Memorandum submitted by the Nuffield Foundation
1. The Nuffield Foundation is an independent
endowed charitable trust established by William Morris, Lord Nuffield
in 1943. From the beginning the Foundation has used its funds
in part to further the development of the national science capacity.
In its early years it did so by the direct funding of scientific
research. More recently it has done so by supporting developments
in school science education and through grant schemes which support
and encourage young scientists at various stages of their training.
The Foundation also supports work in the public perception and
engagement with science. It furthers these interests both by carrying
out its own projects and by making grants to support the work
2. In this submission we address the first
two items in the Committee's terms of reference and touch on the
third. We discuss the science curriculum at Key Stage 4 and make
some observations on the mathematical content of the science curriculum.
We conclude with some observations on vocational science courses.
3. We have included with this submission
copies of a student book, Science for Public Understanding,
that exemplifies the new approach to science teaching described
in this note that we and others are developing.
4. Science education in the UK has changed
radically. Science is now a significant and compulsory part of
the curriculum for all children between the ages of five and 16.
As recently as 10 years ago this was not the case. Science was
taught only sporadically in primary schools and many children
received little science education at secondary level. Of those
that did, most specialised in one or two science subjects from
the age of 14. Since the introduction of the National Curriculum
in 1989 science has become a universal feature of the curriculum
for all pupils from age five to 16, and 80 per cent of pupils
undertake a double science GCSE at age 16 in a programme which
covers all the major sciences. This has been a major achievement.
5. Within secondary schools this change
has largely been brought about by using a science curriculum broadly
similar to that formerly offered to students in academic streams
as a preparation for more advanced study, and not by rethinking
the kind of science education needed by the general population.
As a result, there has been continuing concern about the suitability
for many students of the science curriculum they are offered,
particularly at Key Stage 4 where the diversity of students' interests,
aptitudes and aspirations becomes more apparent.
6. Underlying this is a fundamental problem.
A single curriculum at KS4 cannot do well all the things it is
trying to do. In practice it does none of them well. The majority
are less "scientifically literate" than we would wish;
and the reduction in challenge for the more able as syllabuses
have evolved is making many of them bored with science.
Science for Citizenshipthe Beyond 2000
7. In 1996 the Foundation was approached
by a group of leading science educators headed by the late Professor
Ros Driver. Their proposition was that the aims of the school
science curriculum needed re-examination and that it was time
for a new vision for science education for young people. The Foundation
funded a number of seminars, held over the next two years, which
led to a series of recommendations for a new framework and aims
for school science education. These were published in the report
Beyond 2000: Science Education for the Future. This report has
influenced many involved in science and science education, including
the Qualification and Curriculum Authority (QCA) which has drawn
on it to inform its own thinking on the future directions of school
science education. The Foundation agrees with much of the thinking
in the report and, as we describe below, has been working with
others to find ways of putting its ideas into practice.
8. The report's main thesis is that the
science education currently offered to young people is essentially
a preparatory education for young scientists. While the supply
of trained scientists and technologists is of fundamental importance
there is an equal and growing need for ordinary citizens to have
a level of knowledge and understanding which enables them to engage
with the issues science and technology poses. This need to provide
a general grounding in scientific literacyfor "Science
for Citizenship"is relatively neglected. The report
sets out a new vision for science education which gives equal
weight to both aims.
9. The report argues that the compulsory
science curriculum should be seen as a course to enhance general
"scientific literacy". It recommends that after the
age of 14 a much more flexible curriculum is needed to differentiate
more explicitly between those elements designed to meet the future
needs of all young people (whether or not they are going to be
scientists) and those designed as the early stages of a specialist
training in science.
10. The report also makes a cogent case
that the present science curriculum is heavily overburdened with
factual knowledge and does not give sufficient emphasis to the
methods and processes of science. This is damaging in two ways.
First, as research by Professor Osborne and others shows, the
heavy diet of apparently unconnected facts is instrumental in
dulling the enthusiasm of many students. Second, as a representation
of scientific thinking it is misleading and unhelpful to the future
scientist and the future citizen alike.
Science for Citizenshipputting the ideas
11. The Beyond 2000 Report provides a persuasive
analysis of the present situation and describes a compelling vision
for the future, but it raises difficult questions. Just what is
the knowledge and understanding that the future citizen will need?
What did the citizen need to understand, for example, to come
to a sensible decision about whether to eat beef during the BSE
crisis? What does a parent need to know to come to a decision
about MMR vaccination? Arguably this has as much to do with the
methods and processes of science as with factual content. Understanding
the strengths and limitations of science, how it deals with uncertainty
and the provisional nature of knowledge, and above all the role
that evidence plays, is arguably as important as knowledge of
the great experiments and theories. But knowledge of methods cannot
be acquired in the absence of a grasp of the relevant content.
Comprehensive coverage of the entire range of scientific content
is clearly not possible so there is a need for reasoned debate
on the choices that have to be made about the appropriate level
and content of science curricula.
12. Other questions arise. Are the requirements
of school science education for the future citizen the same as
those for the future scientist? Probably not, or at least not
beyond a certain point. This raises questions about whether and
how they can be taught together, how the matter of choice between
different paths should be handled, and so on. We do not have answers
to these questions but the Foundation, with others, has begun
a number of initiatives to address the issues.
13. The first opportunity to develop a course
based on Beyond 2000 principles arose when the Awarding Body AQA
invited Professor Robin Millar at the University of York and Andrew
Hunt at the Nuffield Curriculum Centre to work with teachers to
develop a new AS level course now called Science for Public Understanding.
We are sending copies of the book with this submission because
it illustrates how a course based on these new ideas would work.
The Committee might be interested to look at Chapter Three, for
example, which deals with the development of medicines. As well
as discussing the scientific principles the chapter shows how
through methods such as randomised controlled trials science deals
with uncertainty and with information that is necessarily incomplete.
14. While the AS course involves only a
few thousand students, work is now under way to develop a course
that could be made available to much larger numbers. The Nuffield
Curriculum Centre is now working with the University of York Science
Education group and QCA to develop and pilot a more flexible model
for the science curriculum at Key Stage 4 which has as its core
a compulsory, single subject GCSE aimed at developing scientific
literacy. Alongside the core are optional complementary GCSEs
made up of additional science module which prepare students for
further science studies either at A-level or in a technical, vocational
15. The development work is guided by:
the fact that most people are consumers
rather than producers of scientific knowledge, through their everyday
contacts with the products of science and technology, when receiving
advice based on science (for example, from a doctor), and when
exposed to debates about issues involving science in the media
the need, therefore, for students
to acquire the understanding and skills to become more informed
and more intelligent consumers of this knowledge; and
the desire that students should acquire
a better sense of the cultural importance of sciencein
shaping our everyday lives and our understanding of ourselves
and the universe we inhabit.
16. To achieve this, the group working on
the project are developing a curriculum which will:
communicate more clearly to students
a small number of "key science explanations";
use a range of teaching and learning
activities, including practical work, to help students appreciate
how we come to know about these key ideas and to learn about the
nature of scientific enquiry; and
balance its current emphasis on the
more exact sciences (of chemistry, physics and parts of biology)
with ideas drawn from sciences such as epidemiology and the health
sciences that depend on assessments of risk and probability, which
are at the heart of many media stories involving science.
17. In the last year the Foundation has
sought to explore the issues with a wider constituency, beyond
science education. In the summer of 2002, for example, we held
a seminar with health care professionals and others to discuss
the question: "What knowledge and understanding should a
parent have in order to come to a decision about the MMR vaccination
child?". There was a clear consensus that at present science
education leaves people ill-prepared to cope with something as
commonplace as deciding whether or not to allow a health worker
to vaccinate a child. Science education appeared to this diverse
group as being wedded to authority, achieved by proceeding from
the current scientific consensus. This excluded most of the subjects
which trouble the public. In particular, science teaching conveys
certainty, so "it is obviously no good at helping them make
decisions under uncertainty".
The mathematical content of the science curriculum
18. The curriculum for post-16 students
in England and Wales is, by international standards, anomalous
in that most students do not study mathematics. AS/A-level maths
is perceived as a difficult and therefore risky choice, suitable
only for those with strong GCSE maths grades. For most others
there is, in most places, no alternative mathematics course available.
Mathematics is at the heart of science so this is a serious issue
for science education.
19. Some students retake GCSE mathematics
which is in general an unrewarding experience. Many are now expected
to meet the limited demands of the key skill "Application
of Number" but generally with little or no mathematics teaching
because the emphasis is on the accreditation of the skills rather
than on helping students to develop them.
20. In these circumstances, recent curriculum
projects in science, (for example the Institute of Physics Advancing
Physics Project) have worked on the assumption that the mathematical
requirements of a science course must be fully taught within the
21. From the perspective of mathematics
teachers there are two quite generally perceived needs. The first
is for a broader range of mathematics qualifications at all pre-university
levels. The second is for a structure of mathematics qualifications
which will encourage a much greater uptake of maths in this age
range. These are particularly important issues for science students.
22. In order to help respond to these needs
the Foundation has supported two projects led by Professors Alison
Wolf and Rosamund Sutherland working with Geoff Wake. The first
project was to develop resources to support teachers in schools
and colleges who have been piloting and are now pioneering the
new Free-standing Mathematics Qualifications. The second project,
currently underway, is to develop teaching approaches with texts
and a web site for the new AS in the Use of Mathematics.
23. The Free-standing Mathematics Qualifications
provide a progressive structure based on a radical new approach
to teaching, learning and assessing mathematics post-16. The specifications
of the units require students both to learn a substantial area
of mathematics and to show that they can apply this mathematics
in their other courses such as science. An attraction of these
qualifications, unlike broader AS/courses, is that students can
select to study the particular areas of maths that are directly
relevant to their current areas of study. The units are available
at three levels allowing for steady progression over the two years
of a post-16 course. A biology student with relatively weak mathematical
background might, for example, start with the intermediate unit
handling and interpreting data and then move on to the advanced
unit using and applying statistics.
24. The AS in the Use of Mathematics, now
in its first year, has been developed from the Free-standing Mathematics
initiative to provide an alternative to other AS courses in this
subject which are designed very much with the needs of those who
wish to study mathematics as an academic discipline. The new course
aims to teach maths in ways that underpin and illuminate other
courses of study including science and to help students, subsequently,
function effectively in the workplace.
25. The issue of mathematics post-16 is,
of course, related to the wider issue of the breadth of the sixth
form curriculum. The fact that the majority of students abandon
the study of mathematics after 16 is far from surprising, given
the constraints of the A level system.
26. This is not an issue that affects mathematics
alone. The Nuffield Language Inquiry, which reported in 2000,
The current provision for 16 to 19 year olds
is not broad enough to keep pace with individual or national needs.
Young people are faced with the harsh choice at 16 between specialising
in languages or giving them up. Moves to broaden the post-16 curriculum
are welcome but more radical changes are needed.
Substitute "mathematics" for "languages"
and the force of the observation remains.
27. The Language Inquiry recommended not
only that languages should become a specified component of the
16 to 19 curriculum but also that a language should be a requirement
for university entry. It suggested that for the majority in the
16 to 19 group who do not wish to specialise in languages there
should be a range of attractive courses to extend existing language
skills or acquire new languages. We have described above how somewhat
similar initiatives are being developed for mathematics. However
while these initiatives are important it remains the case that
significant change is unlikely as long as the three A level curriculum
Vocational science courses
28. From 1993 to 1996 the Foundation ran
a three-year project to support the development of a vocational
alternative to GCSEs and A-levels in science. The project helped
to develop the rationale for the new General National Vocational
Qualification (GNVQ) programme and worked with teachers in schools
and colleges to publish teaching and learning resources.
29. The attempt to establish a full set
of nationally-recognised general vocational courses has by common
consent failed. What remains of the experiment is being subsumed
into the well established GCSE/A-level system as VGCSEs and Vocational
A-levels. It was in the science and technical subjects that the
failure of the GNVQ systems was most marked. None of these subjects
recruited students on a significant scale relative to the academic
30. The absence of a plausible justification
for vocational science was not helpful. In reality the vocational
route for scientists and for those aspiring to be doctors, pharmacists,
dentists, engineers and so already exists in the form of an intensive
two-year science and maths A-level course, followed by a three
or four year degree and then, perhaps postgraduate research. The
precursor to GNVQ Science, BTEC National Science, had national
standards but was developed locally as a partnership between colleges
and local industry and public services such as hospitals largely
with the intention of educating and training people to work as
31. In science, the failure was not due
to a lack of interest from teachers. The Nuffield project had
no difficulty in finding teachers keen to run the new courses
all over the country. However when they offered these courses
they could not recruit enough students to make them viable and
in many areas the programmes did not run.
32. It is important to note that the enthusiasm
of teachers for the new courses was not so much because they were
"vocational" but because they offered an alternative
approach to teaching, learning and assessment which was seen to
be right for many students for whom the A-level system is not
appropriate. The current interest in the GNVQ Intermediate qualification
at Key stage 4 is partly fuelled by the fact that these qualifications
count as the equivalent of four GCSE in league tables. But it
is also because they offer different content, different learning
styles and different assessment methods to the current GCSE. Teachers
see this as more appropriate for many young people and it meets
their need to find an alternative offering some of the motivating
features of the best of the old CSE system.
33. Features of courses designated as "vocational"
which teachers value and think to more appropriate to many students
practical work that is not done to
demonstrate the "truth" of some principle learnt in
theory but to obtain results relevant to a problem or process
and carried out in a culture where the accuracy of the results
really matters (say because the diagnosis of disease or the decision
of a jury may be based on them);
the integration of theory and practice
from the separate academic "subjects" reflecting the
multidisciplinary nature of science in industry, commerce and
sufficient freedom in course content
both to respond to local applications of science in industry,
commerce and the public services, but also for the class to stay
with things that are going well and ditch or modify things that
are going badly;
opportunities for group work with
rich opportunities for peer group learning;
the absence of all-or nothing terminal
exams and the use of a wide range of assessment methods to credit
a greater variety of student qualities, knowledge and skills than
is possible in written examinations; and
the emphasis in assessment on achievements
and success to credit the things the students can do (looking
for qualities to reward rather than faults to penalise).
34. We welcome the Committee's interest
in the subject of science education in schools and hope these
observations will be helpful. This is an important moment for
science education. There is pressure for reform from within, because
of perceived problems with current provision. There is also external
pressure both because of the national demands for people trained
in science and technology and because of a growing appreciation
of the need for a level of scientific understanding on the part
of all citizens. We have described some of the issues as we see
them, and some of the initiatives the Foundation, with others,
is undertaking to address these issues. We wish the Committee
well in its deliberations and we would of course be more than
happy to supply further information.