Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340-356)



  340. I think it does. If I go back to the secondary schools I have visited in my own constituency, they are already struggling to deliver the curriculum as it currently stands. How do we change the curriculum to enable that to happen with more entry points and ways through?
  (Ms Norrington) My personal view is that it does come back much more to this approach about skills, current issues and values, so there is something that makes a student interested in the subject and that that is a way to hook them in. We also need much clearer information. We think the discussion you just had is very important, that students need to know what options they are allowing themselves or cutting out at each point, because if you are making one decision and that precludes you from going on to particular study, that is important, just as much as if you are doing it and it gives you a wide range. So we need better information and more clarity. We have got a real conundrum here because at one point we are saying wrap up science in a way that people do not think it is a difficult, hard subject, let us make it easy and approachable; in another sense we are saying we have got to find something that will enthuse and energise and make people really excited by it.
  (Mr Bell) The important thing is getting the balance between breadth and depth. For a lot of children and students coming up to Key Stage 4, etcetera, they need that breadth to know what science is across the board but they also need the opportunity to go in for some depth about some things that really turn them on. That is where you start to bring them into the science in a particular area they are interested in but they have also got some of the basis for expanding out again when they move through into the next stage of their career, whatever that happens to be.

Dr Iddon

  341. I got the feeling earlier from some of the teachers (and we have had this message before) that all that matters in a school is where they are in the league tables and, therefore, the whole thrust of the curriculum is to ram the students through and achieve in that particular subject or in those subjects. Consequently, it seems to me that students are being made to choose their GCSEs at 14 and we already know there is a difficulty in recruiting into the science subjects. Surely, that process makes the situation worse rather than better for recruiting?
  (Dr Moore) In fact, it might make it better. We do not know because we have not had to market to 14-year-olds because they were all doing science to 16. There was the possibility of complacency in the sense that what we really ought to be arguing for is where the subject takes you and what the options are and what the opportunities are more positively than we have been doing in the past. I think there are opportunities there that we have not had before.

  342. What happens when the science becomes optional?
  (Dr Moore) I am arguing that teachers would make the case more strongly about what those options are and where they would lead them than the present situation.

Bob Spink

  343. You have got a vast depth of knowledge in this area, so while we have got you here could each of you tell us what is the key issue—just a single sentence—that we should be focusing on?
  (Mr Bell) The key issue is about giving teachers the space and time to teach as they would wish to teach in terms of getting students involved and motivated.
  (Dr Moore) To me there are lots of key issues, and they are all inter-related, but the biggest one, in my view, is that we began the National Curriculum in great faith with the whole basis of science investigation, and showing youngsters how science works and how that will develop. We started very hard in encouraging teachers to do that and it has gradually been driven out of them by the assessment of the system. My judgment is if you want innovation you have got to have that creativity. I find it difficult to see why in a science context the sort of things that an English department find easy enough to get examined. We are not encouraged to have discussion or debate or argument, or any of those things. My personal view is we would like to be able to look again at how and what we are assessing.

  Chairman: So what would you leave out?

Bob Spink

  344. I will come on to that. Judith just mentioned that so perhaps you would take us through the answer.
  (Ms Norrington) I think assessment is crucial and my issue on assessment is that it needs to be valid, it needs to be measuring in a particular way what it is you are trying to assess. There is high dependence in some subjects, including science, on some of the theoretical side and if we are saying what energises and excites people is doing practical, hands-on work, we need to do that in our research and in our assessment.
  (Ms Scott) I had the good fortune to attend the last Committee hearing when the young people were being interviewed—


  345. I saw you in the audience.
  (Ms Scott) What rather depressed me was the outcome driven responses of the young people who saw the end result as a good pass at whatever exam it was they were going for rather than any kind of delight in the subject. That really struck home. The other point I would like to bring up is about AVCE because I do not think the AVCE in practice has been the exam that it was intended to be in that it has become too close to the AS in both its assessment method and its design but also its standard, which of course in the first year has been higher than that demanded of AS students. We know that that will be put right but in the meantime we have another two or three years when that qualification is probably not as suitable as it should be because it is too closely aligned to an existing qualification which has already proved its worth. What concerns us is that this mistake could and might very well be repeated at level 2 with the introduction of the vocational GCSE, if indeed the vocational GCSE in the way that it is taught and assessed again is so closely aligned with the existing GCSEs that it does not allow for this breadth and for the learning styles of 50 per cent of our young people to be accommodated.

Bob Spink

  346. I am delighted that you have brought up the AVCE. You heard me mention it earlier. Is not one of the problems that we have got to focus on this year's cohort of students who are doing it and there is great confusion about what the examining boards want and the lecturers in the FE colleges getting that over to the kids. Kids who were expected to get As and Bs and who have got As and Bs at GCSE are coming out with Es and Fs and all sorts of rubbish and they are getting terribly depressed by this, parents are coming to see us about this, and the colleges are hitting their heads against a brick wall with the examining boards. How do we ensure that the current cohort of kids is not betrayed and not left high and dry on this one? What can we be doing?
  (Ms Norrington) We have been working with the awarding bodies precisely on this issue. As you know, it is the very cohort that have had all of the educational experiments in the sense of SATs onwards who now face this difficulty. It is a very real issue. The single most important thing we are asking for at the moment is to provide realistic examples for teachers and for students. You will know that in the last series one of the most damaging things that happened was that in some cases students and teachers were provided with examples that did not bear any relationship to the final test. That is the single most important thing at the moment.

  347. Can I hit you with a couple of quickies. Is it possible to have a curriculum that is appropriate for those people who want science as a specialist career and those people who want science for general awareness and appreciation?
  (Mr Bell) It comes back to the point earlier about differentiation and managing the organisation of the curriculum in a way that allows that breadth and depth that I referred to earlier. That partly comes down to resources, I know, but there is some work going on where they are looking at alternative models of the curriculum to provide that breadth as well as allowing students who wish to go on to be scientists or whatever to take that depth and specialise in the areas in which they want to specialise.

  348. Thank you for that. On another point entirely, you have mentioned relevant issues—ethical and environmental issues—and you say talking about these in science would help to encourage people and engage them with their subject. Should this be done in science classes by science teachers or in general studies or what? Can we be doing this? Is this something we should be aiming to do?
  (Dr Moore) If there is a major fault with the National Curriculum as it stands, it is that we have attempted to divide things up into boxes so that it is either science or it is not and if it is not something like PHSE. Teachers would welcome the opportunity to share in general education. Our view is that it should not be in one box or another but scientists should be able to contribute to some extent and particularly with the science base they should be sharing with PHSE teachers in taking it forward.
  (Ms Scott) Could I cite what is happening in maths with a new qualification available to AS only and that is called "use of maths". It is not designed as a pure maths paper which is going to go on to higher level maths, but it is designed to support subjects which require an element of maths but not necessarily to such a high level. It is focused on the real world. It uses real statistics and it is concerned with real issues which it uses simply as examples. There is no reason why science cannot be taught in the same way. One starts from relevant topics around which the theory is built.

  Bob Spink: I very rudely cut off my Chairman and he will have me if I do not come back to this: is the curriculum overloaded? You mentioned that you thought it was at Key Stage 4 and I did not give you the opportunity to say what you would leave out. Is it overloaded in the post-16 area as well? If it is overloaded, what are we doing there that we could chop off, apart from the old Bessemer Converter?

  Dr Iddon: Before you answer that, how can we stop the repetition that we heard about from the teachers earlier, how can we stop them doing the same practicals?

Bob Spink

  349. A very good point.
  (Mr Bell) You have to be clear as to why you are doing the same practicals. There is a great danger of being conned into the answer to it all is doing more practical work. Doing practical work in itself is not going to help children learn more effectively or motivate them. So we have to be clear why we are doing those practicals and there are some very good reasons why we do them. One of the things about the repetition of practicals is to ask why are we doing it at this particular stage in their career so then you start to look behind the practicals. Photosynthesis is probably one of the best examples where you seem to do the same thing over and over again and each time they tell you it is not quite like that, it is like this. If you know why you are doing a practical in the first place you can modify your practicals and do different ones to illustrate the new level of learning that you are trying to get. You have to get the work through in that way rather than changing the practicals.

Dr Turner

  350. In addition to the problem of an overcrowded curriculum—and you still have not told us what you would leave out—I am told that there is another difficulty that arises in colleges which is there is a conflict between the efforts to broaden the post-16 curriculum and the entrance requirements of universities. As soon as kids are given an offer of three As or three Bs, they drop everything else like a hot brick. Can you comment on those two things?
  (Ms Norrington) It is a very real issue for students. We have talked before about their extreme pragmatism and this is an area where it shows. They are getting mixed messages. They are being told to do more subjects, including key skills, and then they are ringing up their local university or not-so-local university which is saying to them, "We want you to do three sciences", or, "We want you to do this." It is something that in a sense we need to take collective responsibility for in advising students, engaging with higher education. We have all been part of the roadshow about Curriculum 2000 with many university senior people, people who have responsibility for admissions, tutors, and one of our difficulties at that time—this was a year and a half ago—was that it was a problem for universities that was two years down the track. They were going to recruit people two years after we had advised them what to do. Going back to the point earlier about AVCEs, we have some individual students whom we are trying to support at the moment who feel their AVCE results have been much poorer than they would have had under GNVQs and they are very concerned indeed about how they will get on with A-level.

  351. Do you think there is a case for the Government intervening in this problem and perhaps demanding some kind of baccalaureate as an entrance requirement for universities so they do not narrow too much as soon as they possibly can?
  (Ms Norrington) I am not sure whether the baccalaureate is the only answer. There is a case for intervening because nothing seems to be happening and the persuasion model is not working. We have to remember that post-16 we are talking about a voluntary system so students, as has already been said, are choosing or not choosing to do science or any other subject. I did sneakily suggest several years ago that there might be a way of linking loans to some kind of requirement but this is clearly not a possibility at the moment. Something does need to be done.

  352. Nobody has said what they would leave out of the curriculum.
  (Mr Bell) In one sense it could be said it does not matter what you leave out because there is so much there. It just needs to be pared down. If we go back to some of the basic principles we are looking at and the processing skills we talked about earlier, as long as those are there—and you need some content knowledge, you cannot do it without some content in there—it does not necessarily matter exactly what the content is because everybody will have their own view.

Dr Iddon

  353. Would a modified National Curriculum still expect the students to regurgitate a set of facts at an examination or would we be looking at it to test a series of skills which we could define?
  (Mr Bell) I would hope we are going much more to testing skills and their ability to use the evidence and the information that they have got at their disposal.

Mr McWalter

  354. That volume of knowledge that we are wrestling with and what you leave out has led one of the people who has given evidence to us to say that by example and exclusion students absorb the lesson but to every real scientific problem there is one and only one simple, correct answer according to Key Stage 3. He says this mindset could be seriously disabling for all who eventually deal with science-related policy problems. Is he right? If he is right, are you suggesting ways of addressing this issue?
  (Ms Norrington) Yes, I think that is right and, echoing the discussion that has just taken place, if what we really want is people who can operate in a business environment, in work, even in taking research forward, it is the analytical skills, the working with others and the problem solving that is the foundation for that and you then build on a range of (and no one would say you do not need it because you obviously need it) a core of scientific knowledge. We know as well in our ever-increasingly fast-moving technological environment, the half-life of knowledge is so short now that people are being re-trained over three, five or eight years, so it is the ability to gather those facts and to use them that is important rather than, per se, having a huge amount of only information.
  (Dr Moore) Is it now important to look around because that sounds very much like the way the medical profession is training doctors now. If they are content to do that should we not be looking to see whether we can adapt that system in schools rather than trying to reinvent the model.

  355. It is a huge shift?
  (Dr Moore) It is. And it would be a huge shift for teachers as well as students. We have to recognise that change would take time to implement and, yes, it is huge shift.
  (Ms Scott) I think we need to widen this debate to include employers as well because it is employers and employers' needs that we are preparing our young people for and they, too, are not necessarily needing a particular knowledge base but they want people who are flexible, adaptable, who are good employees, and who will continue to learn and learn on the job continuously. What we need to instill in them is how to learn and the desire to learn. That is what we should be doing to equip our students to be flexible enough to survive in the 21st Century.


  356. We are having employers in in a subsequent session. We have dried up—or run out of time certainly. We could go on, I am sure. If you have any other ideas and things you would like to send in subsequently on the train home, which might take some time because it took me five hours to come from Norwich —
  (Ms Norrington) I was on the same train!

  Chairman: We ended up at Southend or something. Thank you very much for coming and for giving us the benefit of your professionalism. To all the others still here, thank you, too. It has been very helpful. You will see our report in due course and there will be a debate on it and I am sure it will engender lots of interesting discussion. Thank you very much for your help on this.


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