Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 448-459)




  448.  Can I thank you, both groups, for coming along this afternoon to help us with our inquiry, in which we are learning a lot about science teaching in schools; and you are obviously key players, we find your name crops up every so often, especially in terms of the curriculum and exams, and so on, and the influence you have on the lives of teachers, and indeed the young people in the classroom, so we are looking forward to asking you some penetrating questions and hearing your thoughts on your plans for the future. We will try to do it in the sense that we will identify which group the question goes to, which is not to restrict the other group coming in, as well, of course, if they want to, but we are restricted to five o'clock, when the Minister is coming in, and you will be very welcome, of course, to stay then and listen to what he has to say. So let me start off, and I will ask the exam boards first. There has been a lot of criticism, as we have gone around, about the GCSEs and A levels in science and their assessment. Now how satisfied are you with the current assessment system, have you plans under the table, or in consideration, or what, or do you just think "It's hunky-dory and let's keep it going"?

  (Mr Barrett) Maybe I will lead off, on that one. The balance of the assessment—sorry, was the question about GCSE, or are we talking GCE?

  449.  And A levels, too; your attitude to both?
  (Mr Barrett) GCSE and A levels. The balance of the assessment at the moment is that it is predominantly external, so, for GCSE, I believe, that is around the 75 per cent mark of the assessment, for A level a little less than that, so 25, 30 per cent coursework. Within that, we need to test practical skills, which may be through a practical test, it may be through ongoing coursework. One of the issues, I think, is that we feel that, maybe, in terms of the balance of the subject and in terms of motivating students, there is some scope for raising that figure some way, although, of course, there are issues then about the reliability of the assessment, given that, in broad terms, we are happy that external assessment is probably the more reliable form of assessment.

  450.  John, would you like to add to that?
  (Mr Mitchell) I think that is right, from the general principles, those are the parameters that we have, in terms of internal assessment. I think we are happy with that, as a proportion, generally, in terms of reliability and efficiency of marking. We keep at our heart the principle of fitness for purpose, in assessment, and so it is a question of finding what is the most appropriate mechanism for assessing the particular area of competence or skill.

  451.  Okay; and the QCA, does it have a view at all?
  (Mr Weller) I think we see it as broadly appropriate. There is some latitude within the ground rules, and, as colleagues from the boards say, fitness for purpose is the key consideration; so you get a different balance, for example, in the vocational A level, because of the greater degree and proportion of practical activity.

  452.  So how do you account for all this whingeing, moaning, criticism of you we are hearing, as we go around, not just from the pupils but the teachers, who have been in the job some years and have much experience, and indeed have produced quite a lot of good scientists in their time, but they are very critical of you; how do you account for that?
  (Mr Weller) Could I just ask, do you perceive it as being criticism about a broad balance?

  453.  For example, one of the criticisms is that the young people cannot use their brains and ask real questions about a real world, because they are stuck with a very tight curriculum, they are not allowed, and we will come on to this later, to develop their practical skills and ask those kinds of scientific questions, which those of us who have been trained as scientists know is what makes you a critical scientist. I can tell you whether the earth goes round the sun or the sun round the earth, and you will give me five out of five for it, but that is not what science is all about, it is about bringing out those critical faculties. And the teachers in this country are exasperated by this tight curriculum and the tight examination procedures, and everything is orientated to that; that is the problem, as they see it, and we are getting it time and time again. And it is not a new criticism, of course, I understand, in education, that has always happened, but we are asking you how you react to that criticism, and indeed do you talk together about it, or do you just dismiss it as another bunch of whingeing teachers?
  (Mr Weller) No, it is never dismissed as you described it. There are two sets of questions there. There was a set of questions about the curriculum, of course, and we have just been through a further review of the National Curriculum, and that was conducted on a very consultative basis. Everyone said their piece, I think, and the outcomes from that were, Martin Hollins will confirm or otherwise, pretty widely supported, and there is some scope and flexibility there for teachers to develop the courses as they see fit. But it is proper that the qualifications—the examinations—should follow the curriculum, so, once the curriculum is determined, that set of objectives for the curriculum gets reflected in the assessment schemes; and it is right that the assessment schemes should allow for all those objectives to be assessed, and that is what we seek to do. But Martin might wish to add to that.
  (Mr Hollins) I would just like to pick up on what those particular whinges might be, because they will come from various directions. I think, that, clearly, in one sense, nobody likes examinations, it is always an uncomfortable process.


  Or the frequency of them?
  (Mr Hollins) So the question is, is it the relevance of it, is it the amount of them, is it the nature of the science which you are alluding to; if you take that one, first of all, the revision of the National Curriculum was made in the light of the fact that people said, "This seems rather full, this seems quite highly specified." So we did a certain amount of work on that, in the last revision, which fed into GCSE this coming year, so we have not really seen the impact of that yet. One of the things that we have found, from our own monitoring evidence, is that there is quite a lot of repetition in the teaching, to make sure that the students have got something, and there is a danger that the system becomes too repetitive; so we actually made more of a distinction between what is appropriate in a particular age group and what is appropriate in the next, this is through the programmes of study. There were more radical things said, and have been over some time. We were a little reluctant, and indeed the Government did not wish us, to change things dramatically at that time, so since that time, which was 1999-2000, we have been developing a programme, looking at things of a more radical nature more carefully, and we are putting together some proposals for that.

  455.  But you are not carrying the teaching community with you, from our experience so far in this inquiry; do you take that seriously?
  (Mr Hollins) Yes, we do, and I think we are, in the sense of the consultation. The problem that we face is, clearly, the teaching community are teaching and having examining, that is now, that is what they are talking about, and I am not convinced whether people have really assessed yet what the changes are that came in last September; they probably will have only some idea of the change that is coming in this coming September. There are a number of changes; and the teaching profession is also not too keen on too many changes, they want to be sure that every change we make is a change for the better. So I think there is a certain amount of time lag in the comment that you get. I agree with you, that, if you were to ask teachers generally what they think, you might get quite a negative response, but if we ask them about the changes we are thinking about then we get quite a positive response.

  456.  That is why I said the ideas are not new; the criticisms of how you teach science and what kind of critical faculties you are looking for have been around since I was a kid, really, it is not any different. So how do you guys talk together about it, do you have a lunch together, do you have a pint together, do you talk together?
  (Mr Hollins) We do.

  457.  You know each other.
  (Mr Weller) Very frequently, at various levels; we talk about the way that the ground rules are set, the criteria on which the syllabuses are based, and they have to reflect, in the case of a GCSE, the content of the curriculum, otherwise you are giving mixed messages to teachers and to pupils, there has to be consistency, so we talk about the way in which that might best be managed. We talk then about the way that the syllabuses themselves are constructed and whether they meet those criteria, and we talk about the future, as Martin has alluded to.

  458.  Is this in an informal way, over a pint, as I suggest, or is there a more formal procedure to do it?
  (Mr Weller) There is a whole range of levels at which we discuss things. We discuss formally, we have groups established, formal groups for discussion, as well as more informal groupings.
  (Mr Hollins) There was a two-day meeting last autumn, for example, where we reviewed past performance in the past year, we looked at how you might actually make minor changes that nobody would be particularly concerned about, just to improve things; and that was done in formal sessions, in reviews back from chief examiners, from exam board officers and ourselves, and over the evening there is an opportunity to explore things informally.

  Chairman: Well, I am sure other members of the Committee will come in at more specific levels. Brian Iddon, please.

Dr Iddon

  459.  There is one thing which stood out, loud and clear, during this investigation, and that is that the pupils studying science really enjoy doing the practical work, but they get very frustrated, for several reasons. One is, they feel that the experiments are designed so that they know the answers before they do the experiment, and it is very mechanistic, going through the procedure, there is not enough of an investigative element in the experiments that they are given, and that this does not really separate the students effectively, in terms of ability. And, indeed, the exam boards, in written evidence to us, said, and I quote: "Science is distinguished from other areas of study by the inclusion of practical, hands-on experimental work; those developing the curriculum sometimes forget that it is often this work which inspires students to continue to study science". So I would like to ask the QCA, do they share these concerns, and, if so, whose responsibility is it to look for alternatives, implement them and measure what impact they are having, and indeed is this happening?
  (Mr Weller) Can I start by saying that, within any set of ground rules that QCA sets down for the accreditation of science syllabuses, there is a degree of latitude, there is always some scope for people to vary the particular styles of assessment they use. What you have to do is to be faithful to the broad balances that are in the curriculum, as set down, and we seek to do that, but, on top of that, to allow some people some scope for innovation. And what you are trying to do, of course, is to balance a number of things, there are some young people who are fired by the practical work, some are fired by the theory, the applications, the discussion of the applications, the projections, and that sort of thing, and the hypothesising, and so on; so you have got to give due attention to each. There is some scope for that variety; as Martin was saying, we are looking, from next September, to pilot some rather more radical and innovative syllabuses which will give us some more direct evidence of what actually excites and encourages young people to go on studying science post 16.  So there is scope, it is not always exploited because there are other circles one has to square; you are looking to be fair, you are looking to be consistent, you are looking to do justice to boys and girls in your assessments, and so on, so you have to be aware of all those constraints, it has to be manageable, it has to be cost-effective, and so on. So, within those constraints, of course, you seek to experiment, but what you must not do is experiment at the price of fairness for young people; so it is right to move forward fairly carefully, I think.

  Chairman: I just want to follow that up, in terms of the assessment by examination; is it easier to do that with practicals? Did you want to come in?


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