Not one for newcomers

Roger Frost

COLLINS VOCATIONAL SCIENCES: ADVANCED GNVQ CHEMISTRY , BIOLOGY AND PHYSICS. Age range 16-plus. Series editor Mike Coles Collins Pounds 80 each.

Chemistry 000 3223779 Biology 000 3223760 Physics 000 322 3787

Ask science teachers about the GNVQ advanced science course and you will soon learn that there are "issues", as we politely say. The move from well-established A-levels towards the vocational course still finds institutions waiting for things to settle down before committing themselves to the new qualification.

On the positive side, GNVQ veterans will tell you that the product of the vocational course is a student better able to work in a team, to talk about science and use information technology. They would add that the local university welcomes GNVQ students on an equal standing with A-level and that their student numbers are up too.

GNVQ has brought with it a new language - with evidence indicators, profile components and range statements. Teachers need a qualification to assess the course and this, in turn, leads to endless paper-shuffling and huge portfolios.

For a time there was concern over the lack of materials for practical assignments that could meet the complex requirements, but that concern has now subsided. Published materials, such as these folders of solid ideas, all matched to GNVQ required skills, are now increasingly available.

This set of files offers a stack of assignments and there's no worry about whether they are relevant to your course, since they cover the eight mandatory units common to all the awarding bodies. However, assignments for the four optional units which students also need to complete are not included.

The chemistry folder, like the other two, has 22 assignments, including subjects - such as testing food, waterproofing and protecting oil rigs - which present science in a meaningful setting. For example, an assignment called "Setting the Glue" puts the students in the role of research chemists who have to look at curing systems (the way the glue sets) for an adhesive which will be used in a spacecraft.

In this exercise, they have to investigate the factors which affect the glue's reliability, as well as ensure that it will cure quickly. They are told to brainstorm the tasks required with their team, prioritise them and share out the work. To help there are two sides of background notes with facts and data about glues, and a scrapbook page has graphs showing how temperature affects the curing time. Students can also read about epoxy resins and covalent bonds, about solvent glues and contact "superglues". Along the way, they come across ideas about reaction rates, polymers, catalysts and activation energy.

Inevitably, all of this assumes considerable prior knowledge. So before handing out any more than the assignment page, you would need to provide other materials and teach the students the necessary background to their sticky problem.

Each assignment has an important cover sheet that lists the science targets that relate to the work (science targets here translates into performance criteria - a new and unwelcome piece of confusing jargon). This cover sheet also lists how the assignment uses the GNVQ core skills of information technology, communication - for example "produce a relevant readable report", and number - "make sure the results of calculations seem reasonable".

In "Setting the Glue" an information technology target is to "enter relevant data gathered from a range of sources including computer databases into a suitable structure". You get no more help with information technology than this little teaser of an idea - there are no clues as to why a computer database might be useful in this assignment.

All the materials in the packs are photocopiable and this is some justification for the shock-horror price. Having parted with this sort of money, you would have expected the publishers to add some visual lift - good graphics or a spot of colour - but instead the overall appearance is a bit average.

What you do get for your money are a lot of good ideas. For example, the biology assignments cover "selling cut flowers", "predicting asthma attacks and firming-up tomatoes" - all providing interesting contexts with hard-to-track-down background information. In the physics file there is "cooling the machine and saving eyesight", with the performance criteria not only mapped out for you, but covering the whole course too.

An introductory section sets out the protocols of setting up a course unusually well. But this isn't an off-the-shelf teaching pack for newcomers to GNVQ. They will want more help than the packs provide - for example, how long these assignments are meant to last.

Those who are experienced might appreciate the open and non-prescriptive approach. And science teachers exploring GNVQs will gain some reassurance from the practical suggestions.

Roger Frost is a science consultant

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