International stimulus

30th June 2006 at 01:00
Results will not show up on league tables but IGCSE science is the most challenging course for his school, argues Michael Punt

Schools, like every organisation, thrive on the stimulation of re-evaluating existing practice and trying out new ideas. This process forces them to consider what they are striving to achieve. How can they stimulate and challenge young people and their teachers? How can they make good use of existing facilities, provide preparation for the future, or achieve good results? Or all these things? Whichever it is, we need to be certain that students and teachers are using their time well.

All our students take the separate sciences, something that has proved popular with parents and pupils and which reflects the highly scientific nature of Cambridge as a city. They receive about two hours' teaching per science per week with the GCSE starting when they go into Year 9. Last summer about 65 per cent of science grades our pupils were awarded were at A*. Two-thirds of our co-educational sixth form takes at least one science at AS-level with close to a third taking two. Of a typical A-level year group of just more than 100, about 40 per cent will go on to university to read science-related subjects.

Like most schools, our curriculum has become more varied and flexible in recent years, very much in the spirit of the original Tomlinson proposals.

Some students take maths andor French GCSEs early and then move on to other courses or further study, including Arabic. Those learning Greek take AS rather than GCSE at the end of Year 11. Japanese classes operate after school and students can participate in partnership schemes with three other local schools that offer courses in sport, GCSE Mandarin Chinese and AS film and media studies.

A few years ago, the mathematics department argued that International GCSE maths would be more suitable for our students than conventional GCSE, a better preparation for A-level and a greater challenge. After careful consultation with universities and with institutions representing possible future employers, we opted for IGCSE. Our first cohort of students took the exam last summer and their results were impressive. Early fears about IGCSE being much harder have proved to be unfounded but, most important, the experience of those who have been teaching IGCSE maths, and their pupils, has been positive.

It was against this background, therefore, that our science department opted for University of Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) IGCSE science, which we started teaching in September. Since then, much has been written in connection with the IGCSEGCSE science debate - and about the perceived dumbing down of alternative GCSE science syllabuses.

No one doubts the laudable intentions behind courses such as Science for the 21st Century: we need scientific issues to capture the imagination of children across the broad ability spectrum. The UK also needs more young people with both knowledge and an appreciation of the importance of science, and of the citizenship and ethical issues that surround it. For our particular school, however, the IGCSE provides the scientific rigour that will interest and challenge our students and prepare them well for science at A-level and beyond.

There is no lack of substance in our new courses and some would say that they contain more proper science. We are also keen to continue to emphasise the importance of practical work and we felt that the IGCSE supported this view. Moreover, we shall continue to teach beyond the syllabus and to go off along those interesting tangents. After all, responding to enthusiastic questions is what makes teaching, and learning fun.

It is crucial that schools enjoy the freedom to adapt their curriculum to fit their students' needs. As an independent school, we are fortunate that we can take IGCSE, even though the qualification is not included in the national qualification framework and has not yet been accredited by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. As such, IGCSE is not recognised by the Department for Education and Skills in GCSE performance tables despite calls for this to change. However, we will be proud to explain to anyone who asks why our results in maths are not included in the tables.

Likewise, in two years' time, if the situation is the same and our science results are excluded, too, we shall carry our zero scores with pride, secure in the knowledge that we are following the courses that suit us best, and that we are more committed to finding courses for our students that stretch and enthuse them than to becoming slaves to league tables.

Whether, as a result of other schools doing the same thing, GCSE performance tables will mean less to the public at large, remains to be seen.

Michael Punt is academic deputy head at the Perse school, Cambridge

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