Plotting a change of course

9th January 1998 at 00:00
Are your classes headed in the wrong direction? James Williams points out what's involved in choosing a new key stage 3 course

Choosing a new course is a major task, and popularity is no guarantee of success. Science departments can have many reasons for wanting to change. Maybe standards could be raised, or the school has been given extra cash to boost key stage 3 study. Maybe the old scheme is tired and no longer meets the demands of a more stable national curriculum.

Choose wisely and your subject will take off. But the wrong choice could cost you dear, not just financially, but in poor exam results.

Before contacting publishers, wise department heads will question staff and pupils to find out what sort of course would best fit the school's needs. No single scheme can hope to fit the bill for all pupils of all abilities.

In practice the best course is the one developed specifically for your pupils - one that matches their ability range and does not presuppose endless stocks of specific chemicals or expensive equipment. But, writing your own scheme takes up a huge amount of staff time.

An over-riding consideration must be the pupils' prior experience. If they are given work they have already covered at key stage 2, they quickly lose interest. Yet while pupils may start Year 7 with a surprisingly high degree of subject knowledge, they will be unfamiliar with the equipment, specialist language and teaching styles at secondary level and may feel overwhelmed.

The process of choosing a scheme is best done in stages.

Stage 1 Gather your staff together and list areas of expertise. Do you have a glut of physicists? Is there an earth scientist in the department? Or do you have mostly biologists who are weak in physics? Think about how you deliver your curriculum and how you would like to deliver it.

Look at how science is timetabled. If you are struggling with single periods of 50 minutes, cut further by late morning assemblies, an intensively practical, student-centred course is doomed to fail.

You must have a clear idea of your strengths and weaknesses before you can choose a course.

Stage 2 Request inspection copies or packs from publishers. Then draw up a checklist to help you analyse each scheme and allow colleagues to talk with a common framework in mind. A suggested checklist is shown below. It is based on a document the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority used in its recent Analysis of Educational Resources in 19967: Key Stage 3 Science Schemes. Ask staff to assess each element of the checklist and prepare a short presentation. This makes sure they are all involved in a decision that may have a big impact on their day-to-day work. One of the keys to managing such change is making sure you take your team with you, rather than leave them feeling change is a fait accompli.

Stage 3 After hearing staff presentations, you should be able to narrow the choices down to one or two. Anyone who has not looked at the shortlist should do so now.

Choosing a scheme is not the end of the process. It is important to look at its impact on the curriculum. Discuss any possible problems with whoever is responsible for setting the timetable. Timetablers have been known to construct timetables unsuited to practical science simply because of pressure from other curriculum areas.

Think also about the assessment of your scheme. Does it fit the school policy? Will it require hard setting or mixed-ability groupings? A final, but important consideration will be the cost. Think about photocopying worksheets and buying textbooks. Involve your senior technician in assessing equipment requirements.

A final word - don't be rushed into change for its own sake. Introducing a course a year at a time will work, but three into one will not go, so don't try to change the whole of a key stage in one year.

James Williams is a lecturer in science education at Brunel University. He was a member of SCAA's ad hoc committee advising on the checklist for the analysis of key stage 3 schemes of work in science


The nature of the course

* What are the stated aims?

* What types of materials are included?

* What do the main pupil books contain?

* What do the teachertechnician guidance materials contain?

Match to the national curriculum order

* Does the scheme cover the programmes of study for Sc2, 3 4?

* Does the scheme cover the requirements of Sc1?

* Is any advice given about assessment of Sc2, 3 4?

* What advice is given about assessment of Sc1?

* What advice is given about level descriptors?

Fitness for purpose

* Is the material scientifically accurate?

* Is the language level appropriate?

* Is there recognition ot the contributions made by ditterent cultures to the development of science?

* Does the material avoid stereotypes?

* Do the materials give appropriate health and safety advice?

* Is there use of varied presentation in the materials?

* Does the presentation attract teachers and pupils?

* Are the contexts used appropriate?

* Is there progression in the language, illustrations and activities?

Use of materials in the classroom

* Do the materials adopt a particular philosophy for teaching?

* Do the materials promote a particular teaching style?

* Are the materials adaptable to a range of teaching styles?

* Does the material support pupils in the completion of homework tasks?

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