Listen to the professionals;Science

10th September 1999 at 01:00
Science teachers could improve on the national curriculum, says Edgar Jenkins

It's too late: you should have been asking us while we still had the energy to fight" and "What I think doesn't matter any more, does it? It's just league tables". These are just two of the comments made by secondary school science teachers interviewed about their work under the national curriculum by the Centre for Studies in Science and Mathematics Education at Leeds University.

They reflect a much wider body of opinion that all is not well with secondary school science teaching and stem from legislation which intervenes in the work of a group of professionals.

It's not simply the bureaucracy associated with testing and inspection, or having to cope with a succession of new curriculum Orders. Many science teachers sense they have lost control over much of what and how they teach. They judge that they could provide a better science education than the present national curriculum allows.

There is, of course, no shortage of advice, notably from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Association for Science Education and the learned scientific societies, about how the national curriculum should be revised.

However, it is my belief that the ongoing attempt to mandate change is unlikely to raise the quality of education because it ignores the importance of teachers' professional authority, esteem and their role in originating and implementing change.

What is needed is a curriculum which strikes a different compromise between accountability, curriculum entitlement and teachers' professional authority, while allowing the possibility of centrally mandated change.

Such a curriculum might have three elements, of which only one need either be defined by statute or have associated assessment outcomes. It might be called the entry or foundation curriculum and would be kept to the barest minimum - a formidable, but not impossible task.

The second element would provide time for schools to follow particular local or teacher-led interests, with perhaps some central non-statutory guidance available. This might be called the extension curriculum, within which pupils could undertake extended investigatory work. Work of this kind can be found in a few schools, although it rarely fits within that part of the national curriculum concerned with "scientific investigation".

Other schools might choose to pursue high level academic work, develop industrial links or accommodate studies with a more marked technical or vocational bias. This element of the science curriculum could be evaluated by whatever form of OFSTED or other inspection regime was in place, but it would be assessed, independently of the entry curriculum, by teachers themselves.

The third element would amount to a semi-official means of curriculum development integrated, in part, with the extension curriculum. It would draw on work done in schools as well as originating work. It would offer modest financial support and enable the transfer of material, after appropriate trialling, into officially recognised guidance material or options.

Responsibility for all three elements of the curriculum would lie with a single authority, the constitution of which commanded the respect of the science teaching profession.

None of this is possible without reversing some of the key tendencies of present attempts to change and control science teachers' work by statute. None the less, until the government is prepared to trust science teachers and adopt a more generous view of their professionalism, any attempt to raise standards by rewording a Statutory Order seems likely to produce more problems than it solves.

Edgar Jenkins is professor of science education policy and director of the Centre for Studies in Science and Mathematics Education at the University of Leeds.

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