What does the new Curriculum 2000 mean for science? We hope and expect bigger groups: a wider spectrum of students who are interested not only in the future usefulness of their A-levels but in taking courses to enhance the breadth and diversity of their studies.
If all post-16 students are to be entered for the AS (advanced subsidiary) qualification at the end of Year 12, teachers will be under pressure to ensure that year's syllabus is completed, including the coursework or practical test. They will also have to judge both the right level of difficulty for the AS and the increase in difficulty appropriate for students going on to Year 13 to study A2 courses culminating in the A-level exam. Continuity between Years 12 and 13 will be a further consideration.
A new style of course?
Do we see a new style of course catering for the changed clientele and the differing needs of an AS? The efforts to inject physics with a fresh, relevant approach have certainly produced two excellent new ASA2 courses in the Salters Horners Advanced Physics course and the Institute of Physics Advancing Physics ASA2 course. I do not see the same innovative changes applied to the other syllabuses or to the rest of the physics courses.
Of course, there are severe limitations placed on the content of the AS and A2 courses by the subject cores for the specifications. Boards have had to regroup much of the material in order for the specifications to gain QCA approval. Looking at the biology and chemistry courses I see a distinctly conservative approach, often rejigging the material to fit and cramming in some more coursework for the AS. Maybe teachers are fed up with constant innovation and a damage limitation exercise is all that is required, but I am disappointed that the opportunity to widen the appeal and be more daring has not been grasped across all the sciences.
Boards claim to be providing continuity from the courses finishing this coming year and to be addressing the need to make the AS qualification coherent and attractive in itself. It is clear that physics is the richer and is still as rigorous in its variety of courses. Chemistry already has its Salters course and a thriving Nuffield course.
The new AS and A2 courses are modular, although modules are now called units, and include coursework or a practical exam. Some have a choice of options for a unit or part of a unit. They all grapple with key skills and science is in a fantastic position to provide nearly all the opportunities to gain the evidence necessary to achieve key skills.
The three examination boards have been extremely thorough in their signposting of key skills. It is characteristic of all the courses that there is a great deal of written support accessible in the standard format and through excellent web pages.
There have also been specific in-service training courses to enable teachers to take the changes on successfully and quickly and these will be still be available in the coming year. There has been a concern to make a smooth transition from GCSE to the new AS. All courses will now also have synoptic assessment at the end, representing at least 20 per cent of the total A-level marks. Units can be retaken once.
Innovativ changes to the assessment framework are evident. Specifications vary enormously in whether they have their coursework percentage as high as the limit of 30 per cent set by QCA. Coursework often now comprises both practical assessments and longer projects and individual studies.
In the Salters physics course there is a visit to a business, research establishment or even theme park to give the opportunity of seeing physics in action in the outside world. This gives students the chance to analyse the use made of physics in this context and write up a report.
The Institute of Physics Advancing Physics course also has some innovative approaches to coursework, including three short tasks for the AS and an individual investigation and research report for the A2.
Edexcel has Salters physics, as well as its more traditional physics; Nuffield chemistry as well as its traditional chemistry; and biology, which, with the right combinations, has an alternative route through as human biology.
OCR has two physics courses, the Institute of Physics Advancing Physics, and one closely mirroring the old Cambridge Modular course with similar options; Salters chemistry and a more traditional chemistry course; and biology. It also has a science AS and A2 qualification. This course offers a broad, and balanced study of science, introducing scientific principles within an environmental context.he modules cover topics that consider the natural environment and human interaction with the natural world.
AQA offers two fairly traditional physics courses although Specification A manages to keep some lovely options from the old NEAB course. It has one chemistry course. It has two specifications for biology: biology and human biology, Specification A, follow the old AEB course and Specification B, which just has the route to biology builds on the NEAB course. AQA offers other AS qualifications in electronics, environmental science and the new piloted course on science for public understanding. There is also a new course being developed on the history and philosophy of science, which looks like a wonderful opportunity for real broadening of the curriculum. It will be running within the next two years and it benefits from the support of The Royal Society. (Contact me at the address below for further details.) The new scheme needs to work over this coming year and will surely be hard work for everyone. The Salters and Advancing Physics have had trials and the Salters has been fully trialled over two years. Even though the standard of the AS has changed from being full A-level standard to what would now be expected after one year of Advanced level study, the students will need to rise to the greater demands made on them. Gradually the broadening in the curriculum that has been encouraged for such a long time will happen and even though the students are not forced to choose a certain range of courses, there is a move towards greater breadth as well as depth. Not only will students have key skills as a matter of course by next year but we may be seeing a fundamental shift away from early specialisation.
Becky Parker is head of science and can be contacted at Simon Langton Girls' School, Old Dover Road, Canterbury, Kent CT1 3EW.Exam board websites: www.edexcel.org.ukwww.aqa.org.ukwww.ocr.org.uk