Into the 21st century

4th April 2003 at 01:00
Dena Coleman looks at why GCSE science is changing and what the fresh approach will mean

I've been a science teacher for 28 years and have never been a great fan of GCSE science, although it was certainly a major improvement on the preceding O-level and CSE system. It's a one-size-fits-all exam that doesn't answer the needs of the variety of abilities, aptitudes and interests of young people, nor does it recognise that when they leave school all young people will be consumers of scientific knowledge but very few will be producers.

Since becoming a headteacher nine years ago, I have had to reconcile these concerns with the fact that more curriculum time is given to double-award science than any other subject at key stage 4. To justify this privileged position, when so many other subjects have competing claims for time, the science education we give our students must be relevant to their various needs.

Bushey Meads School in Hertfordshire has an intake typical of many comprehensives. For those of my students intending to pursue a scientifically based career, double-award GCSE provides a basic preparation for AS-level. For most students, however, much of GCSE science seems irrelevant and complicated. Although we try to make links with everyday life, these are often tenuous and there is so much content to cover that even when students raise issues of contemporary relevance, we never have time to discuss them properly. And, worryingly, GCSE science does little to counteract the frequently negative portrayal of science in the media.

I want my students to understand why nail varnish doesn't wash off in the bath, how a microwave oven heats up their dinner, and what research into gene therapy might mean for a sick relative. I want them to understand how scientists work, the reasoning used to develop a scientific argument, the ethical and moral dilemmas that science sometimes poses. I want my students to be scientifically literate.

It is for these reasons that Bushey Meads has become a pilot school for 21st Century Science - a completely new approach to GCSE science devised by the University of York Science Education Group, comprised of many of the best minds in science education. The new approach has the backing of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and its development is funded by the Nuffield Foundation, the Wellcome Trust and the Salters' Institute.

All students taking the new course will study GCSE core science. Structured around topics of relevance to young people, it will provide the scientific knowledge necessary to explain the world around them, while challenging them to understand and think critically about how science impacts on their everyday lives. Most students will also study GCSE additional science, available in two alternative versions: one designed to provide the necessary content to prepare potential AS-level students, the other designed for those interested in how science is applied in contemporary life. The latter will also allow teachers to work to their own strengths and interests, providing a stimulating new challenge.

Science teachers want young people to share their love for the subject. I believe that 21st Century Science will provide them with a powerful new tool to assist them.

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