Vilified GCSE boosts science uptake

28th August 2009 at 01:00
Unprecedented numbers opt for post-16 study after taking `dumbed down' 21st century course, research reveals

Pupils studying a much-maligned GCSE accused of "dumbing down" science are choosing to take the subject in record numbers post-16, according to new research.

Three times as many pupils who did the 21st century science course went on to study science at AS-level compared with those who followed other science GCSEs, figures suggest.

There was an increase of more than 30 per cent in AS-level science students who had followed the 21st century course.

The findings follow sustained criticism of the programme, which was introduced in 2006 in an attempt to make the subject more appealing. It covers new topics such as global warming, genetically modified crops and the cloning of stem cells.

The changes were intended to help to make the subject more relevant to pupils and to boost numbers taking sciences at A-level and university. But critics claim that the new content lacks rigour, with some saying it is more suited to the pub than the classroom.

The impact of the 21st century course on the number of pupils taking science at AS-level come as students across the country discovered their GCSE results.

It also follows criticism of GCSEs by the Government's science czar. John Holman said this week that GCSEs in biology, physics, chemistry and combined sciences lack mathematical content and fail to stretch the brightest pupils.

The research on the 21st century course was carried out at York University by members of the team that designed the qualification.

They asked schools if there had been an effect on post-16 study in 2008, the first year that pupils finished the new GCSE.

At AS level, there was a 37 per cent increase in the numbers of pupils taking biology, 25 per cent for chemistry and 34 per cent in physics in schools using the 21st century science course, according to data from 155 schools.

Provisional data released by the Joint Council for Qualifications shows national increases in AS numbers of 10 per cent in biology, 8 per cent in chemistry and 9.5 per cent in physics.

More than half of schools offering the 21st century course said they had seen increases in pupil numbers in all three sciences at AS level, with numbers decreasing in fewer than 10 per cent of schools.

Robin Millar, a professor at York University's department of educational studies, one of the architects of the course, said: "This is clearly very good news for those concerned about student participation in science in the sixth form and beyond.

"It suggests that course design is important, indeed crucial, to meeting Government targets for A-level science."

Professor Millar said that the key was to create stimulating courses that created more interest in science and conveyed its value. Courses should then capitalise on that interest to develop the foundations for further study, he said.

A spokesman for the Royal Society of Chemistry said that GCSEs had to be rigorous and provide a "solid grounding in mathematics and in clear, logical thinking".

"We will be bearing this in mind when we study the evidence prepared by the 21st century science team," he added.

In March this year, Ofqual, the qualifications regulator, said it had "significant concerns" about science GCSEs, which had become less demanding, it believed. Ofqual told the exam boards to rip up new science GCSEs because of worries over their reliability and the number of resits allowed.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency will carry out a consultation on the criteria for science GCSEs from 2011.

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