Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 460-479)



Dr Iddon

  460.  I just wanted to follow up the second part of that question and ask, where do these experiments come from, who designs them, and who tests them before they get into the examination syllabus?
  (Mr Barrett) I think, in some ways, there are a number of different ways of assessing the sort of work we are talking about, there is either a practical examination, which is very much a one-off, timed event, that there can be a set of criteria to which practical work can conform over a period of time, which allows perhaps a bit more latitude, and, of course, there is coursework, where there is greater flexibility, again, and I think the point that Keith has made is that we always have to be aware of the reliability and the fairness of the assessment. So, to take one end of that spectrum, if we were to design a practical examination, that would be tried out and tested beforehand and the apparatus would be specified, but there is an argument that that is not necessarily fairly testing, within that time constraint, what students really know and can do. At the other extreme, we have maybe a set of criteria and a piece of extended coursework over a period of time, where students can build up skills and can show their performance. So there is a spectrum, really, of ways of assessing that type of work, and, I think, actually, quite a bit of scope for innovation.
  (Mr Mitchell) I think, Chair, we should also perhaps distinguish between 14-16 in the GCSE, which is the Sc1 element, which is done on the "continuous skills" basis, that David has just described, and the rather greater range of assessment techniques which are used post 16 in the A level and AS, where there is both coursework and the set practical both operating.

Mr McWalter

  461.  I think it is hard for us to communicate quite the sense of how enervating and dull so much science education seems to have become, even as described by people who are actually very good at it and who are achieving really excellent results in the exam system; and, of course, the number of students we have met, again, even excellent students, who want to become doctors and are very motivated, and whatever, they all just basically really dislike most, it seems, of what they are doing. Because it does seem that, say, if you take GCSE, it seems to test mainly the ability to regurgitate facts, and this conceptual understanding, explanatory element of science really does seem to be put on the back burner. Now that is partly, of course, because it is much easier to assess someone regurgitating a load of facts than it is to assess someone who is coping with a rather more open-ended and a rather more discursive topic. Whose responsibility is it to ensure that exams actually do test a broad range of skills?
  (Mr Weller) Fundamentally, the Awarding Bodies have responsibility for their own specifications and the awards that are made on those specifications, that is their responsibility; they also have a responsibility to devise a syllabus, or a spec., in line with the ground rules that prevail at the time. It is our business to check that that happens, that the specification is true to the curriculum that it is supposed to support; we do that. In that curriculum, I think, if you look at the range of objectives within the National Curriculum, key stage 4 and the GCSEs that go with it, and most certainly within the AS and A2 A level syllabuses, you will see quite a range of the kinds of skills and abilities that you would want to see. It will be our job to check, when the Awarding Bodies bring their proposals forward, that the assessment materials they offer, in sample form at first, do map onto those skills in broadly the right kinds of ratios. Yes, it is hard, it is testing, to set questions that winkle out those higher-level skills, but you have to have a balance. We are equally often told, in fact, we were told much more regularly, I think, a few years ago, that there was some risk of the fact base of science being evaporated, and, at the time, people were very concerned to have more applications, implications, social implications of science, built into the syllabuses. You have always got to strike a balance between the content, the factual content, the skills that go with it, and the contexts in which it is deployed, and that is the balance we seek to strike. Now it may be, and it is something that we would monitor the whole time, that the examinations do not always do full justice to the specifications they go with, or, indeed, to the curriculum they sit alongside, and that is something that we talk about together the whole time and try constantly to get that balance right. I guess I would like to assert that, if one focused just too much on any one of those elements, the contexts, or the skills, or the content, the young people going through that course would find themselves ill-equipped to take the next step. If you will allow me one more comment, Chair. I think we had a particular challenge when the National Curriculum brought science to all 14-16 year olds for the first time, and meeting the science needs of all 14-16 year olds was a completely new challenge for the exam boards and ourselves and, indeed, the schools, supporting those who would go through science to 16 and then do no more science, those that would use their science to service other subjects, those that want to be future scientists. And I think that some of the experimentation we are planning from next year will have another look at the way in which you can meet the needs of all those different groups. But I am quite prepared to accept that, in the first round of trying to tackle that massive problem, with all students doing science to 16, some of the balances might not be quite right for some groups, so we must continue to work at that.

  462.  Does anybody else want to add to that?
  (Mr Mitchell) One of the interesting dichotomies of science, in particular, but I guess of other areas of the curriculum as well, is that, if you meet a group of teachers whose first premise is, "This specification is overloaded, we're being suffocated by the amount of content we have to teach, we haven't got the freedom to do . . ." the very things that you yourself described, if you then sit down with that group and say, "Okay, what can we thin out of the content?" it is very difficult to get a group of specialists to agree on anything that they are prepared to drop off the trolley. Now that is a difficulty, and I think it is particularly so in science, where there is a very large factual base, and it is very difficult to decide, are there any of these which can be dropped.

  463.  Do you think you have grasped the nettle for the pilot scheme that you are starting in September 2003?
  (Mr Hollins) I think we are beginning to.

  464.  Is "beginning" quite enough?
  (Mr Hollins) I only say beginning because it is still a pilot, and until people actually have to teach it and assess it they will not really be able to tell us whether we have grasped it. We think we have grasped it, in the sense that we have talked to a lot of people, and I think people have talked to you, from specialist institutions, saying the same to you as they have to us—that they are not now going to go to the stake for any particular bit of science. Now that is relatively new, partly because when the National Curriculum came in what it did was merge together all the sciences into something called "science", and people were very nervous about losing their own section of science, that you could not lose too much physics unless the chemists came down a bit, and even now, I think, with some of the sciences, such as geology, earth science and astronomy, there is a nervousness that they are not secure enough within the curriculum. So it is a process of negotiation and not moving too far at once. I think it could be quite liberating, that people are prepared to say, Please cut something, we don't mind what; we think you can maintain the standards on less science, less stuff.

  465.  Meanwhile, the effect of that is, as the Roberts report says, it is a strong perception that qualifications in science are a great deal more difficult than in other subjects, not least, I think, because of that factor. But who will develop new and different ways of assessing science, who is going to do it for us; can we rely on you, or it sounds to me like your contacts with this massive profession, in a sense, are rather limited, really?
  (Mr Barrett) Can I make perhaps just one point, which relates to perhaps your previous question, and that is that in the area of science, perhaps more than any other, we do work with some of the curriculum innovation groups, so the Salters Group, based at the University of York, the Institute of Physics, the Nuffield Foundation, all of whom have quite extensive networks with practising teachers, and, within the Joint Council, across the various boards, we have developed a number of specifications in partnership with those groups. So that is a very tangible route into what teachers feel, because, often, it is the teachers on the ground who are right in developing the material. To take one example, the Salters' philosophy is very much, We will assess science in context so that it always has meaning. So we have those curriculum organisations, but also we are engaged in a number of pilots, with QCA's support, for the future; for example, in the area of Single Award GCSE, where we are concerned about the motivation of students who may not wish to pursue science as an academic route forward in the future.
  (Mr Weller) Could I add one more observation to your question. We have the benefit, I think, at QCA, of looking across the whole range of qualifications, it is not just GCSE and A level, it is their vocational equivalents, it is a whole host of other qualifications that have been used in the workplace, in colleges, in schools; they go through the process of accreditation, they have quite a range of approaches to assessment, and there is quite a lot that one can draw from those that can inform this kind of work, I believe. So I think there is open to us quite a wide range of experience that we can draw upon. But I would assert, I think, that it is right the whole time to think about the implications of implementing those kinds of assessment without due care to the implications for the students who take them; and you would not thank us if the consequences of an innovative assessment were that it looked highly valid, in terms of what it was seeking to assess, but somehow you could not trust the outcomes. That would not be good news for parents, or for employers, or for the young people themselves; you always have to strike that balance, I think, between having a trustworthy assessment instrument and one that offers you the scope and the variety to assess the range of things that you wish to assess. It is a delicate balance.

  Chairman: Bob Spink, let us get into the exam boards a bit more, I think, if we can.

Bob Spink

  466.  Thank you, Chairman. I will come back to the GCSE pilot, and, in fact, the need to trust the outcomes and have confidence in the outcomes, a little later on. But I would like to start by just probing you a little deeper about the applications of science, and I will address my comments initially to the exam boards, if I may, to the Joint Council. We are aware that the GCSE science specifications were revised recently, of course, and we have been told that care was taken in that revision to include up-to-date applications of science and of current issues; however, you, the exam boards, seem to question that, and you say in your evidence to us that "at all levels there is a need to include more up-to-date ideas." Can you just explain what is actually happening now, and what your views are on this now, please?
  (Mr Barrett) I think the point we are making is that science and technology, in the areas of ICT, are very, very rapidly developing; and, of course, what we have to do is take the latest applications, innovations, and try to feed that back into the curriculum. Now we do that continuously, through trying to get the most relevant applications into examination question contexts, I mention that in terms of maybe the Salters' approach to science, and we will do that with QCA, when we have the opportunity to revise specifications as we go along. So I think it is a continuous process, but there is a lag, because it does take time to work that material in.

  467.  So you feel that, at the moment then, there is not sufficient new material coming through in the exam questions?
  (Mr Barrett) I think we try as hard as we can, but there is always scope, because the pace of change is very rapid, is it not.

  468.  And, John, do you have any comment on that?
  (Mr Mitchell) Clearly, we are constrained by what is in the specifications, we cannot test material which is not in the specifications, that would be unfair on students and their teachers. I think the point that David is making is that there is a lead time between innovations that occur, and these are evolving subject areas, they are not static, and there will be new innovations in science and technology every week, every month, every year, it is a question of how quickly those can be absorbed into the teaching programmes and then into the examining programmes.


  469.  Can I just follow on, on that. The subject of GMOs, genetically-modified organisms, crops, is part of their daily life now, they see it on the telly, they talk about it, they want to talk about it; how long is this lead time before you ask an exam question, which even I could set for them, and they would give you a very rational discussion on it? You are coming over as extremely conservative, I might say, in terms of arguing about lead times. Surely, you should take a risk and just say, What are your views on this? Discuss. Just like final exam papers in the university, for goodness sake, they have to move with the times, and if they can move, why cannot you move so quickly, or faster?
  (Mr Mitchell) To answer, if that question that you have just posed was a legitimate question within the specification that we have issued, and therefore that teachers have prepared over the two-year programme, it would be an entirely appropriate question and one that we would encourage our examiners to set.

  470.  But it is appropriate, I am telling you, it is part of their lives; why do you not ask it? You might get a surprise, they might know more than you about it?
  (Mr Mitchell) I am sure they would know more than I, Chair, I can vouch for that.

Bob Spink

  471.  So, apart from just inertia and the timing and your restriction by the syllabus, or specification, there is nothing specific that is actually getting in the way of bringing in these new materials then, as far as you are concerned; just inertia?
  (Mr Barrett) No, there is not. I think, actually, that there are plenty of opportunities within specifications, particularly at A level and Advanced Qualification equivalents, where we are building-in innovations and we are building-in new approaches and allowing opportunities for assessment. I would not want you to think that we are not trying to do that.

Mr Hoban

  472.  What is the lead time for introducing a new topic into the specification of GCSE, and how important does that topic need to be to get in quickly?
  (Mr Mitchell) The simple answer to the question is, the lead time, there is a two-year teaching programme leading to GCSE, and it will be our normal practice to issue revised materials a year ahead of the start of that course, so that is a three-year lead time.

  473.  Before examination?
  (Mr Mitchell) And there is an accreditation period with our colleagues at QCA to get a change to a syllabus approved.

Mr McWalter

  474.  But there are a couple of years before that, as well, are there not, while you are discussing it?
  (Mr Mitchell) No, I would not say as long as that. But there is a lead time; this is a two-year teaching programme we are talking about and teachers, rightly, would be critical of us if we attempted to introduce new content part-way through.

  Dr Iddon: Can you give us an example, a concrete example, of something that has entered the syllabus fairly rapidly, recently; one example?

Bob Spink

  475.  Could I put you on the spot then, because QCA said, in their evidence to us, and I quote to you: "care was taken to include up-to-date applications of science [and] current issues;" that was what you said, in the past tense, and yet the Joint Council are implying, in their evidence to us, very clearly, that there is a need for more care to be taken to include up-to-date examples. And there seems to be just a wedge we can slip in there, and we want to pursue that, so perhaps you could explain, Martin?
  (Mr Hollins) I think the explanation is, and it would probably help if we could have some specific examples, but I am not sure if I can invent them, it depends on the size of the innovation. If, for example, we had a completely new technology, which might be some version of genetic engineering, then, if it really needed a lot more basic science, it would probably have to come in on one of these major revisions. I do not think there are any like that, actually, I think the kinds of things we were interposing, or making sure they were in last time, were actually variants of science that would have been already there, so it would be for the boards actually to make it a bit more specific that they would do genetically-modified organisms. I would imagine there are questions there, I have not been able to check because they are not my papers, but I would expect there to be, because it was not that big a step. The other thing I would like to put is that, if you think purely in terms of factual recall questions, the ones that you say you can tell there are far too many of, then, of course, it is very difficult to introduce something new, because you ought to specify every factor being asked to be recalled. However, a lot of the issues that I think young people are interested in are about discussing the implications of the science they have been learning, and therefore you should set more open questions, and there are some; and we have to think about the level at which a GCSE is set, clearly, it is not the same sorts of questions as we have at degree level. But it seems to me, within this open question, or you give a context and then ask the question, it is very easy, you can take things in quite quickly.

  476.  I can understand why the lead time might be two years, because of the teaching programme; why three years? Specifically on that point, why three years, rather than two years?
  (Mr Weller) Because teachers want, need, time to prepare, to get the resources together. If it is a substantial change, they need that time.

  477.  Are these teachers unaware of basics then? For instance, if you wanted to bring in something about nuclear fusion, for instance, which we have seen in the offing, then surely these teachers would know all about that, they would have the basic data and it would not take them more than an evening's mugging-up to get enough material and knowledge ready to start, especially if they have materials provided over the Internet, and what have you, actually to be delivering that course halfway through a two-year course? Why that extra year beforehand? Are we not sort of running in lead boots, are we not inhibiting ourselves unnecessarily by adding in that extra year?
  (Mr Weller) I think the teachers will tell you they need some time to do the preparation properly; generally they say that they have insufficient time to prepare, we have sought to provide a little more time. But there is a need to make a distinction between GCSE, which is predicated on a National Curriculum, on which there is a national consultation, on which people are asked their views, and on which judgements are made before it is implemented; that takes a little longer than doing something post 16, at A level, where there is not a statutory requirement, perfectly possible to do it post 16.  And I would not want you to think that you have to go through that whole rigmarole of developing a whole new specification, going through a whole accreditation procedure, to make a change to a syllabus; you do not. If you wish to make a small change to a syllabus, or even a slightly larger change, to keep up with changing trends, you can do it, that can take place by an exchange of letters between the Awarding Bodies and QCA, that does not need a three-year accreditation period. But, if we are talking about the National Curriculum, it is a different game.

Dr Iddon

  478.  This might sound very revolutionary, but if a teacher is already well-versed in a particular subject that is his own speciality; one of the things that has come over during our investigation is that the most enthusiastic teachers are the best, and a teacher may have a very enthusiastic subject, which he could put over to the students and really get them boiling about it. Now why cannot we relax the syllabus to a degree where one question in the syllabus of an essay-type can be left to the teacher's own ability to set the examination on, and provide you with a marking scheme, and say, "This is how I have marked it," and I will bet you that the ability distribution of the students, if you allow the flexibility like that to enter the syllabus, will be exactly the same as the ability distribution if you set a mechanistic question, which you have set year in, year out?
  (Mr Weller) There is no reason, indeed, why that should not happen through the coursework element of the examination. Coursework does not equate to practical work, you could use coursework to allow that kind of flexibility; you could do that.
  (Mr Hollins) That is 20 per cent of all GCSE exams.

  479.  Does the coursework work, because I have picked up a bit of criticism about coursework; now, admittedly, it was in only one school, that we visited last week, and it was an independent school, I have to tell you, so whether it was typical I do not know, but the teacher seemed to be driven up the wall with coursework in a particular examination syllabus, he did not like it?
  (Mr Mitchell) I think there is a distinction between coursework which is work predicated by the teacher, and very much in the way that you have just described, and practical coursework, which is, if you like, making sure that students have acquired the necessary skill levels across a range of dictated activities. At the moment, there are limitations on the amount of internally-assessed, teacher-assessed work that we have in our specifications, there are national agreements, as we have referred to earlier. So I think, at the moment, there might be a restriction on the sort of thing that you are suggesting, because of the limits on coursework, where perhaps the practical skills have already eaten up that proportion. Perhaps the answer to our colleague's criticism here is to look again at the proportions of coursework that are allowed, and, perhaps, if we had 30 per cent rather than 20 then that extra ten might well be for the sort of self-chosen topic, if you like, that would reflect the enthusiasms of a particular institution.

  Dr Iddon: Just to drive the students, yes.


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