What I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts," says Mr Gradgrind in Dickens's novel Hard Times. He would have liked the science national curriculum. The huge body of knowledge that pupils have to learn at key stage 4 has proven to be a less than healthy diet. Too much saturated fact can kill off interest in science. According to the select committee on science and technology, pupils finish 11 years of study still "unable to engage with science issues in later life".
So what hope does the revision, which comes into force in September 2001, offer? What it prescribes is a supplement to the science diet, called Ideas and Evidence. A small bundle of new statements, it deals with the nature of science, and could address some of the complaints pupils make about science. "Give us more topical issues," they plead, "more science like we see on television, something that actually affects our lives."
The new syllabuses are likely to recommend studying issues such as life on other planets, whether mobile phones cause cancer, and the ethics of cloning. Through modern (and classical) contexts pupils will learn and, crucially, be assessed on statements such as how controversies arise or how the media portrays science. It will amount to 5 per cent of the GCSE marks - around a grade boundary. It is almost certain to be assessed by examination, rther than add to teachers' coursework burden.
Sprinkled over the curriculum, Ideas and Evidence could certainly spice up the science diet. The pupil researcher initiative (PRI) is developing a pack to help teachers cover the exam boards' requirements, in a way that will engage students.
To make room for Ideas and Evidence, GCSE marks for investigative science will drop by 5 per cent. The coursework skills remain and there will be minor changes to mark descriptors, a greater emphasis on graphs and inclusion of ICT. But there is little change to the job of marking coursework.
Science investigations are likely to remain formulaic. Under the pressures of assessment, these "investigations" will probably continue to follow well-trodden paths. Pupils will rarely get the chance to think in a more open-ended way.
So what should have become a staple of the science diet has turned into the Christmas turkey of the curriculum. Pupils have none all year and then live off nothing else for several weeks. Many find the whole experience stressful and boring. Let's hope Ideas and Evidence doesn't go the same way.
Tony Sherborne is curriculum materials project manager for PRI at Sheffield Hallam University. Nigel Heslop is a teacher associate for PRI and moderator for GCSE. The PRI pack 'Ideas and Evidence' will be published by Collins in 2001