Motivating disaffected teenagers who are not expected to make the grade is an age-old problem. Gerald Haigh examines the reasons why and visits a school in Leicester where the introduction of a specially-designed exam syllabus is changing attitudes and behaviour.
Some educational academics have always been ready to address disaffection and truancy by saying to schools: "If you gave them interesting work to do, then they would want to come to school and learn."
Teachers have taken this advice with a Siberia of salt. Nevertheless, common sense says there must be a bit of truth in it. After all, "marginal" pupils stay away from some lessons and attend others, and express preferences not only for particular subjects but for particular topics within those subjects. The experience of science teachers at New Parks Community College - a comprehensive in Leicester - bore out, up to recently, the difficulty of keeping the less academic students interested within the GCSE structure.
"We had kids who were not motivated and were poor attenders," science teacher Sandra Lochrie said. "The content was too difficult and not representative of real life."
The challenge was a formidable one. Sandra Lochrie, with colleague Anthony Thomas, was faced with trying to interest the fifth out of five ability groups, in a school which serves a difficult area of Leicester. Trying to find digestible material for these pupils from the syllabus used across the year group was not working. "We were left with too little that they could do, " said Anthony Thomas, "and they found it repetitive and boring."
This year, though, has seen a change. "Pupils who didn't enjoy coming to science now look forward to it," explained Sandra Lochrie. "Attendance has improved and the pupils are much more switched on in their science lessons. "
The change - visible in the pupils' books, in the pride with which they present finished projects and in the enthusiasm of their teachers - has come about since the adoption for this group of the Midland Examining Group's "Science Plus". It is one of several syllabuses devised by examination boards to recognise achievement below GCSE grade G. In MEG's words, they are "designed for students of low attainment for whom a GCSE course, leading to a GCSE exam, may not be a realistic goal in terms of teaching or learning".
Science Plus has been developed jointly by MEG and Collins Educational Publishers. Gareth Price, commissioning editor at Collins, feels that the secret of the scheme's success lies in the fact that the materials were developed from the start for their target group, whereas, "What often happens is that the publisher takes existing material, takes out half the words and prints the rest in larger type".
The starting point, he explained, "was to canvass science teachers to find topics that worked well. We ended up with 33".
This multiplicity of topics, all bearing pithy titles (Babies, Clothes, G-Force) is one of the features that distinguishes Science Plus from other courses aimed at the same pupils - about a dozen modules is common elsewhere. The idea is that a pupil does a two-week unit, at the end of which there are short assessment activities. On the basis of this assessment a pupil gains an award - bronze, silver or gold - for each unit to take forward for the final Certificate of Achievement, which is also awarded at three levels. Short, frequent units mean that not only is there quick reinforcement and feedback, but that a student who makes a hash of one unit need not despair - there will be another one along shortly.
The slant towards teenage interests is obvious - the ultimate accolade of Year 10 acceptability is provided by the fact that a few teachers have taken severely against the gruesome realities in Unit 5: "Building Bodies". Not only does it have a picture of a Sumo wrestler, but there is a page about tummy trouble called "Gut rot", with a colour graphic of a man being sick, the like of which I have not seen since the days of the Bazza McKenzie strip in Private Eye.
At this point, alarm bells will ring in the pedagogic brain bumps of those teachers who remember the undemanding, highly "relevant" courses for non-exam groups in the early Seventies. The same bell had for some time been warning Gareth Price, a former teacher of less-able pupils, about the pitfalls of publishing for this group.
The difference for Science Plus, though - and here he held up the syllabus to demonstrate - was the involvement of MEG. "It is this badge that ensures that we have a real science course and not just a warm handshake."
Teachers and heads will still want to be sure, though, that this is a science course, Sumo wrestlers, technicolour yawns and all. Here Gareth Price is the first to admit that there is a trade-off between content and the need to motivate - some national curriculum areas, of which genetics is the most obvious example, are left out as being too abstract.
"There are some definite gaps; it's better to have a scheme that works than a scheme that hits all the spots and doesn't work."
Anthony Thomas made much the same point about his New Parks group. "All the experimental activities are real science. The pupils are actually doing more science than they would be doing if they were not interested in the scheme. " The evidence in the work of New Parks pupils is impressive - pupils who last year were virtual non-attenders have produced well-written pages with carefully labelled diagrams. The course books are looked after, and the exercise books are free of the doodles that so often mark lack of respect for what is on offer. As Gareth Price put it: "When you give apparently failing kids work that they want to do, then magically they become able to read, write and do science."
'Sub-GCSE' science courses are available from the following examination authorities. All certificates are available at three levels, and all sit under existing GCSE schemes
Midland Examining Group (MEG)
There are 33 Units, of which the candidate does up to 30 (with no choice restrictions) depending on the level of the award. Assessment depends on "points" collected from a combination of periodic tests, assessment of practical activities (Sc1) and "Can do" tasks. The Sc1 element is continuous with the GCSE requirements. As soon as enough points have been collected the school can award an interim certificate. All test materials are supplied by the board, and marked by teachers. "Science Plus" bespoke materials published by Collins.
Northern Examinations and Assessment Board (NEAB)
Twelve units: the candidate does up to all of them, depending on the level of the award. Assessment outcomes are specified by the syllabus and accredited by the teacher. There are no set tests or exams. This syllabus links with the Northern Partnership for Records of Achievement.
Southern Examining Group (SEG)
This is not a modular syllabus, and there is no choice of content. Assessment is by externally set and marked terminal exam, plus Sc1.
University of London Examinations and Assessment Council (ULEAC)
Nine units out of nine to be completed for first certificate. A further nine out of nine for the second certificate. Assessment is by a combination of periodic tests (supplied by the board, marked by teacher) Sc1 and a project. Some photocopiable materials available from the board.
Welsh Joint Education Committee (WJEC)
Thirteen units - candidate needs to do six for a single award, 12 for a double award. Assessment by a combination of periodic tests, Sc1, oral, and a terminal exam. Sc1 is continuous with GCSE. Teacher produces own assessment tests using sample questions available from WJEC. Longman "Science at Work" links to this syllabus. Some photocopiable resources are available from the board.