New GCSE can be leap for science

9th September 2005 at 01:00
Every year in August the number of pupils studying science goes under the microscope. This year's GCSE results showed a small decline in the numbers studying double award science and a small rise in numbers studying applied science and separate subjects chemistry, physics and biology. Perhaps this is a sign of dissatisfaction with the "one size fits all" approach of double award science.

High hopes are pinned on the new science GCSEs to be introduced from September 2006, with their greater flexibility and emphasis on "scientific literacy". Writing in the Independent on Sunday, the president of the Royal Society, Lord May, welcomed the fact that the new GCSE science curriculum from next year "will focus more sharply on the learning of the scientific method".

If the new curriculum works as intended, it should put pupils in a better position to deal effectively with scientific controversies such as those surrounding the use of animals in research, the risks of a bird flu epidemic and the threat of climate change.

Yet the history of such changes to the curriculum does not inspire optimism.

Since the national curriculum for science was introduced in 1989, it has had a section about the methods of science, but this is not taught much in lessons. Perhaps teachers feel more confident teaching scientific facts than the processes of science - called "How Science Works" in the new curriculum. It may be that new ideas and new training in the methods for teaching this aspect of science will help.

In the end, though, whether anything actually changes will depend on the awarding bodies that produce the examinations for the new curriculum.

If they can find imaginative ways to assess the "How Science Works" element, then it will get taught.

But if they don't, then I fear nothing much will change and the science curriculum will continue its failure to equip young people for life in the 21st century.

John Holman Centre director National Science Learning Centre University of York

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