Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


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 of others.

  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 Citizenship—the Beyond 2000 Report

  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 literacy—for "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 Citizenship—putting the ideas into practice

  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 subject.

  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 and elsewhere;

    —  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 science—in 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 post 16

  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 science curriculum.

  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, noted that:

    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 remains.

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 route.

  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 technicians.

  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 are:

    —  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 public services;

    —  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.

February 2002

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