Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The science curriculum debate

When I was training as a science teacher, the National Curriculum was billed as the solution to the shortage of scientists and engineers in the UK. By making 'Double Science' (i.e. two GCSE's worth of combined science) compulsory for all kids at GCSE, the government hoped more students would fall in love with science and go on to study it at University.

Instead, schools wrestled with the reality of teaching all students - all students - huge great wodges of science. Hell has fewer miseries more grim than a set five science group you see for 20% of their timetabled time. As other options emerged (downgrading to single science - 1 GCSE of combined science - switching to GNVQ or similar) schools with a high proportion of this type of student grabbed them.

At the other end of the spectrum, many students found that their options to study science in the future were severely limited. Potential future scientists were frustrated, as schools could not easily offer them the 'three sciences' option alongside the compulsory Double Award. By insisting that everyone did some science, less and less students were able to prepare for the rigours of A-level. Students who were somewhere between the extremes - unable, at the tender age of 14, to know if they would blossom into academic success or leave school early, were usually shifted into whichever solution offered the best 'headline results'. This was all the more galling, because this was why we got rid of grammar schools - to allow students longer to grow into academic success, keeping their options open, most especially those who did not have parents acting as pro-education cheerleaders on the sidelines.

So the powers-that-be put their heads together once more, to try and work out a solution which gives all students what they need to survive in a technological society, while at the same time inspiring and equipping future scientists. The result was the science reforms that have been rolled out this Autumn, including 'Science for the 21st century', a GSCE which aims to provide scientific literacy. [A briefing from the Association for Science Education here]

In a telling quote from the BBC
...pupils who take up 21st Century science are unlikely to be those who plan to take science at A-level and then university.
Today, Sir Richard Sykes, Rector of Imperial College and member of the Institute of Ideas, has criticised the new GCSE science qualification because they will lock students out of future university courses.

I am in such anguish. I have not taught GCSE science for many years, but I have long thought that the UK education system needs something like a 'science for life' course. Forcing all 15 year olds to study physics is just wrong. And I love physics. I really enjoyed teaching science and think that everyone needs to be scientifically literate in order for society to survive.

At the same time, I also know that students who do not have a good GCSE foundation struggle hopelessly at A-level. They need to have had strong teaching, traditional-style courses and the curriculum time to study all three sciences, or at least two to sufficient depth.

So, I'm with OCR, who summed it up thus,
"GCSE qualifications in the sciences are required to meet two quite different needs: firstly, to prepare all students for life in the 21st century, in which science is a part of everyday experience, and secondly to prepare future scientists for their studies at A-level and beyond."
Why can't we do both? Why can't there be flexibility, options, choice, risk? I'll tell you why not. League tables.

Children lose out when they are not given the option to take courses that they are less likely to pass. Schools can't afford the risk of entering students for challenging subjects. Far better to put them in for the courses that will maximise their 'success'. Because the bottom line is the league table pass rate. At all costs we must service the pass rate. So the question becomes 'What science options can we afford to offer in our school? Which will guarantee a better bottom line statistic? Which is safest?' In this context, schools will continue to offer whatever courses best service the pass rate.

The 21st century science course is for 'students unlikely to take science at University'. How many schools will take that decision for all their pupils at the age of 14 simply because it is too costly for them, in terms of the league tables, to do otherwise?

I've been feeling sick about this all day. I have arrived at the desperately depressing conclusion that there is no reform in current education that can ever work while schools are held up to public judgement and competition using highly simplified statistics alone. The forces acting on schools today distort and corrupt the education of children. They are evil.

More information from the BBC here, and see the Guardian here, and all about the Insitute of Ideas here.

1 comment:

Mr Ken said...

Pepperpot, I don't usually comment on an issue unless I have something useful to add. But in this case you've said it all; league-table fever is strangling education.

You know it, I know it, everyone who teaches knows it.