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21/12/2014

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Is the secondary science curriculum fit for purpose?

With the national curriculum currently under review, the British Science Festival will debate whether the secondary science curriculum is fit for purpose.  Below, and opposite, speakers from each side set out their stalls.

Yes!

We are improving engagement and provision, argues Ian Richardson

I strongly believe in providing the nation’s young people with the best possible science education. That is my credal statement, be it for primary or secondary education. It is imperative that our young people receive a balanced science education that equips them for full participation in a modern technological society. Their science education should prepare them for continuing education, training or employment.

We are improving engagement and provision, argues Ian Richardson

I strongly believe in providing the nation’s young people with the best possible science education. That is my credal statement, be it for primary or secondary education. It is imperative that our young people receive a balanced science education that equips them for full participation in a modern technological society. Their science education should prepare them for continuing education, training or employment.

Primary important

My second strong belief is that good education is built upon a continuum of successful learning. That is why, for me, a focus on secondary science to the exclusion of the primary is partial and short-sighted. I would point to initiatives such as the Primary Science Quality Mark, the Association of Science Education’s (ASE) publications ASE Guide To Primary Science Education and Making Sense of Primary Science Investigations, and the Science Learning Centres’ extensive range of high-quality courses concerned with primary science.  This last source is supported by the Department for Education. All these demonstrate the mainstream science education community’s belief in the importance of science in primary schools.

Practical science

I have lived long enough to remember the secondary school science curriculum, as experienced by a significant section of the school community, when it ‘delivered’ little but the rote learning of facts. There were few opportunities for young minds to apply what they learned to new contexts. Pupils did not engage frequently in practical work, and when they did they rarely investigated anything. In the worst cases, for the least able students, digging and weeding the school’s flower beds and garden masqueraded as science education.

The importance of practical science and scientific enquiry has been demonstrated in revisions of the National Curriculum since its first revision in 1991. Reports from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate have frequently referred to the importance of scientific enquiry, and this also goes to show the value attached to it.

Improving trend

The most recent report on science education from Ofsted, published in January 2011, is entitled Successful Science.  In the executive summary we read, ‘There has been an improving trend in the provision of science education over the period of this report, especially in secondary schools, but there are areas that need further improvement, particularly in primary schools. The most important focus for schools is to ensure that pupils are engaged and challenged by their work in science, particularly in scientific investigation and how science works. Students need access to relevant courses that provide them with clear, high-quality pathways through their education, allowing them to attain the highest standards possible, both in the short term and when they progress to further and higher education. The best schools are already doing this.’

This is not simply a flat assertion but is based on the measurement of success through performance data and the annual subject inspection of a sample of schools. What do those measurements say?

From 2005 to 2010 the proportion of students in Key Stage 3 achieving Level 5 or above rose from 71 per cent to 80 per cent. During the same period, the proportion of students attaining Level 6 or above rose from 36 per cent to 48 per cent.1 In the last three years of the new GCSE for science subjects the outcomes for students of the separate sciences of biology, chemistry and physics have been around 94 per cent.2 The proportion of students following courses in separate sciences has increased significantly. At GCE A level the proportion of pass grades has increased, as has the proportion achieving grades A or B.3

The secondary science curriculum is fit for purpose, but this should not promote complacency. The drive for raising standards through better engagement and provision remains our principle quest.

1 See DfE National Curriculum Assessments: Teacher Assessments at Key Stage 2 and 3 in England, SFR23/2010

 See DfE: GCSE and Equivalent Results in England, 2009/10, SFR30/2010

3 See DfE: GCE/Applied GCE A/AS and Equivalent Examination Results in England, 2009/10, SFR31/2010

 

No!

We are denying our children an academic science education, laments David Perks

I have just returned from a school trip to CERN in Geneva. I took 42 sixteen year-olds in search of the ‘God particle’. What was exhilarating for me was the intense desire of my students to get to grips with the big questions of physics. And yet the starting point of every discussion about the need to reform science education is the difficulty of making science relevant to pupils.

We are denying our children an academic science education, laments David Perks

I have just returned from a school trip to CERN in Geneva. I took 42 sixteen year-olds in search of the ‘God particle’. What was exhilarating for me was the intense desire of my students to get to grips with the big questions of physics. And yet the starting point of every discussion about the need to reform science education is the difficulty of making science relevant to pupils.

How can it be the case that, when science has become central to our view of ourselves, pupils have little interest in science? It is just not true. When we doubt children’s enthusiasm for science we are expressing our own loss of faith in the project that science once represented to everyone.

Loss of faith

Change is the nostrum of our time. Everything associated with the past is drawn into question and the drive to distance ourselves from the institutions and ideas of the past is unstoppable. This process of change has come to dominate educational thinking. The answer is always to reduce the amount of knowledge we deliver and replace it with something more important. This is argued on the basis of the irrelevance of academic knowledge to the majority of pupils and the need to make education more accessible. We are fortunate that with the current national curriculum review we have a chance to draw breath and reconsider what we are doing before we deny a basic academic science education to generations to come.

The argument is then about how adults view science education. The current school curriculum is the product of a loss of faith in science and a doubt about its ability to lead us anywhere. When it comes to education this gets expressed as the difficulty of getting abstract ideas across to children who we are told just don’t need to use them in their lives.

Hollow shell

The drive to separate off those children who might be scientists from the ordinary consumer of science has meant that it is now very common for pupils to be denied an academic science education in state schools past 14. The rise of pseudo-vocational qualifications has expressed this most clearly. In some schools hardly a single child gets a good science GCSE. The introduction of the EBAC last summer shone a light on this appalling tragedy in our schools.

Beyond this Key Stage 3 (11-14) science education has been turned into a hollow shell with the evaporation of the discredited SATs and their replacement with totally school-based skills assessments. The teaching of ‘how science works’ has come to dominate the early years of secondary schools.

The collapse in teaching of scientific knowledge is frightening. The result has paradoxically been a flight from laboratory experiments to paper-based skills exercises with almost no worth. We might be producing figures for levels at the end of Key Stage 3 but I doubt they relate one iota to a child’s ability to understand any aspect of science.

Failing to inspire

We systematically underestimate the capability of pupils to deal with difficult ideas and their desire to do so. If we fail to inspire the next generation and give them a reason for acquiring the knowledge we have accrued through the struggle to understand the universe we inhabit, then it is we who are to blame.

As Hannah Arendt put it in 1958, ‘Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable.’

Ian Richardson
Ian Richardson is a director of REC Co Ltd, an education consultancy. In January 2011 he retired from his HMI post of National Adviser for Science.
David Perks
David Perks is Head of Physics at Graveney School, Wandsworth, London. He will be speaking at the Battle of Ideas conference at the Royal College of Art on ‘Censoring science: have scientists become the new inquisitors?’ (29 October at 1030) and on ‘Dreaming spires for all? Oxbridge and social mobility’ (29 October at 1530)
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