Science education is a matter of crucial importance to the UK, both for the future generations of scientists, engineers and technologists and for the wider public. Science and technology are essential for our economic competitiveness, and to our quality of life, and lie at the heart of our history and culture.
Science has been a core part of the education of all students up to the age of 16 since the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1989. Most students take double science GCSE from 14 to 16. This course aims to provide a general science education for all and, at the same time, to inspire and prepare some for science post-16. It does neither of these well. It may not be possible for a single course to fulfil both these needs. Government is supporting a pilot that may resolve these tensions, which is welcome but not enough. Existing GCSE courses should be changed and a wider range of options in science offered to students.
Current GCSE courses are overloaded with factual content, contain little contemporary science and have stultifying assessment arrangements. Coursework is boring and pointless. Teachers and students are frustrated by the lack of flexibility. Students lose any enthusiasm that they once had for science. Those who choose to continue with science post-16 often do so in spite of their experiences of GCSE rather than because of them. Primary responsibility should lie with the awarding bodies; the approach to assessment at GCSE discourages good science from being taught in schools.
Government has said that it will revise the science National Curriculum for 14 to16 year olds. This is welcome, but it will have no effect unless the approach to assessment at GCSE is revised too. A new National Curriculum should require all students to be taught the skills of scientific literacy and selected key ideas across the sciences. This core should form the basis of a wider and more flexible range of exam courses, reflecting the diverse interests and motivations of students
Teachers are the key to developing and delivering a vibrant science curriculum. They must be consulted on any changes to the National Curriculum and assessment. They will need time, resources and training if they are to be able to implement change.
At AS and A level, innovative new courses have been developed. These have the potential to engage and interest students. We look to universities to respond positively to these developments. To encourage more students to continue with science post-16, there needs to be a wider range of courses available and students need better information about the value of science to their future careers.
Practical work is a fundamental part of science education. Health and safety regulations do not constrain practical work: inadequate and overcrowded laboratories, a shortage of technical support and an over-prescriptive curriculum do. DfES has provided £60 million to refurbish school science labs; a significant sum but not sufficient. At least a further £120 million is needed if all schools are to have adequate science accommodation.
Technicians have a vital role to play in providing high quality science education. Schools need to employ an additional 4,000 technicians if science departments are to be properly supported. It will only be possible to recruit these additional staff if the appalling pay and conditions for technicians are improved.