Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 376-379)




  Chairman: Welcome. I think you were here for the first part so you know the form. Thank you very much for taking the time to come and help us in our inquiry

Geraldine Smith

  376. A nice easy one to start with, if you could all answer it individually. Can I ask you what you think are the most important things that your students can bring from their school science? What is essential that they need to have when they come to you?
  (Professor Ruxton) It is very important to have motivation and incentives and a willingness to learn about science and apply science.
  (Dr Brown) Something that was said earlier on is relevant. They need to know that science is a practical topic, that it has been discovered, that you need practical work to discover it. They must not think a textbook is something that someone writes without prior discovery and they need a willingness and eagerness to investigate.
  (Professor Haines) I would only add that they need a certain knowledge base because we could not bring them up to the level that is expected of an Honours degree, and particularly to reach the Bologna Declaration type levels, if they come in with effectively no knowledge base in science.

  377. You have told us what you would like to see. Is that what you are actually getting when students come through to you? Do they have the level of knowledge? Do they have the enthusiasm, the will to experiment, to investigate?
  (Dr Brown) The answer is always that some do, some do not. The knowledge base in our opinion at Nottingham certainly has declined recently. We used to take medical students without A level biology but we have been doing studies and we now find that they do not do so well, so we now insist that they have A level biology. We do feel there is a decline in the knowledge base.

  378. Do you have any reason for that? Why do you think it has declined?
  (Dr Brown) I think it dates back to changes at GCSE through curriculum changes. The debate that has just gone is all very interesting. I think students do need to be excited by history of science, by ethical issues, but the people who then go on to university do need a sound knowledge base. You really cannot have one without the other. There is only a limited amount of teaching time. If you start to teach these other topics then some of time to create a sound knowledge base declines.
  (Professor Haines) I think there is an issue about the size of the core that one can guarantee at GCSE, and particularly the size of the core that one can guarantee that is covered by all the A level boards. I cannot understand why we have more than one A level board really because I think there is a danger that they can move towards not reducing the expectations of the students' broad skills but that they are in danger of working towards lower standards and lower expectations. That I think is a major problem. I would like to see a bigger AS level core and a bigger A2 level core so that we could guarantee a certain amount of subject knowledge base.

Dr Turner

  379. Can I take you up on that point because current trends in designing the 14-19 curriculum should in theory produce exactly what you have just asked for, but university entrance tutors then completely undermine it by demanding of students that they have three given A levels with minimum grades, generally fairly challenging targets. What does the A level student do? He drops everything except those three A level subjects. Any AS's, perfectly useful material for a potential science student, will go out of the window. How do you resolve that conundrum?
  (Professor Haines) I think you are being a little unfair. I do not think that the majority of science courses in the UK require three specific named A levels in science.


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