increased emphasis on "handling information" skills, and more opportunity for students to research and discuss relevant issues; more practical work, especially practical work that is relevant and truly investigative.

There are three further comments to be made. First, changes in the curriculum are almost certain to be unsuccessful without effective staff development at the national level. Second, a review at Higher level will inevitably raise questions about the suitability of earlier provision. We should take an opportunity to take a fresh look at a Standard grade course that is now nearly 20 years old, a long time in science never mind politics.

Third, chemistry is not the only subject for which alarm bells are ringing.

If the Scottish Executive's objective is "to ensure that enough people study science to a standard that will enable the future needs of the country to be met", as set out in A Science Strategy for Scotland, the biology and physics communities may well have to take a similar long hard look at their curriculum.

Is there a co-ordinating task for the Scottish Advisory Committee?

Douglas Buchanan is a lecturer in chemistry at Edinburgh University's faculty of education.

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