Memorandum submitted by OFSTED
The following provides an inspection-based commentary
on science education from 14-19 and suggests questions that the
Committee might wish to consider.
Standards and take-up
Standards of achievement in science have risen
slowly at the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE).
In 2001 92 per cent of all 15 year old candidates attempted one
or more GCSEs in science. Of these 98 per cent achieved at least
grade G and 52 per cent achieved grade A* to C, with girls' performance
just 1 per cent above that of boys. By far the most popular GCSE
science option was Double Award, taken by 84 per cent of the entry;
9 per cent attempted Single Award and the remainder (7 per cent)
took all three separate sciences: biology, chemistry and physics.
Compared with 1999, the proportion of pupils taking GCSE science
has risen slightly, success rates have improved by a similar amount
and the differential between boys and girls has decreased.
At Advanced level the proportion of the total
candidates taking science subjects has declined over recent years
at a time of overall growth in post-16 education. Nevertheless,
biology remains the fifth most popular subject (out of 26 including
general studies); chemistry ranks seventh and physics twelfth.
There are some early signs that the Advanced Subsidiary (AS) examination
is resulting in an increase in the proportion of students taking
physics courses post-16. Several new courses have been introduced
and have proved popular. Standards in the new AS physics are more
variable than in humanities. Take-up of AS biology is good but
the range of ability of students is great and drop-out rate relatively
English pupils' capabilities in science compare
favourably in international surveys such as that recently carried
out by the Organisation for Economic and Cultural Development
(OECD). This can be attributed in part to the strong emphasis
placed on science in the school curriculum but also probably to
the wider educational impact of organisations that promote science.
It is important to recognise this success whilst addressing the
issues of national concern. For example, the reduced take-up of
science in Higher Education in the UK appears to be part of an
international trend and therefore cannot be wholly attributed
to weaknesses in our system.
Pupils' views about school science are largely
formed during Key Stage 3, so it is important that good foundations
for 14-19 are laid. There has been encouraging improvement in
the attainment of pupils at the end of Key Stage 3 and this trend
should continue over the next few years as a result of the Government's
Key Stage 3 Strategy for science. This improvement should remove
one of the obstacles to progress at Key Stage 4 and provide a
secure base for 14-19 studies. Science Year will also hopefully
raise the profile of science and pupils' interest in the subject.
The quality of teaching in science is middle-ranking
when compared with that in other subjects. It is generally well
organised and lessons are highly structured with a clear sense
of purpose. Work set for pupils in the 14-19 age range is for
the most part tightly focused on the demands of examination syllabuses
and assessment requirements. However, teaching in science often
lacks charisma and does not have sufficient obvious relevance
to maintain pupils' interest and motivation. Too many lower attaining
pupils consequently become disenchanted with the science curriculum
whilst some abler pupils are insufficiently challenged.
Many science teachers feel constrained by what
they see as a content laden National Curriculum and a restrictive
assessment regime. A small, but growing proportion of schools
exercise the freedom which exists to apply the National Curriculum
in ways that take account of the widely differing needs of pupils.
For example, some teachers give far greater emphasis to the practical
applications of science than examination syllabuses require. However,
much science teaching continues to concentrate on the imparting
of factual information. Until the Key Stage 3 Strategy pilot,
science teachers had received very little recent in-service training
except that related to changes to examination syllabuses and assessment.
Most science teachers are specialists in the
sense that they have a science-related qualification. However,
as the range of initial qualifications has broadened and the curriculum
changed, the match has almost certainly become weakened. It is
for example not clear that an engineering degree will enable a
teacher to understand pupils' misconceptions in biology or that
someone who has taught biology for 20 years will readily make
the switch to teaching topics in physics. The increased emphasis
on subject knowledge in initial teacher training has undoubtedly
helped new teachers but the decline in the number of teachers
with a background in physical science has had a larger adverse
effect. Many Heads of Science have had little training in management
and are unable to support non-specialist teachers.
Double Award science dominates Key Stage 4,
with more than four-fifths of pupils prepared for this examination.
The one in 10 pupils who take Single Award science are usually
lower attaining, as the grade-profile for GCSE shows. This option
is essentially a sub-set of double science intended for those
whose strengths and inclinations lie elsewhere in the curriculum;
it is poorly matched to the needs and interests of those who take
it. A small proportion of pupils (one in 14) are prepared for
separate biology, chemistry and physics, often with little or
no more lesson time than Double Science. There is little evidence
to link this separate science option with improved take-up or
performance post-16. There is some evidence that it is more difficult
to obtain higher grades in separate sciences than in the Double
The current National Curriculum for science
has been criticised by teachers and teacher-trainers for being
overloaded and lacking relevance. It is, however, difficult to
distinguish between the influence of the curriculum framework
and other determinants on classroom practice. Changes to the National
Curriculum orders have had little impact on classroom practice,
whereas adjustments to assessment have done so. It is likely that
changes to the curriculum need to be linked to assessment review
and professional development if they are to have a substantial
impact on classroom practice. The proposed Qualifications and
Curriculum Authority KS4 pilot is planned to address all three
aspects and represents a possible way forward.
There have been some interesting curriculum
initiatives post-16, including applications based A-Level courses
which make extensive use of CD-ROM teaching and student materials
and an AS in Science for Public Understanding. These are broadening
the appeal of science subjects post-16.
Preparation for practical assessment is very
thorough, particularly at Key Stage 4, although the range of activities
used is small. Non-assessed practical work is often routine and
only a small minority of schools plan for the systematic development
of investigative practical skills across Key Stages 3 and 4. There
is some evidence of an overall decrease in the amount of practical
work, probably as a consequence of a heightened emphasis on examination
requirements. Understandable concerns with issues of safety have
resulted in a reduction in some types of work, notably demonstrations
that have previously proved memorable. In most cases these could
be safely done provided precautions are in place.
Much work in science is sharply focused on the
demands of assessment. At GCSE, success in Double Award science
contributes 40 per cent to the target of five grade A-C passes
per pupil, so science results come under particularly close scrutiny.
It is therefore inevitable that the science curriculum has become
narrowed by teachers' perceptions of the best way to achieve examination
success. For example, Scientific Investigation (SC1) has become
limited to those experiments that are seen by teachers as tried,
tested and successful in generating good examination grades. This
narrowing of the practical curriculum is a consequence of teachers'
reluctance to risk a broader interpretation the common GCSE assessment
Some of the more recent GCSE syllabuses are
written so as to give an increased emphasis to the applications
of science and its relevance to everyday life. However, so far,
examination assessment materials have not reflected this shift
in emphasis to any great extent and this has lessened the impact
on classroom and laboratory practice. The proposed introduction
of "applied" or applications-based science courses at
Key Stage 4 will require different assessment models from those
currently used and will raise issues of comparability that have
previously militated against variety in the science curriculum.
Is there any substantial evidence that the new
AS/A2 courses are having an effect, whether positive or negative,
on take-up of science subjects post-16?
Are the trends in science take-up post-16 in
the UK similar to those in other countries or is the decline more
Should the KS3 strategy prepare pupils for GCSE
decisions and study as well as improving KS2/3 transfer?
Is it desirable that all science teachers should
be equipped to teach across the full science curriculum 14-16?
If so, what steps should be taken to encourage and facilitate
the professional development of science teachers in order to improve
their ability to do so?
Are the current proposals to pilot an alternative
Key Stage 4 curriculum sufficient to ensure that the public understanding
of science receives sufficient attention and pupils who have the
ability and aptitude go on to further studies in science? If not,
then what more needs to be done?
How can issues of comparability of demand and
parity of esteem be addressed in such a way that the assessment
of science allows genuine variety in the curriculum? Is it, for
example, possible to have different assessment models for "academic"
and "applied" science and acknowledge that grade for
grade they are of the same worth?