Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 480-498)



Mr Dhanda

  480.  Just following on from that, I think there is a slight difference of opinion, because, teachers that we have spoken to and the pupils that we have spoken to, they do actually feel that there is a lack of flexibility in the curriculum. Now you will all have seen the 14-19 Green Paper and the changes that is planning, and it puts even more pressure, I think, on the new pilot GCSE. Now is that pilot GCSE going to be able to tackle things in a different or more innovative way, to tackle some of those problems?
  (Mr Hollins) It certainly has attempted to tap into a lot of these criticisms that you have been mentioning earlier on. One of the key things about science is that it is a core subject, everybody is expected to do it; and the versions that you have of science at the moment are not very numerous, there is a Single, there is a Double and then there is a Triple. So we are inventing a greater range of science courses, one of which is a core one and is still compulsory, so you can say, "Well, everybody does science because everybody does the same sort of science." Now that, again, could become restrictive, if we were not careful. So we need to match that with an assessment regime and a set of contents that actually are the things that young people are interested in; now, not because it will make them a good scientist in a few years time, that is for the second of the courses, which addresses much more the kind of academic, mainstream science that people have all studied. As an alternative to that, the third strand is what we are calling an "applied science" at the moment, which is that you would have more choice. So that is another kind of flexibility, you can do just the core, you can do the core and the general course, you can do the core and the applied, but within that applied you could choose, let us say, two specialised, more on the physical science side, or the biological science side, and take longer to study in a particular context, or a small number of contexts.

  481.  My colleague was asking you about lead-in times and being able to make those changes, to make them more relevant, quicker. Is this an opportunity to rectify some of these problems; what is the timescale and the timetable like for this pilot GCSE?
  (Mr Hollins) It is quite a long timescale, because potentially it changes most things about GCSE, and people would need to know that it works for their students. We will maintain a comparison with the current Double Award, so that when we are evaluating the benefits we have a standard to compare with, but most of the rest are new features. And, first of all, we will be asking for teachers to volunteer, so you save a little bit of time, because you are not trying to train reluctant teachers, you are actually going for those teachers who want to do it.

  482.  And the timetable?
  (Mr Hollins) We are expecting the specification to be ready by the end of this year for teaching in September 2003, but we have been working on it for the best part of two years, so that is pretty slow, by your standards, I would imagine. We then have a pilot for two or three years, two years, twice over, overlapping, evaluate that, and be able to feed in the findings of that into the system about 2006.
  (Mr Weller) It is just worth saying, Chair, if I may, that there is an additional option available from this September, there is an applied science GCSE which is drawn from the GNVQ experience at GCSE level, so that is a further option for students from this September, so if they want an alternative approach to science, there is one, actually. But colleagues will also recognise that teachers would not thank us for rushing into a reform of the kind of detail that Martin is describing, and some of the messages from the Curriculum 2000 innovations, of course, were that teachers would rather a little more time had been set aside for the preparation and the piloting. And the pilot GCSE is quite a radical departure.


  483.  When you say "teachers", who do you talk to; do you take, like we do, some random schools around the country?
  (Mr Weller) Quite a large number of schools round the country, and colleges.

  484.  You yourselves go, do you?
  (Mr Weller) We go there, individually, to the schools, to the colleges, and we have teachers come to us as well and meet us on site.

Mr Harris

  485.  A number of students and teachers have told us they are unhappy about the timing of AS exams, particularly some pupils at Quintin Kynaston School, here in London, and, basically, they seem to be in a situation where they have a number of exams scheduled for the same day. Now do you see that as being a problem, and, if so, is there any way round it, because, clearly, it is putting a lot of pressure onto the pupils themselves, if not the teachers?
  (Mr Mitchell) I will have a stab at it, Chair. The timing of AS examinations has been quite high profile; there was considerable criticism of the pressures put on young people last summer, and, in order to address that, the Awarding Bodies, with QCA's co-operation and help, have looked at reducing the amount of timetabled sessions. Now that has generally meant that AS examinations are typically shorter than the old A level examinations, it has meant that, wherever possible, we have tried to get all the written external examinations for a subject into one three-hour session, with effect from this summer. Now some of those students who were critical, at the school that you mentioned, may be saying, "Well, it's tough on me, because I've now got to do two chemistry examinations on the one day," but, of course, those are two relatively short examinations, compared with the old three-hour papers, which typically the old A levels would have had. That may be part of the explanation of the students' comments to you.

  486.  So, next year, will the same pupils who spoke to us feel the burden lifted significantly?
  (Mr Mitchell) In 2003?

  487.  Yes?
  (Mr Mitchell) In 2003, there will be a little bit more movement in the direction I have indicated, that the subjects which we were unable to convert into one session for 2002 are all having that done for them for 2003.


  488.  Does it happen that students have seven hours of examination in a day?
  (Mr Barrett) That is very, very unlikely. The maximum is likely to be two three-hour slots, so six hours.

  489.  We were told that; we were told that by young people and by teachers, that was a serious criticism?
  (Mr Barrett) The Awarding Bodies do have a mechanism whereby, if there are examination clashes, and, within the rules that we have, if it would be appropriate to move examinations slightly earlier or slightly later to alleviate that sort of pressure, we could do it.

  490.  But you guys must have seen that happening for them, when you drew up the schedules?
  (Mr Barrett) We do.
  (Mr Mitchell) We are constrained on the sciences.

  491.  Seven hours, even for us, is hard work, you know?
  (Mr Barrett) We would not construct a timetable on the basis of seven hours of assessment as being—that is atypical.

  492.  I can assure you we were told that, quite clearly, that they have had seven hours, and that they were very despondent about it, the teachers; and the young people, too, asked us specifically, young, bright people asked us to try to do something about that. It is not that they are against the exams, but you know, you have done exams, you need time in-between to swot up, for goodness sake?
  (Mr Mitchell) In an ideal world, obviously, we would want to set one exam for a subject, on one session, and nothing else at all; but the limitations on us are such that there are far more subjects and papers to be set in the time than would allow that ideal situation to occur.

  493.  To be fair, could we give you time to look at that and say that what we were told was wrong? Would it be possible for—
  (Mr Mitchell) Seven hours must be wrong, Chair, because the maximum exam time is a three-hour session, one morning and one afternoon.

  494.  I will write to you and challenge you on that, from what we have heard; would you agree to reply to that, if I can produce the facts?
  (Mr Mitchell) Yes. I would certainly like to see the case.

  495.  Right; you will get that.
  (Mr Mitchell) Thank you.

Dr Iddon

  496.  I just want to come back to my idea of a self-set question, self-set in the fact that the enthusiastic teacher in a particular school sets it himself, and you came back to me and said, Well, it happens now, in a way, in coursework. "Well I have just had a signal from the control room," Chairman, to say that it happens in some arts examinations already, so maybe my question was not so revolutionary after all. It happens in history, I am told, in formal history exams, a teacher can set and provide a marking scheme for his own question. Now, if it happens in history, or maybe some other arts subjects, why cannot we have it in science as well, not in the coursework, in the examination room?
  (Mr Hollins) You are talking about an examination now, not coursework; there are systems for exams.

  497.  Yes. I think John came back and said, "Well, it happens in coursework;" let us go back to the formal examinations? Sorry, was it you, Keith?
  (Mr Weller) I raised that, initially. I did not mean to say that coursework was necessarily the kind of thing associated with practical work on the hoof, it could be, perfectly possibly, a sit-down test, devised by a teacher, to a marks scheme devised by the teacher and cleared by the examining board; that is perfectly possible in science, as it is now for other subjects, perfectly possible. What you must do to safeguard the students, of course, is to make sure that the teacher is able to set the questions that the student can answer fairly and properly, and that the marks scheme gives proper reward for that; so there would have to be all sorts of safeguards to protect the pupils.

  498.  Is that quite common then, or rare?
  (Mr Weller) It is rarer than it was. Because of public concern about coursework and worries about some students getting advantage, and so on, because of their learning circumstances, there were some considerable constraints put on coursework, not so very many years ago. And, alongside those constraints, QCA and the examining boards also put in some safeguards for when it happens, to protect the student and to upskill teachers, and indeed the boards; so there is a code of practice now that governs coursework in a way that was not true in the mid nineties. And it could well be that, given the improvement in the practice, both on the part of teachers and the Awarding Bodies, it is possible that we could move a bit further down that course. But it is only about five or six years ago when people were very concerned that coursework was unreliable and actually students were not getting their just rewards from it.

  Chairman: I am sorry, I really do have to bring it to an end, because there is a Minister jumping up and down in the corridor. But can I thank you very much indeed for your frankness and the detail that you have gone into to reply to some of our questions. If there is anything you want to write to us about, when you have afterthoughts, please do so, and we have agreed that we will write to you and await the answer. Thank you very much for taking time, it has been very helpful, and we hope you will get the copies of the report we make pretty soon. Thank you very much for your time.


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