RESPONSE OF THE QUALIFICATIONS AND CURRICULUM
We share the enthusiasm for science displayed by
the Committee and recognise the value of the evidence they have
collected. The resulting insights will help QCA in its role of
developing the science curriculum and its assessment and in supporting
the provision of high quality qualifications in science. This
response is concerned with the report's recommendations (Rx) which
relate to QCA's work.
Science for 14 to 16 yearolds (Key stage
The report expresses particular concern about the
effect on students of the ways in which the GCSE science curriculum
is currently taught and assessed (R1). The report identifies as
the key challenge, the need to teach science successfully, both
to those who will continue with science and to those who will
stop at the end of this stage (R6, 30, 37). We are pleased therefore
that QCA's initiative (Science for the Twenty first Century) is
commended by the Committee (R35).
Science for the Twenty first Century Pilot
and other GCSE developments
The pilot development and the new GCSE in Applied
Science are intended to tackle exactly those issues and problems
identified in the report. These include:
- Students should understand how science works
and how to use it (R32). The specification
of the pilot GCSE is based on criteria focused on 'ideas about
science' which have precisely that aim. In the new GCSE in Applied
Science qualification, students are required to apply the science
they learn in a choice of workrelated contexts.
- Students should study controversial topical
and ethical issues (R3&4). Whilst
recent changes to GCSE science courses have encouraged this, the
GCSE pilot presents such opportunities in a prominent way, with
key questions such as: 'What choices can we make ¼
that will make a difference to air quality? In what circumstances
should cloning be allowed? Is it safe to use mobile phones?'
- All students should develop their scientific
literacy skills (R33,35,39) and the
assessment system needs to be developed to encourage this
(R40,41). The project has commissioned work on how the concept
of scientific literacy should inform the science curriculum at
key stage 4 and its assessment. This work has been used in the
development of the GCSE pilot, and is reflected in the rationale,
the content and the assessment scheme for this qualification.
It should be noted however that in the recent PISA international
comparison (1) of achievement in scientific literacy, English
students were placed fourth in the ranking of 27 countries.
- All students should be entitled to study GCSE
courses which fully prepare them for science to 'A' level (R34).
The balanced science approach should continue for all, but there
should be more flexibility and choice for individual students
(R36). In both the GCSE in Applied Science
and the pilot GCSE qualifications, students are required to cover
a balanced range of science which will prepare them for advanced
GCE or VCE study, and offer a range of choices which have not
been available previously.
- Key stage 4 courses should be developed which
reflect the diverse interests and motivations of students (R43).
The pilot GCSE incorporates choice both at the level of a whole
course (more or less applied) and within the applied course, with
a free choice of the three modules to be studied.
- Key stage 4 courses should be developed using
the experience of recent AS/A developments which encourage girls
to be interested in physics (R44). The
development of the pilot GCSE has been shaped by the experience
of an AS course in Science for Public Understanding, which has
attracted girls to study physics post16.
- Teaching resources should be developed which
encourage multicultural and anti-racist teaching (R46).
The evidence from the AfricanCaribbean Network for Science
and Technology, on whose work this recommendation is based, has
shown the importance of suitable role models to inspire pupils
from ethnic minorities to succeed and to continue to study science.
The pilot GCSE teaching materials are expected to feature such
role models in support of the aim of showing how science works.
QCA has collected examples of diverse and inclusive practice,
which will be disseminated through our websites to encourage participation
in science by young people from all cultural groups.
The Committee's proposal for a revision of the National
Curriculum requirements for 14 to 16 yearolds (R38)
has been anticipated by the DfES in its consultation on the 14
19 curriculum. QCA expects to be offering advice to the
DfES on the need for, and nature of, any changes, and will be
using evidence from the evaluation of the pilot GCSE and the new
GCSE in Applied Science, as well as our monitoring evidence of
current practice in GCSE science.
We are in full agreement with the Committee's view
that there is a need for teacher support to enable changes to
be successfully brought about (R42). QCA can provide authoritative
guidance and exemplar materials. Wide support for the pilot GCSE
has resulted in substantial funding from charitable trusts for
the development of teacher support and learning resources. We
are providing advice and support to this work. We are also involved
in the DfES teacher support projects including Planet Science
(formerly Science Year), the key stage 3 science strategy and
the plans for a national centre for excellence in science teaching.
Assessment including coursework
We regard as unwarranted the strong criticism of
the awarding bodies' performance in relation to GCSE assessment
(R24), and of QCA for not changing this (R25, 26).
Assessment has developed in response to the changing curriculum,
for example, the criteria for assessing scientific enquiry were
updated in September 2001, to reflect changes in the National
Curriculum. However, it is equally important to safeguard standards
and protect candidates' interests by moving forward at a pace
which will allow all concerned, particularly teachers, to implement
changes with confidence.
We agree with the Committee's conclusion that practical
work is an essential part of any science study but can find no
justification in the report, or in our own extensive evidence,
for the blanket condemnation of coursework assessment (R27).
We believe coursework to be essential to the valid
assessment of practical aspects of science. Current requirements
leave the choice of content for coursework to the teachers and
students, so it is quite possible to engage in the kind of openended
investigations quoted with approval in paragraph 78. The report
confirms QCA's monitoring findings that such opportunities are
rarely taken up. Many teachers seem to rely on a relatively small
range of assessment activities.
The report acknowledges that it is too early to see
if recent changes to the coursework requirements will make a difference,
and recommends that QCA takes action following the completion
of the first revised GCSE courses in summer 2003 (R28).
We support this view and are already planning to review current
coursework practice with the awarding bodies. A key aim will be
to identify and disseminate good practice in, for example, the
integration of the work into the normal teaching of the subject,
the management of the teaching of component skills of investigating
and the choice of a wider range of topics and contexts.
GCSE in Applied Science takes a very different approach
to coursework assessment which is embedded throughout the course.
The pilot GCSE science will use a range of different criteria
for coursework assessment in its different strands. The core course,
for example, will assess topical issues through written project
work, whilst the applied course will focus on the applications
of science in specific local contexts and assessing practical
Science for 16 to 19 yearolds
Attitudes to science
The Committee's enthusiasm for science is evident
in their wish for as many students as possible to choose science
post16. We support that objective but consider that some
of the recommendations may be less helpful than intended. To state
baldly it would seem that students study science post16
not because of GCSE science but despite it (R12) is inconsistent
with evidence in the report and elsewhere. In reality:
- Science subjects are popular at A level. 60%
of candidates enter at least one science or maths A level (paragraph
46 of the report).
- Ofsted reports that 'standards of achievement
have continued to rise slowly overall' and 'In over six out of
ten schools the teaching of science is good overall' (secondary
subject reports 2000/01, HMI 2002).
- International comparisons have shown that English
students' performance is higher than that in most other countries
(TIMMS 1999 for 13/4 yearolds and PISA 2000 for 15/16
- Research shows that students often reflect the
common attitudes of the general public, that science, though difficult,
is important. A recent study of pupils and their parents concluded:
'All pupils and their parents considered science to be an important
subject of study and that it has a legitimate place in the curriculum.
Science was seen as a prestigious subject and valued for the understanding
it offered of the natural world'. The common ambivalence was,
said the report, well expressed by the following pupil quote:
'I think we all have this view of science being boring, but if
you sit down and speak about it you realise it is actually important.
It is actually relevant to the things you've got to do.' (Pupils'
and parents' views of the school science curriculum, Osborne and
Collins, King's College, London 2000).
- Pupils' attitude to their own learning in science
was explored in the TIMMS 1999 study of 13/4 year olds. English
pupils displayed more positive attitudes to their own ability
in science than most other countries in the study.
Take-up of the sciences
The Committee expresses a view that recent reforms
to post16 education have not produced significant increase
in the number of students studying the sciences (R13). Yet,
as the Committee recognises, it is too early in the life of the
new AS/A system to draw firm conclusions. The 2002 results give
some grounds for optimism. In 2002, the proportions of the cohort
taking biology and physics showed a significant increase for both
boys and girls. In chemistry, the total number of girls exceeded
that of boys for the first time, but the total proportion of the
cohort has remained unchanged for the past four years.
The report expresses concern that students may be
dissuaded from continuing with science at A level because they
think that it is more difficult to achieve a higher grade in science
than in other subjects (R19) and recommends that 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 (R51).
The Dearing Report of 1998 included considerable
work in intersubject comparability. The report recognised
the complexity of the issue and concluded that crude adjustments
can do more harm than good. Nevertheless QCA remains concerned
and we will continue to monitor awarding body performance in this
area. We are currently devising an additional programme of work
in response to the recommendations of the independent panel report
on maintaining A level standards (the Baker report), which also
discussed these issues. QCA has recently piloted new methodologies
for analysing intersubject comparability. Initial outcomes
have been promising and we will continue to work with subject
specialists, assessment researchers and advisory bodies to ensure
that AS/A level sciences develop in a way that is attractive to
students and credible to users in higher education and employment.