Memorandum submitted by the Institute
1. The Institute is pleased to contribute
to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee Inquiry
into Science Education for 14-19 year-olds.
We believe that this Inquiry is timely, particularly in view of
the disappointing uptake of the sciences in general and physics,
in particular, post-16. The Institute has been encouraged, however,
by recent curriculum initiatives at the Primary and Key Stage
3 levels, some of the outcomes of which can be applied with success
at the older age-range.
2. The Institute fully supports the concept
of considering 14-19 education as a continuum. An essential principle
of such a 14-19 science curriculum is that it has to recognise
the separate identities and characteristics of the major sciences.
The National Curriculum has ensured that all young people study
the sciences to the age of 16, but the numbers continuing with
science and, indeed, mathematics post-16 have been disappointing.
This is an opportunity to increase such take up which will have
a consequent increase in the study of subjects such as engineering
and physics in higher education, as well as improving scientific
understanding for all students. These subjects are of direct benefit
to wealth creation.
3. A continuum approach to science for 14-19
year-olds will have two major advantages:
(i) it would enable the structure, programmes
of study and assessment of science courses for this age range
to be given full reconsideration;
(ii) it would provide flexibility for student
choice, which is not currently available.
4. Currently, students are constrained to
follow a path which takes them to AS and A-Levels, whether academic
or vocational through GCSEs. This is an unnecessary constraint
on many students, whether they will follow an academic or vocational
path or, indeed, a mixture of both. A 14-19 curriculum should
enable individual programmes of study to be designed for each
student, which would be most apposite for his or her interests,
abilities and expectations. For example, some students at age
14 would proceed directly to AS-Level and possibly A-Level studies
in the subjects of their choice; others would follow a path comprising
both GCSEs and AS-Levels or, indeed, a mix of vocational qualifications,
GCSEs and ASs. Such flexibility will, for example, enable those
who wish to proceed to a degree in physics to obtain the necessary
background in both mathematics and physics over a longer period,
thus giving the students increased confidence and broader experience
before they proceed to higher education. In essence, a properly
constructed 14-19 programme of study will enable students to progress
more quickly and to study their specialist subjects to a greater
However, the Institute is strongly of the view
that all students in the 14-19 age range should study a broad
range of subjects which would bring many students up to the levels
associated with the Baccalaureate. Within this, it is important
that all students reach a minimum standard across the sciences.
5. Physics is an experimentally based subject.
An essential pre-requisite for a successful new curriculum is
that school laboratories are adequately equippedthis is
not so at present. Students of physics are influenced by the environment
in which the subject is taught and, in particular, by the available
equipment. The support provided by technicians for students and
teachers is also of crucial importance. More funds are required
to provide new equipment for school and college laboratories and
to ensure a cadre of trained technicians to help deliver the experimental
part of the curriculum.
6. Currently, too much student time is taken
up with assessmentswith examinations taken at the ages
of 16, 17 and 18. Not only does this have financial implications
for the schools/colleges but erodes the time available for teaching
and learning. A major benefit of a 14-19 curriculum will be that
the need for three successive summers of examinations for most
students is removed, with consequential benefits for both school
and student. The new ability to acquire, interpret and use information
to solve problems and analyse situations is more pertinent in
today's world than the ability to recall facts. The existing curriculum
is being driven and shaped by assessment demands, rather than
aims of understanding. The new curriculum should be accompanied
by a broader range of assessment techniques. Open-ended, investigative
work, particularly of a long-term nature, should be promoted as
the most appropriate way of engendering experimental and investigative
skills in students.
We commend to the Committee the assessment approach
espoused by the Institute's new Advancing Physics AS/A-Level course,
which is accredited by the OCR Awarding Body. The Select Committee
is invited to visit a school or schools where this course is enthusiastically
7. A new curriculum will not succeed unless
there are enough confident, high quality, physics teachers. Only
those with confidence and competence can teach their subject well,
engaging and enthusing students, and motivating them to pursue
careers in science and technology. The supply of new teachers
into physics is at a catastrophically low level. In the Autumn
of 2001 fewer than 150 trained physics teachers entered the profession.
In the early 1990s the numbers were over 700 a year. Current initiatives
by Government, our Institute and others to increase the number
of graduates entering teacher training must show dramatic improvements
in the near future.
3 This submission complements that of our sister learned
bodies, The Association for Science Education, The Institute of
Biology, The Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, The
Royal Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry, submitted separately. Back