Call for selection of bright sparks from 14

11th December 2009 at 00:00
Professor's radical plan to boost A-level science numbers

High-performing science schools should choose pupils at age 14 to challenge the brightest students with a tougher curriculum, a study has recommended.

The drastic reform is needed to increase the numbers of students opting for science at A-level, particularly physics, according to the report by Professor Alan Smithers from Buckingham University.

Universities should develop a closer relationship with schools, running partnerships that could place pupils in higher education institutions for up to three days a week, the research finds.

Specialist science universities should also consider establishing their own exam board to develop A-levels or alternative qualifications to help them distinguish between candidates without the need for entrance tests.

The study, funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, comes as the finishing touches are being put to a Government-commissioned expert group report on how to "stretch and challenge" pupils who are good at science.

As reported in last week's TES, Lord Drayson, the science and innovation minister, agreed with a teacher who told him that the current curriculum is "deeply flawed". There need to be opportunities for bright students to demonstrate their talent, he said.

Professor Smithers said selection at 14 could be decided by a range of measures, including performance over a number of years and teacher recommendations.

"It is very important this does not get coloured by memories of the 11-plus," he said. "We are not talking about a one-off test.

"The top science countries make no bones about identifying the most talented and educating them to the fullest extent.

"England has specialist science schools, but curiously they are not allowed to admit on science ability, which rather defeats the object."

Professor Smithers said 10 per cent of pupils could be educated at specialist science schools.

A similar blueprint could be applied to other specialisms, such as foreign languages.

The Government has backed plans drawn up by Lord Baker, the former education secretary, to open a series of vocational academies for 14 to 19-year-olds.

But a spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families rejected any return to academic selection.

"We agree that high-performing science students should be stretched but ministers are crystal clear that any expansion in academic selection simply damages the education system," he said.

The number of A-level physics entries fell by about half between 1982 and 2006 to a total of 23,657. That number has increased by more than 2,000 in the past three years.

The DCSF has contracted the Institute of Physics to improve A-level take-up further and is attempting to increase the number of trained physics teachers, although there is still a recognised shortage.

Annette Smith, chief executive of the Association for Science Education, said that university involvement was welcome, but that teaching school pupils requires specific skills.

"I am all for bright young people being stretched, but you have to think what happens to the rest if they are selected out," she added.

"I would argue the case for very good teaching for every young person, not just the most able. It is important to take a rounded view."

The report says...

The role of specialist science colleges should be re-thought so they are better able to challenge the brightest pupils.

- A network of specialist science schools should be developed for scientifically talented pupils.

- Universities should run partnerships with schools providing high-level science courses and consider setting up exam board to offer science qualifications.

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