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Teachers hold scientists back

Staff resistance to curriculum change is damaging efforts to persuade pupils to study science subjects beyond GCSE. Jon Slater reports

A significant minority of science teachers is resisting the changes to GCSE courses intended to tackle the decline in the popularity of the subject, Ofsted has warned.

Ian Richardson, HMI specialist adviser for science, told the Association for Science Education's annual conference in Reading that some teachers are more interested in avoiding disturbance to their working lives than in choosing the GCSE course best suited to their pupils' needs.

Others are adopting a "wait and see" approach, unwilling to make changes until they have seen how the new courses work.

Mr Richardson said that by doing this teachers were thwarting efforts to persuade pupils to take sciences such as physics and chemistry beyond GCSE.

From September, students beginning GCSE courses will study a slimmed-down core curriculum, although Mr Richardson said Ofsted would expect most students to supplement that with at least one or more of a range of options including vocational science, advanced science and individual science subjects such as physics, chemistry or biology.

The new courses are designed to reverse the decline in popularity of science among post-16 students by allowing a smaller number of topics to be tackled in greater depth, increasing the emphasis on experimental work and encouraging pupils to debate controversial issues such as nuclear power and human cloning.

But with a wide range of syllabuses on offer from exam boards, Ofsted fears that many teachers will opt to change what they teach as little as possible.

Mr Richardson said: "Some people will be tempted to find courses that best match what they are doing at the moment regardless of whether that is best for their pupils. It is the least disturbance for teacher model. It is understandable but not laudable."

GCSE reform was one of the most discussed topics for the 3,000 teachers who attended the ASE conference, last week. Other hot issues included problems of recruiting and retaining physics and chemistry teachers, the importance of practical experiments and how to challenge students' misconceptions about scientific concepts.

Nigel Heslop, an ASE field officer who works for Hodder Murray publishers, told delegates that it is not just science teachers who will be affected by the changes to GCSEs.

Teachers of geography, technology and physical education will have to adapt what they teach to take account of the new narrower core science curriculum. Although some 14 to 16-year-olds will continue to study topics such as diet, physiology, electricity and seismology in detail in science, others will cover them either briefly or in some cases, not at all.

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