Science GCSE has our future in its hands

8th January 2010 at 00:00
Exam bodies must up their game to ensure the subject's under-fire curriculum keeps Britain a world leader

It seems that not a week goes by without another headline on the science curriculum and new pronouncements about its fitness for purpose. Towards the end of last year we even saw science minister Lord Drayson describe the science curriculum as "deeply flawed" and a report from the think-tank Reform saying much the same thing.

The publication of Ofqual's new GCSE sciences criteria for awarding bodies last month was a positive step - but is it really going to achieve a balance between rigour and relevance? Surely, with a general election on the horizon, it is time to step back, let partisan passions cool and take an objective look at the state of science education in the UK.

To put this into perspective, let's review a few facts. British science is world class. We have just 1 per cent of the world's population, but produce 12 per cent of the citations in scientific research publications. The 2009 Nobel Prizes for chemistry, physics and medicine all included scientists who were educated in, or worked in, Britain at some stage.

Maintaining this scientific pre-eminence is clearly one goal of science education. The UK needs many high-quality scientists, engineers and technicians to maintain our research and innovation capacity in science, with the Confederation of British Industry calling for double the number of graduates in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) by 2014.

Since the introduction of the national curriculum by the Conservative government in 1988, science has been compulsory for all students. This is an acknowledgement of the fact that in one way or another, we are all scientists now.

In a world dominated by science and technology, a scientifically illiterate population is not an option. People need a robust understanding of science to contribute to debates on vital issues such as climate change and nuclear power, which requires understanding not only of scientific principles, but also of the way that scientific evidence is obtained and used - and, in some cases, abused.

The new key stage 4 curriculum introduced into schools from September 2006 was a response to this need, and an attempt to produce a flexible curriculum that would cater for the diverse needs of students. Awarding bodies now offer a suite of science GCSEs ranging from single "core science", offering a foundation in the subject for those who will take its study no further, through to "triple science", three separate studies in GCSE chemistry, physics and biology, for those who are likely to progress to A-level and beyond.

Core science courses have two components: scientific content (laws of motion, genetics, chemical elements and so on) and scientific processes ("how science works"). This second aspect is relatively new in the GCSE science curriculum, but helps to create the kind of scientific literacy described above.

So what is working well in this new GCSE curriculum and what isn't? Inevitably, examinations are the single biggest factor in determining what is taught in schools. Like it or not, "teaching to the test" is inevitable in a high-stakes system - so we need high-quality assessment that is fit for purpose.

It is in this area that the new GCSE sciences have let us down, with the greatest weakness in "how science works", where Ofqual has rightly criticised the quality of some examination questions. Too often, these questions have failed to challenge both the most able pupils and those of average ability.

However, while GCSE science may not have been well served by some aspects of examinations, this is not a reason to throw it out. If the uptake figures for AS- and A-level sciences are anything to go by, the new courses have provided a stimulating diet for young people. The summer 2009 exam season showed welcome increases in numbers taking A-level physics and chemistry, and at AS level, which is a sign of A-level numbers next year, the growth is stronger still - up 10 per cent in physics, 8 per cent in chemistry and 10 per cent in biology.

Some clear trends are also evident in the option choices of GCSE science candidates. Most impressively, the numbers taking "triple science" increased by about 20 per cent last year.

So what more needs to be done?

The crucial thing is that, for every pupil, there should be choice: to study core science only; core plus additional; or triple science. Currently, the triple-science choice is available in more than half of maintained schools, but it should be available in all.

However, triple science should not become, by default, the only route to A-level. Core plus additional science should also be an option for students who are serious about science but want to take, say, a second foreign language or music GCSE.

In terms of science education more generally, those responsible for the curriculum and the quality of its examinations have a tricky balancing act. They need to maintain accessibility for students who will take their study of science no further, yet also provide challenge for the scientists of the future.

So how can rigour be brought back to science GCSE exams across the board? Ofqual clearly has a vital role to play and cannot afford to be a toothless regulator. But the awarding bodies need to raise their own game and provide better training for their hard-pressed question-writers. Currently the quality of some exam questions on "how science works" is, frankly, dismal. In the longer-term, are we really well served by having three separate exam boards that compete rather than co-operate?

The wider science community also has an important contribution to make and it should be a priority to reconnect the exam-setting process to the community of professional scientists and university academics - especially at A-level.

So, the new formula for science education in the 21st century? All schools should be offering the option of triple science, Ofqual must hold awarding bodies to account, and the science community should take a closer interest in science education and assessment. Getting this right is critical for all our futures.

Professor John Holman, Director, National Science Learning Centre.

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