Cognitive course boosts exam results

22nd November 1996 at 00:00
Schools that teach pupils to think using a pioneering science course are dramatically raising exam results, in some cases doubling the expected number of GCSE passes.

Research published today shows that the course improves exam performance not only in science but in maths and English as well.

Greater improvements appeared in the results of key stage 3 tests, which have been causing concern nationally. Results released by the Government this week showed just 27 per cent of 14-year-olds were reaching Level 6, well below its 50 per cent target and even further below the 68 per cent reached in the schools using the thinking course.

Cognitive Acceleration Through Science Education (CASE), developed by Professor Michael Shayer and Dr Philip Adey of King's College, London, is designed for the crucial early secondary years where many believe there is a need to raise standards.

Benefits vary between schools, but the potential for improvement goes across the ability range. This year's GCSE results, averaged out among 800 pupils of five schools which had followed the full programme, was equivalent to raising the C-plus rate in science from 43.7 per cent to 62.5 per cent, in mathematics from 41.9 per cent to 56.8 per cent and in English from 50.3 per cent to 65.9 per cent.

CASE is designed to advance pupils' cognitive abilities from childhood, concrete thinking to advanced levels in which abstract ideas are handled confidently. Such formal thinking is generally achieved by only 30 per cent of people but is necessary to achieve higher grade GCSEs.

Professor Shayer and Dr Adey believe the two-year CASE course - a fortnightly double lesson for pupils in Years 7 and 8 - encourages swifter development of higher-order thinking, in some cases stimulating it in pupils who would not otherwise have developed abstract thought.

Critics claim the results are achieved by enthusiastic teachers, but the King's team say the new research proves the benefit to children's work in non-science subjects, suggesting some fundamental effect within each pupil. Moreover, some of the schools were not trained directly by King's staff, showing that the methods can be widely used.

Professor Michael Barber, Dean of New Initiatives at the Institute of Education in London, was enthusiastic. "This is terrific evidence of the impact on school standards," he said. "It should become a central part of the school improvement debate." Professor Barber, who advises both the Government and Labour on education, said CASE was also important because it tackled standards at key stage 3, the only area left for much improvement in secondary schools.

Although up to 200 schools now use CASE, many without direct training from King's, the research was done only with those involved for long enough to see results at 14 and 16 after intervention at 11 and 12. Comparisons were done with control schools.

Sir John Cass Foundation and Red Coat Church of England Secondary School in Tower Hamlets, east London, with a low ability intake, would have been predicted to get 6 per cent A to C grade GCSEs in maths this summer. In the event, 13 per cent of pupils got those grades. In English, the predicted rate was 11 per cent but 24 per cent got the grades. Pass rates in science were boosted from 8 to 19 per cent.

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