Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 20-39)



  20. That is what I want.
  (Mr Miliband) Let us drill down to what is really happening because I have absolutely no interest in pulling the wool over your eyes or having the wool pulled over mine.


  21. Right, Minister. We will follow that through with you. You mentioned the National Centre for Excellence in Science Teaching. Where has that got to at the minute? It is indeed an important addition.
  (Ms Dallas) As you know, we are working very closely with the Wellcome Trust to develop the new centre. Where we are at the moment is developing around 25 new courses for teachers and also including science technicians. As maybe I indicated last time, those courses are all about leading edge science. It is about access to that for teachers and pupils. It is about looking at contemporary science issues in a way which both handles the science and the controversy which sometimes surrounds issues like that. It is about engaging in effective use of ICT in the science classroom. It is about looking at ways of encouraging analytical and reasoning skills in pupils. One of the things which I remember we talked about last time was the very heavy content in the curriculum and the whole issue about regurgitation of facts. It is attempting to move away from that. Obviously you need the facts but it is about encouraging teachers to help their pupils develop those reasoning, questioning and investigative skills. That is just a snapshot of the provision that is being developed there.
  (Mr Miliband) He wants to know when we are launching it, when we are putting our money in.

  22. When is the first brick going to be put down? Is Amish Kapoor designing it? Who is going to design it? Is it going to be a scientist or an economist?
  (Ms Dallas) We said last time that the centre would be up and running next year, and that is still the case, and we said it would be fully operational in two years. That is still the case.
  (Mr Miliband) We want to make an announcement, as I understand it, before Christmas about our commitment to the package that was so generously kicked off by Wellcome.

Mr Heath

  23. We are hearing a little bit more good news now, which is a move away from being in denial about there being any problem at all about the physical sciences which is what I was hearing earlier. Can I move us back from the undergraduate evidence to the key area which we have been looking at, which is the 14-19 Key Stage 4 science curriculum in particular? Anyone who reads our report cannot fail to get the peer view which we have expressed that there is something seriously wrong with the Key Stage 4 curriculum as it presently is. It is not doing a service to our prospective science students and you only have to read the headings of the paragraphs in this report to see that—inflexibility, irrelevance, failure to engage in debate, repetitiveness, limited options, problems with practical and field work, Problems with course work, Problems with using ICT in science. Our view is that there is a significant problem here. We are concerned that there does not appear to be any sense of urgency in the Department of dealing with those problems with the structure and form of the curriculum at the moment other than a commitment back in February to review the Key Stage 4 science curriculum. Are we still waiting for that review to be even started?
  (Mr Miliband) I think this is an important area and one where it is difficult for politicians, or at least politicians that are not scientists or have not been through the system, to be absolutely sure about what is really happening. You have listed a number of areas. The fact that they are listed does not mean that they are true, so the first thing we have to do is look at them and see whether or not they are right. We are, with due seriousness, trying to get underneath this.

  24. How? Is that a review?

  (Mr Miliband) No, it is not a capital "R" Review, if that is what you are saying. Let me address the second half of your comments because I am happy to hear you come back on it. We have just started, this year, the new style GCSE, and we have got the new pilot GCSE, the so-called hybrid GCSE, starting next year. The frustrating thing about curriculum change is that it takes a very long time. However, I am sure we would all agree that, in the light of the AS-level and A-level fracas this summer, urgency always has to be balanced with due diligence in making curriculum change, and you will know, not just that those initiatives were long in the gestation trying to address several of the issues that you have raised here, but that they need to be properly evaluated, but also that there is a structural issue here which is that our advisers on curriculum issues are, rightly, the independent QCA. They have given evidence to you, they have responded to your report. I think it is dangerous for me to bypass what is an established procedure, whichever party is in power, as to the nature of curriculum change. I would agree with you that where there are problems we have to tackle them seriously. However, I never want to start trialing new initiatives before we know the effects of existing ones. In this area, as it happens, we have two really major things going on: a new GCSE course and the new pilot of core science plus specialist modules. I think we all have to wait and see what the effect of those is before we rush to change it again.

  25. I think I would be more content with that answer if we did not in the Green Paper have a clear statement that the curriculum is to be reviewed. I think it is reasonable for this Committee to ask, at this point, whether that review has been commissioned from the QCA and what its intentions are, on what basis a review is to be held and on what timescale. At the moment we have no indication that there is any timescale or any basis for a review at all.
  (Mr Jones) The review has not been commissioned yet. That review will be part of the review that will be commissioned as part of the response of the 14-19 Green Paper which the Minister has not yet given. That would look at science and would be asked to take account of this Committee's report, but until ministers give their response to the 14-19 Green Paper we cannot commission the QCA to undertake that review of the Key Stage 4 curriculum.

  26. So that will happen in due course?
  (Mr Jones) Yes.
  (Mr Miliband) And I think it is fair to say that we have been focusing on the practical issues, the delivery of the A and AS-level system, but we certainly want to proceed, when possible, with the 14-19 Green Paper and the response to it because it was a very wide-ranging debate on that Green Paper.

  27. I understand, Minister, what you say about the fact that there is a long period of gestation, but I also recognise the fact that on this sort of timescale, when we are talking about exams coming into effect in 2003, of having two years or so to run and then an assessment being made of that and that being fed back into a review process, we are talking about an entire generation of children who are going to continue to be turned off science by the curriculum as it presently is and we are going to continue to have a situation in which we are not recruiting people in the physical sciences, the chemical sciences, engineering, which is going to be to the huge detriment of this country.
  (Mr Miliband) Can you come back on my point which is that we have made, and are intending to make, what we believe, and I think you accept this, are some quite significant changes to the GCSE science course? Come back to me in a judicious way and in a way that does not say to teachers, "You have started teaching a new style course. We are going to turf it all up before pupils take any exams". We need to find a way of learning the lessons of that significant reform before we turn the system upside down again.

  Mr Heath: I think it would have been reasonable to have commissioned the review from the QCA. I think it would have been reasonable to have identified at least some of the key areas.


  28. One of the problems that came up was that when major issues like GM crops, MMR and all these things come up teachers are unable, within the curriculum, to stop and talk about issues that excite young people which they hear about, they read about and so on. What they have to do is bash on because the curriculum has to be achieved, "Today we do this, today we do that. We cannot have a buttercup today, we have done that. On to the next thing." That is very important in science, that young people have a chance to argue the morality, the ethics of issues and so on, and it is not allowed for in terms of the curriculum.
  (Mr Miliband) But is it not right, Chairman, that first of all there are schools that have been debating those things? Secondly, the purpose of science courses is to give students the technical basis on which to have what you describe as the moral arguments. There is nothing to stop those sorts of debates happening. I hear what you say about the amount of material that needs to be taken on board. I have been to schools where there are displays on the wall of work about GMOs, so I am not convinced that these are no-go areas for teachers and for schools.

Mr Harris

  29. The gist of the report is that we need a step change in school science education and that gets bogged down in time limits and timescales. Has the Department given any thought to how to achieve that step change, not through curriculum changes but in terms of professional development for teachers or the training of new teachers?
  (Mr Miliband) There are a number of things I should bring to your attention or maybe you know about them already, which do constitute a significant improvement. You can judge whether or not they are a step change. First of all, the Key Stage 3 strategy really must not be under-estimated. It is a major attempt to galvanise the teaching and learning experience for 11-14-year olds. We know those are the years when there is a turn-off in secondary education. Secondly, I think that the development of the specialist science college network is an exciting step change, a genuine step change. As I say, there are 58 applications in the October round to be announced in January. Those are schools thinking, "We have got a centre of excellence in science. We want to build on that and share our facilities and our expertise in that area." That has real power. Thirdly, I believe the school workforce reforms that we announced two weeks ago really are a radical departure in the sense that they will give science teachers, like other teachers, a chance to be at the cutting edge of what it means to be a professional. They will be properly supported with proper time preparation and assessment of pupils, absolutely critical to high quality lessons, I am sure you agree, and will get the support in the classroom from technicians and others, secretarial support as back-up, that really allows the science lessons to be of the highest quality. We know at the moment that teachers only spend a third of their time teaching. We want to increase that proportion which will have benefits right across the curriculum, but notably in an area like science. You can judge whether that counts as a step change, but I think there are important things happening that will have a positive effect.

Bob Spink

  30. In our paragraph 29 we concluded that students face a lot of repetition and find it boring and you simply brushed that aside with your response on page 8/9 where you conclude that the current programmes of study, Key Stages 1-4, are designed to encourage progression through all key stages. We did not pluck our conclusion out of the air. We based it on empirical evidence that we took from students, from teachers and from QCA people. We published that evidence in our report. We would have had much more confidence in you if you had shown some understanding of the problem rather than simple denial and a defensive approach that seems to be symptomatic of your own approach in this. I know that there are changes but you would have given us more confidence in you if you had accepted that, yes, there is this repetition and that the changes that have been brought in are not going to completely eradicate that repetition and had set about trying to make sure that there is not that repetition and to make room for more of these exciting subjects that the Chairman has talked about to be brought in and discussed. Do you wish that you had made a more positive approach to this?
  (Mr Miliband) You obviously did think it was negative and I am sorry you thought it was negative. We start with a statement of fact which is that the National Curriculum, including science, was revised in 2000. It has just happened. We have got that major revision. For obvious reasons I do not need to bore you with we are not permanently revising the National Curriculum. It would drive teachers and pupils absolutely mad. I will take away the fact that you think this is too complacent. I think with such a recent review, with some big changes going on at Key Stage 3, real encouragement for teachers to help students progress at their own pace, so forging ahead in some subjects like science, where they have got a particular talent, we can address some of the points that you have made.

Dr Iddon

  31. My understanding was that that the revision was not a major revision. In fact, 75% of the syllabus probably was untouched. What evidence have you got that that was a major revision to the science curriculum?
  (Mr Miliband) It was one of the quinquennial reviews of the National Curriculum which was done on the basis of real expert engagement with the science and other communities. Perhaps someone can fill me in on the 25% that was revised. That is actually quite a lot of the curriculum to be revised, given that it is the same people who are teaching it in a five-year period.
  (Mr Jones) My understanding was that one of the changes that was made was to remove the duplication between what happened at Key Stage 3 and what happened at Key Stage 4. That would be in terms of the programme of study that would be required at each of these stages and of course the curriculum at Key Stage 4 is what drives the content of the GCSE provision. What I cannot comment on, but may well be the case, is whether teachers none the less found that in taking groups of pupils forward from Key Stage 3 they still had to do remedial work that would inevitably require some duplication of work in order to bring people back up to speed at Key Stage 4 and GCSE. Clearly there are issues in that about pace and progression and how you handle different groups of young people within any one-year group within a school, and indeed the 14-19 Green Paper does suggest that there should be a more flexible use of different paced teaching in order to facilitate that.

  32. There were no substantive changes? You just took out the repetition?
  (Mr Miliband) That is what this is about though. This is what we are being asked about. We are asked, "Is there repetition?", and he has just said we are taking out the repetition.

  Mr Harris: I have to say, Minister, that in the evidence we took across the country, in Scotland as well as in England and Wales, everywhere, the word "repetition" in the syllabus came up time and time again and my colleague has already referred to that.

Bob Spink

  33. And not just between Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4 but across the complete range.
  (Mr Miliband) Janet is in the Curriculum Division. She obviously cannot speak for Scotland because they have got a different situation, but why do you not say whether you think that duplication has been removed, because that is the focus of this, whether or not duplication has been removed and he says it has?
  (Ms Dallas) I think we need to separate out two things. We need to separate out the curriculum which is a framework and has progression built in from Key Stages 1 to 4 and it was the case that prior to the last national curriculum review there was repetition within what was studied or what was specified to be studied between Key Stages 3 and 4, and it is that change which has been made. I think perhaps from your own evidence what you heard was that the pupils' learning experiences are repetitive which is like being on the receiving end of the curriculum. We recognise that some pupils do feel like that but I also think that today we have told you a lot about the things that we have put in place which we hope will change the experiences of those young people over time, but these things do happen over time.

  34. It was not just pupils, although pupils did tell us that. It was the teachers from schools in Truro right through to Bolton and it was also Martin Hollins of the QCA who told us that and also told us that it was not just between 3 and 4 but across all the stages, so I hope you have taken that on board. Minister, do you accept that the way that GCSE is assessed in both course work and examinations has a major impact on the way that science is taught in schools leading up to that assessment?
  (Mr Miliband) I would certainly agree that the mode of assessment has major implications for teaching in any subject, not just in science. That is obviously true.

  35. Does the Government share QCA's view that there is no significant problem with the assessment of school science at GCSE and, if not, what actions do you intend to take to resolve this?
  (Mr Miliband) For obvious reasons, in matters of assessment it is always much more sensible for the Government to follow the advice of its lead advisers unless there is absolutely overwhelming evidence to the contrary. We have a system where it is not the DfES internally that makes proposals on this. We have got an independent external body full of experts in these areas. I have not seen sufficient evidence to make me want to countermand the QCA's advice, which I am sure you would agree, since they are an independent body, means that there is this high burden of proof required, and on the basis of my views simply to go against what they are saying.

  36. The Government response did not attempt to address the concerns that we raised in our report about the Awarding Bodies. Whose responsibility is it to ensure that the Awarding Bodies actively review the impact of their assessment regimes and develop alternatives where those are appropriate?
  (Mr Miliband) I think this is an important area and I am glad that we got a chance to look at it, but it is one where politicians have to be very careful how they tread. The responsibility for regulating the Awarding Bodies is not a matter for Government; it is a matter for the QCA. That is the straightforward answer to your question. The QCA is responsible for ensuring that syllabuses are appropriate, that examination procedures are appropriate, that the right examination is done in the right way and all that sort of thing. Having said that, you will know that there is a major review going on at the moment by Mike Tomlinson into the relationships between the QCA and the Awarding Bodies as well as into the suitability of our current structure of Awarding Bodies, so I do not want to pre-judge that but that is the formal position.

  37. Can you expand on what you are doing then to make sure that the QCA is monitoring the performance of the Awarding Bodies and, where necessary, intervening and intervening very quickly because there are a number of problems with the A-levels and AS-levels?
  (Mr Miliband) That is a fair point. It would be absurd in the light of this year's difficulties to say, "Look how well we are doing in this area".

  38. You may not recall but last time we had a Minister come from the DfES there were some queries here about what was going to happen with this year's exams.
  (Mr Miliband) I have read Stephen Timms' evidence but in relation to that there is quite an interesting story, remember, which is that last year there was a major problem with one of the examining boards, Edexel, and the way it worked. It was a huge issue I think for you and for us and the QCA were encouraged to take a very active role in ensuring due diligence on the procedures in Edexel. What we know as a result of the whole imbroglio this year is actually that Edexel got their act together, they got the requisite number of markers, they got their grades in on time and appropriately, so QCA in that specific context did its job quite well. There is a separate issue, which is where QCA fell down. It is very clear that in its specification of the appropriate standards for individual units in the AS and A-level it fell down on the job. That is the absolutely obvious conclusion of the Tomlinson Review mark one, and that is what is being addressed coming out of that Tomlinson Review by the new Chief Executive of the QCA. The six points that Tomlinson requested that he look at are being looked at.

  39. So can I tell those constituents of mine whose children are still awaiting re-grades on some subjects that you accept responsibility for that?
  (Mr Miliband) With respect, I do not think they are awaiting re-grades. They may be awaiting re-marks.

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