Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report


The GCSE curriculum

    1.  It is clear that the major problems lie at key stage 4. ... Many students lose any feelings of enthusiasm that they once had for science. All too often they study science because they have to but neither enjoy nor engage with the subject. And they develop a negative image of science which may last for life (paragraph 24).

    2.  The GCSE science curriculum is over-prescriptive. This puts students off science because they do not have the flexibility to explore areas which interest them. It kills the interest in science which may have been kindled at primary school (paragraph 25).

    3.  If students are to be able to see the relevance of their school science, the curriculum should include recent scientific developments (paragraph 27).

    4.  Students want the opportunity to discuss controversial and ethical issues in their science lessons, but this happens very rarely. Engaging in debate is an approach to teaching that is unfamiliar to many traditional science teachers; and the way that science is assessed means that students are not rewarded for thinking for themselves or for contributing their own ideas (paragraph 28).

    5.  During GCSE students repeat much of the science that they have covered in key stage 3. Inevitably they find this boring (paragraph 29).

Practical and fieldwork

    6.  The science curriculum at 14 to16 aims to engage all students with science as a preparation for life. At the same time it aims to inspire and prepare some pupils to continue with science post­16. In practice it does neither of these well (paragraph 32).

    7.  We endorse the view of the Field Studies Council that fieldwork should be strongly recommended in all courses (paragraph 35).

    8.  In our view, practical work, including fieldwork, is a vital part of science education. It helps students to develop their understanding of science, appreciate that science is based on evidence and acquire hands-on skills that are essential if students are to progress in science. Students should be given the opportunity to do exciting and varied experimental and investigative work (paragraph 40).


    9.  The way in which coursework is assessed for GCSE science has little educational value and has turned practical work into a tedious and dull activity for both students and teachers (paragraph 41).

Use of ICT

    10.  ICT may have the potential to revolutionise science teaching but the evidence would suggest that it has not yet had a real impact in many schools (paragraph 42).

    11.  There needs to be a clearly defined role for ICT within science teaching if it is to have any real educational value (paragraph 43).

Take-up post-16

    12.  It would seem that students study science post-16 not because of science at GCSE but despite it (paragraph 44).

    13.  It seems that recent reforms to post-16 education have not produced a significant increase in the number of students studying sciences (paragraph 47).


    14.  We welcome the increase in the number of girls studying biology and chemistry to A level that has occurred since the introduction of compulsory balanced science to GCSE. In particular we are pleased that girls now make up 50% of A level chemistry entries. We are, however, concerned that physics remains an unpopular option with girls (paragraph 50).

    15.  The falling number of boys choosing biology and chemistry A level is a matter for concern. The reasons for this need to be investigated further and we recommend that DfES fund research in this area (paragraph 51).

    16.  The GCSE science curriculum fails to provide for the differing interests of boys and girls (paragraph 52).


    17.  We welcome the introduction of pupil level ethnic monitoring by DfES. We trust that the data will show the performance of different ethnic groups in science subjects and recommend that this information will be made public as part of DfES's annual statistics publications (paragraph 54).

    18.  It would appear that some of the usual assumptions about the relative participation of men and women in science and engineering are simply not true in respect of ethnic minority students (paragraph 55).

Student perceptions

    19.  Students may be dissuaded from studying science at A level if they think it will be harder work than other subjects and more difficult to achieve a high level grade (paragraph 57).

    20.  The mathematical requirements, or students' perceptions of the mathematical requirements, of A level sciences puts students off choosing to study these subjects. This particularly applies to physics (paragraph 59).

    21.  Students' awareness of scientific careers and the value of transferable skills gained through science would appear to be limited (paragraph 63).

Vocational pathways

    22.  The vocational options in science are not yet attracting students. More should be done to provide attractive vocational courses and to ensure that students are well aware of the potential value of the qualifications for a range of future careers (paragraph 65).

Universities' demands

    23.  Where universities place restrictive demands on applicants, specifying grades in three A level subjects, students are unlikely to place value on broadening their education (paragraph 68).


    24.  We are amazed that the awarding bodies take so little responsibility for finding solutions to problems with GCSE science that they themselves have caused. We take little comfort from their ability to identify these problems when they show little initiative in addressing them. Government should make plain to the awarding bodies that the future accreditation of their science GCSE courses depends on them developing imaginative alternative ways of assessing science at GCSE. Any changes to the National Curriculum will have limited impact on the way science is taught in schools if the assessment is not changed too (paragraph 71).

    25.  QCA's lack of direction has allowed assessment of GCSE science to stagnate. QCA should now set out clearly what they expect of awarding bodies offering science GCSEs and should intervene where these criteria are not met (paragraph 72).

    26.  QCA should require awarding bodies to introduce a wider range of questions to GCSE science exams. These should enable issues raised by contemporary science to be used as the focus for questions; allow flexibility for students in their answers; and, most importantly, they should test a wider range of skills than the mere recall of facts (paragraph 75).


    27.  We think that it remains important to assess practical skills at GCSE through coursework. But there is no point in continuing with coursework arrangements that have little educational value (paragraph 77).

    28.  Coursework in science at GCSE needs a radical rethink. This is the responsibility of the awarding bodies but it is obvious that they are going to need significant encouragement from QCA. QCA should evaluate the coursework submitted in 2003, which will be the first to be submitted under the recently modified arrangements. If there is no significant change in the approach to investigative work, they should enter into immediate discussions with teachers and awarding bodies about how coursework could be changed to encourage more stimulating and engaging practical work in schools. In addition, we would like to see project work available to teachers as an option for GCSE coursework. This may mean reducing QCA's requirement that 20% of GCSE assessment be based on investigative skills measured through coursework (paragraph 82).

Science for citizens and for scientists

    29.  We are convinced that science is essential for progression and for personal development and welcome DfES's decision to keep science as a compulsory element of the curriculum from ages 14-16 (paragraph 83).

    30.  The challenge at 14 to 16 is to provide a secure foundation for those moving on to further scientific study post-16 and to give an understanding of science to those who do not; that is, to meet the needs of future scientists and of citizens (paragraph 84).

    31.  Having taken the decision to keep science compulsory to age 16, DfES should include science in the requirements for any matriculation diploma (paragraph 85).

    32.  What is important is not that citizens should be able to remember and recall solely a large body of scientific facts, but that they should understand how science works and how it is based on the analysis and interpretation of evidence. Crucially, citizens should be able to use their understanding of science, so that science can help rather than scare them (paragraph 86).

    33.  On balance we believe that the advantages of increasing the priority given to the teaching of skills associated with scientific literacy at GCSE far outweigh the disadvantages (paragraph 88).

    34.  It is important that students are able to follow GCSE courses that fully prepare them to continue with the academic study of science at A level (paragraph 89).

    35.   We commend QCA for taking the initiative in piloting a new approach to GCSE science which aims to reconcile the need to prepare some students for further study and to give all students the skills of scientific literacy (paragraph 90).

A new curriculum

    36.  We support the balanced science approach and believe that it should continue to apply for all students. However, within this, there needs to be flexibility and scope for choice by individual students to allow them to explore areas of interest (paragraph 93).

    37.  All students should continue to spend 20% of their time studying science. At the same time, the National Curriculum at key stage 4 must be restructured to allow the development of a range of different science GCSE courses. This should enable students to choose courses that complement their abilities and interests in science. All GCSE courses should prepare students to feel confident with the science that they are likely to encounter in everyday life and provide a route to science post-16, either through traditional A levels or through vocational qualifications (paragraph 98).

    38.  QCA should work together with stakeholders, including learned societies, teachers and students, to agree a National Curriculum that defines a minimum core of science that all students need to be taught at 14 to 16. This should include some of the key ideas in science across biology, chemistry and physics and a range of skills and understanding associated with scientific literacy. All qualifications in science offered at key stage 4 should then fulfil these revised National Curriculum requirements (paragraph 100).

    39.  A new science curriculum will need to define more explicitly the skills and knowledge associated with scientific literacy (paragraph 101).


    40.  Incorporating scientific literacy in the National Curriculum will not, on its own, be enough. If this aspect of the curriculum is to receive the attention that it deserves it must be given a higher priority in assessment (paragraph 102).

    41.  Research and development needs to be undertaken to develop ways of assessing the skills associated with scientific literacy. This should be seen as an urgent priority and funded by Government (paragraph 103).

Support for teachers

    42.  If science teachers are to be asked to teach a different curriculum at key stage 4, they will need time, resources and training. The Government must ensure that all three of these are available to teachers before implementing any major changes in science at key stage 4 (paragraph 104).


    43.  QCA should work together with the awarding bodies to develop a range of courses in science at key stage 4 that reflect the diverse interests and motivations of students (paragraph 105).

    44.  The evidence from A level courses that focus on presenting science in contemporary and relevant contexts suggests that it is possible to attract girls to study physics and for them to enjoy the experience. This has lessons for the study of physics at 14 to 16. QCA should explore how the curriculum and assessment at key stage 4 could be adapted to reflect the positive features seen in the new physics A level courses (paragraph 106).

    45.  We recommend that the Government consider how best to ensure the future of the Ishango after-school Science Clubs, if necessary by continued central government funding (paragraph 107).

    46.  The African-Caribbean Network for Science and Technology recommends that the Government commission further research on race equality in science, maths and technology and explore ways of targeting resources on underachieving groups. It calls for science teaching materials to be developed to encourage multi-cultural and anti-racist teaching; and for teaching training and continuous professional development for science teachers to include these elements. We endorse these recommendations (paragraph 108).

Specialist schools

    47.  We welcome the establishment of science and engineering specialist schools as a recognition that Technology Colleges, although numerous, are not representing the breadth of science and technology education. The Government should set a target for the number of science and engineering specialist schools within the overall target of 1,500 specialist schools by 2005 (paragraph 111).

    48.  We urge scientific bodies to consider how they can encourage and support schools to apply for science specialist status (paragraph 112).

A levels

    49.  In providing A level science courses it is difficult to strike a balance between attracting a broad range of students and providing the content needed for transition to science-based courses at university. The onus should be on universities to adapt to the changing nature of their intake. The Roberts Review recommends that the Government fund universities to use new "entry support courses" and e-learning programmes to bridge gaps between A levels and degree courses. We endorse this recommendation (paragraph 115).

    50.  On balance we are persuaded that the mathematical demands of school science at A level are appropriate. Where students need support with their maths, additional maths courses are available for schools to offer. Any increase in the maths content of A level science courses would risk alienating students further. Where universities require greater mathematical skills, they should take action to teach these themselves (paragraph 116).

    51.  The Government should ask QCA and the awarding bodies to explore how it would be possible to address the imbalance in grading across A level subjects (paragraph 117).

Vocational alternatives

    52.  FE colleges offer a range of science-based vocational courses linked to specific careers. These give students the opportunity to engage with science and achieve where they may previously have struggled (paragraph 118).

    53.  For those students who do not achieve grade C in GCSE science, there need to be intermediate qualifications available that will allow them to move on to AS and A level or VCE (paragraph 119).

Science for all

    54.  In evaluating the new AS and A level structure, the Government should look closely at whether the changes have successfully broadened the curriculum studied by post-16 students. If this is not the case, Government should consider the introduction of a compulsory post-16 curriculum, which would include science as one of its core subjects (paragraph 121).

    55.  Improving the experience of science at 14 to 16 in the ways that we suggest in this report should motivate students to consider studying science post-16. They should be provided with proper careers advice. Government should ensure that the careers service improves the quality of advice offered to school students about scientific careers and the breadth of career possibilities open to those with qualifications in science (paragraph 122).

    56.  We welcome the motivation behind the Government's Science and Engineering Ambassadors initiative and look forward to seeing an evaluation of how effectively it is implemented and what impact it has (paragraph 123).

    57.  A benefit of requiring science to be taught using contemporary contexts is that it would encourage more science teachers to make use of local science based employers to support their teaching (paragraph 125).


    58.  Good laboratory and prep room facilities are important because they enable high quality practical work to be carried out in a pleasant environment, motivating and inspiring staff and students alike (paragraph 127).

    59.  It is appalling that the laboratories in one quarter of England's secondary schools are in such a poor state that the quality of teaching is being directly affected (paragraph 127).

    60.  We welcome the £60 million committed to laboratory refurbishment by DfES; this should have made a significant impact. We are very surprised that DfES has not evaluated what impact this substantial sum of public money has had on those schools most in need (paragraph 128).

    61.  We recommend that, over the next three years, the Government ringfence a minimum of £120 million to bring all school laboratories and prep rooms up to at least adequate standard. This money should be allocated direct to LEAs so that it can be targeted at those schools most in need (paragraph 130).

    62.  DfES should ensure that schools are properly informed of the importance and costs of maintaining expenditure on science equipment (paragraph 131).


    63.  We expect to see action taken within the next year to address the appalling pay and conditions of science technicians and to create a career structure that will attract skilled and dedicated people to work as technicians (paragraph 135).

    64.  It is essential that technicians have opportunities for professional development. This will mean not only making appropriate courses available but also ensuring that technicians have the time and funding to be able to participate (paragraph 136).

Practical work

    65.  There is a widely held belief that practical work in schools is now constrained by health and safety regulations. This is simply not true (paragraph 137).

    66.  The longer term aim should be to reduce secondary school practical science classes to no more that 20 students (paragraph 138).

Motion for debate

    67.  We suggest the following motion for debate by the House:

"That this House takes note of the conclusions and recommendations in the Third Report of the Science and Technology Committee on Science Education from 14 to 19 (HC 508-I); notes the concerns reflected in that Report about the failure of GCSE science to prepare students effectively either for further study or for citizenship; accepts the need to revise the curriculum and reform assessment so that teachers have the flexibility to respond to students' interests; acknowledges the work that has been done to develop new and innovative courses for both GCSE and AS and A level; recognises the vital role of practical work within science education and notes the poor quality of laboratories and the shortage of skilled technicians within many schools; and calls on Government to give urgent priority and sufficient funds to address these issues" (paragraph 140).

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