Discovery by experiment

9th January 1998 at 00:00
How should science teaching develop? Carolyn Swain of the QCA addresses some of the issues

Over the past 10 years, science has been one of the major successes of primary education. This can be measured by the high standards achieved by English children in the Third International Mathematics and Science Survey (TIMSS), the improvements in the end-of-key-stage tests, and inspections. But with literacy and numeracy increasingly seen as the key to children's latereducational attainment, what is the position of science?

Teachers I have talked to point out that science has a particular contribution to make to the development of literacy and numeracy, in terms of reporting events, explaining, sequencing ideas and in dealing with numerical data. Alongside this, more teachers are saying that they now understand what is required to make science stimulating and interesting to primary children.

Some do remain uncertain about the interpretation of parts of the curriculum, but most want a period of consolidation to build on what has already been achieved. But others are suggesting that guidance on the "big ideas" to be taught in primary science could help teachers focus children's attention on underlying principles and processes.

These suggestions are not necessarily incompatible. Guidance could focus on the big ideas within the present primary science curriculum, and help teachers to clarify their objectives.

At key stage 4, many teachers are calling for more flexibility in the curriculum. The Government is seeking more emphasis on work-related learning, and not only for those students who have become demotivated. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) is consulting widely on the contribution of different areas of study to the whole curriculum. In this context, headteachers and others are questioning whether the present recommendation that the great majority of students should take a course leading to GCSE in double award science is appropriate for students who have already studied science for nine years.

Others are asking whether key stage 4 science should be radically different, with an emphasis on science for public understanding. This might be more appropriate for all students than current courses which emphasise preparation for study post-16 for a minority.

In contrast, many secondary teachers, like their primary colleagues, are calling for minimal change and the opportunity to build on what is now being done.

Underlying these concerns are anxieties about take-up of science post-16 and how far double award science is a good preparation for A-level. Some students have said that they find the transition from double award science to A-level difficult; others feel that the transition from GCSE to A-level is difficult whatever you have done at GCSE.

Nevertheless, work by QCA indicates that students who have done the separate sciences for GCSE do slightly better in A-level sciences (and interestingly also in non-science A-levels) than double award students of equivalent GCSE attainment. Other work we have done with schools and colleges suggests that institutions which set out to manage the transition do so effectively and any problems are short-lived.

Others strongly disagree, arguing that the aim should remain the provision of a broad science background and that this has been a central achievement of the national curriculum. However, some still feel that more flexibility at key stage 4 would be more motivating and provide a better foundation for more advanced study.

The challenge over the coming months will be to balance the competing priorities of flexibility and entitlement, of diversity and common experience, of specialist education and broad general education, to determine the extent of any changes to the curriculum at key stage 4.

Over the next few months QCA will be meeting teachers and others to hear their views on how science should develop to meet the needs of learners. We should like to hear from you as well. Please write to us at: Science Team, Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, Newcombe House, 45 Notting Hill Gate, London W11 3JB.

Carolyn Swain is principal manager, Corporate Policy Division at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority

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