Select Committee on Science and Technology Sixth Special Report



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 4)

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.

National Curriculum

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.

Teacher support

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 procedures.

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 year­olds).

  • 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.

Inter­subject comparisons

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.

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