Time to make science user-friendly

Are too many dry facts turning students off? Should lessons look at ethical issues and how science affects society?.

A committee of MPs recently described GCSE science as boring. They argued that the pupils should be engaged in lively debates about topical controversies such as the MMR vaccine and human cloning.

A powerful policy-maker said to me,"the 'nerds' (his very word) will do it anyway; the curriculum must be changed to reach out to women and ethnic minorities". Even the influential Roberts review whose prime concern was the future supply of scientists went down this route.

But these arguments are deeply flawed. Arguing that it is "fun to chat" about contentious scientific issues completely overlooks the fact that you have to know some science before you can discuss it meaningfully. The 'nerds' argument is akin to saying David Beckham would have played football anyway, without recognising the training that it took for him to become world-class.

The argument about women and ethnic minorities can lead to contrivances to get the numbers right, even if it means wrapping together fundamentally different subjects such as physics and biology.

None of this is to suggest that the moral, social and legal implications of science are not important. Nor that teachers should not draw on - as I am sure they have always done - the most recent discoveries for their illustrations. But solid content must remain the cornerstone of the science curriculum.

If this means that after the age of 14 only relatively few pupils want to engage with the sciences in depth so be it. And what does it matter that they should come more from one social group than another? The important thing is that those that do science get high-quality experiences which fully develop their talents. This will add to their lives, enable the country to secure its supply of research scientists and benefit us all through their discoveries.

Present catch-all approaches to science have been pretty disastrous. Compulsory science for all up to 16 has actually led to a fall in the numbers studying physics at A-level. University departments of physics and chemistry are going down like ninepins. With too few graduates, there are not enough good teachers.

Recently, it has become fashionable to talk about scientific literacy rather than science. Such talk would be more convincing if it were clear what scientific literacy actually is. The MPs, while supporting it, bemoaned the lack of a clear concept. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development recently attempted to measure it, but only came up with a rag-bag of questions.

This chatter begins to look very much like a way of avoiding the simple truth that by the later secondary years, young people want to go in different directions and there should be an appropriate array of courses and qualifications to meet their needs.

The Government, with its new policy of flexibility post-14, should allow pupils in state schools the freedom their private-school peers get to choose individual sciences at GCSE rather than having to do all three. A-levels in physics and chemistry have held up much better in independent schools. The result is that sciences, once the preserve of the bright working class, are being gentrified.

There could also be a case for, perish the thought, a GCSE in "science media studies". It would undoubtedly teach pupils more about the press than science. It might also tempt more to do the dubious subject of media studies at university. But it would be worth it, if it meant that the sciences themselves could be taught as they really are.

Alan Smithers is Sydney Jones professor of education and director of the centre for education and employment research at Liverpool University

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