Getting the balance right

30th December 1994 at 00:00
Peter Jackson, Miranda Simond and Carolyn Swain explain the thinking behind the new science Order. At the 1994 Annual Meeting in Birmingham, Association for Science Education members first saw the proposals in the final Dearing report for the revision of the national curriculum. Now, only 12 months on, members are discussing how to put the revised Order into practice, how level descriptions will affect assessment and the implications of the new programmes of study.

Although the 1995 Order looks very different, the material in the programme of study is familiar - a sub-set of the content of the 1991 Order organised by key stage. All subject Orders are set out in a similar manner, a consistency which will help primary teachers in planning the curriculum and secondary schools looking to build in links across subjects.

The science Order has been slimmed - more at key stages 1 and 2 than at key stages 3 and 4. Much of the reduction was achieved by creating programmes of study specific to key stages and by removing areas of duplication between subjects. There is now a more limited range of material to be covered at key stages 1 and 2 - a change welcomed by most teachers. This should offer them time both to consolidate children's understanding and to pursue some topics of particular interest to their classes in greater depth. Those who want to do more are, of course, free to do so.

There are other significant changes, among the most important of which is the move from statements of attainment to level descriptions. This was welcomed by teachers during consultation, though many science teachers felt it would take a little time to adjust to the change. In science the level descriptions present a variety of aspects of performance characteristic of pupils working within a level. It is not expected that a pupil will show every element of performance indicated. Teachers will draw on their knowledge of their pupils and of their work to arrive at a "best fit" summative judgment. To help in this process, additional indication of the demand is provided by examples which refer to particular contexts or topics. Comparable performance in other areas of the programme of study could equally indicate a pupil's level of attainment.

While level descriptions offer a realistic and professional way of arriving at end-of-key-stage judgments, effective day-to-day assessment is essential to ensuring pupils make progress and needs to be built in during planning. The revised Order, with its emphasis on the programmes of study, offers teachers the opportunity to adopt methods of day-to-day assessment suited to their pupils.

The increased emphasis on slimmed programmes of study and the move to level descriptions are common to the revision of all subjects. In science, however, other specific changes were recommended in the final Dearing report.

The first of these changes related to Scientific Investigation and this presented a number of challenges. While concern about the demands of the higher levels was expressed by key stage 3 and 4 teachers, many teachers at key stages 1 and 2 felt that the 1991 Order had helped them to focus children's work and that standards had improved. Many secondary teachers, too, acknowledged that, despite difficulties, pupils were producing a higher standard of work.

It was therefore important that any revisions should build on the progress made as well as improve the areas teachers were unhappy about.

The revised programme of study focuses on scientific evidence; it emphasises that evidence takes a variety of forms and can be collected in a variety of ways. Greater prominence is given to qualitative work and to other work which does not necessarily involve relationships between variables. The revision offers more scope at all key stages for investigating living things in their habitats, fieldwork of different kinds and investigating the nature and behaviour of materials. The continuity with the 1991 Order can be seen in the emphasis on valid evidence collected through 'fair testing' and on the processing and evaluation of data obtained.

Many pupils have found carrying out their own investigations both stimulating and motivating. The programmes of study make clear that all pupils should continue to have opportunities to carry out whole investigations in all key stages.

In addition to this, there are other ways of developing the knowledge, understanding and skills set out in 'Experimental and Investigative Science'. Such work, which need not involve the pupil carrying out a whole investigation, will also contribute to decisions made at the end of a key stage about performance in Attainment Target 1.

A second key change specific to science concerned the programme of study for single science at key stage 4. Originally, this programme of study was designed for pupils who were particularly gifted in other areas of the curriculum. Many of the more demanding topics in double science were included.

The statutory position has not, in fact, changed. The foreword to the Order (not included in the November version) makes clear that double science or the three separate sciences should be taken by a big majority of pupils.

During consultation, part of the discussion centred on the selection of content for a course taken by pupils from across the ability range. As a result some alterations have been made to include material more accessible at a range of levels.

In any single science course there is necessarily some sacrifice of breadth. The revised programme of study offers balance both across the sciences and between knowledge, understanding and skills. There is also balance between consolidation of topics studied at key stage 3 and the stimulation offered by the introduction of new material.

The final copies of the Orders will soon be in schools and text available on disc. Teachers can be confident that the text they have now - apart from the occasional - is the final version.

Much work remains. The GCSE examining groups have already started to develop the syllabuses in Double Award, Single Award, biology, chemistry and physics, which will be introduced in September 1996. Work in SCAA is under way on material to exemplify the demands of the different levels and on sample test material. The Office for Standards in Education and SCAA are working together to develop advice about the quality assurance of teacher assessment, so that common standards across schools can be established.

As the New Year begins, teachers will be considering their schemes of work and ways in which the new curriculum framework can be translated into real courses for their pupils. They will be looking forward to the stability of five years without change and to using this stability to develop stimulating and rewarding science for their pupils.

Peter Jackson, Miranda Simond and Carolyn Swain are professional officers for science at the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority.

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