Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report


Science in the National Curriculum

9. The National Curriculum was introduced in 1989 and, for the first time, specified the minimum that all pupils in English state schools should be taught during their years of compulsory education. Science, English and maths, became core subjects which were mandatory for all pupils from ages 5-16. The National Curriculum covers not only the three core subjects but also design and technology, information and communication technology (ICT), a modern foreign language, geography, history, art, music, physical education and citizenship. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), a non-departmental public body accountable to the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), is responsible for developing and monitoring the National Curriculum for England.[10] The National Curriculum was most recently revised in 1999 for implementation in 2000.[11] It is divided into four age bands or "key stages". This inquiry focuses on the last of these which covers ages 14-16 - "key stage 4".

10. In science, the National Curriculum requires pupils to study a balance of biology, physics, chemistry and aspects of earth science and astronomy; they cannot choose to specialise in a particular area of science until post-16. The National Curriculum for Science is presented in four sections. These are outlined in figure 1 below, with examples drawn from key stage 4.

Figure 1: Outline of the National Curriculum for Science
Scientific Inquiry (Sc1), which encompasses teaching about scientific ideas and evidence including consideration of scientific controversies and ethical issues; and the development of investigative skills, which includes planning experiments, carrying them out, drawing conclusions and evaluating the results.
Life Processes and Living Things (Sc2), which includes aspects of biology such as cell structure and function, photosynthesis and genetics.
Materials and their properties (Sc3), which covers aspects of chemistry such as atomic structure, chemical reactions and the periodic table; together with aspects of earth science such as rock formation.
Physical processes (Sc4), which includes aspects of physics such as electricity, forces and waves; together with aspects of astronomy such as the evolution of stars.

11. Independent schools do not have to follow the National Curriculum, which means that they can give their pupils the option to choose between individual science subjects at GCSE rather than having to maintain a balance (see section (b) in paragraph 13 below). However, as all science GCSE courses are based on the National Curriculum, independent schools are, in effect, teaching the National Curriculum at 14 to 16.

Science at GCSE

12. During the two years of key stage 4 most pupils work towards GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education). QCA specifies that GCSE courses must fulfil the requirements of the National Curriculum; defines the proportions of the assessment that should be based, for example, on factual recall or application of knowledge; lays out what percentage of the final marks should be based on coursework; and describes what, for example, a Grade A candidate would be expected to demonstrate. It is then up to the three awarding bodies (AQA, Edexcel and OCR) to put this into practice through their specifications (previously known as syllabuses) and exams. Every specification must be approved by QCA. These go into considerably more detail about what students should be taught than the National Curriculum. For example, the "life processes and living things" component of one AQA GCSE specification fills 22 pages, compared to three pages in the National Curriculum.[12] The awarding bodies must submit to QCA specimens of the types of question that they intend to ask in their exams, although actual exam papers are not approved in advance. The GCSE specifications have all been recently revised and these new courses will be examined for the first time in summer 2003.

13. To fulfil the requirements of the National Curriculum, pupils in state schools must study GCSE science courses that provide a balance across biology, chemistry and physics. There are three ways of doing this. All of the options are intended to be of the same level of difficulty but differ in the breadth of content that is covered.

      (a)  Double science GCSE is the norm, entered by 77% of the cohort in 2001.[13] The content of the course is balanced across the sciences and is equivalent in content to studying two GCSEs. Pupils would normally need to spend 20% of their school time studying science to cover the content of this course. They are awarded two identical GCSE grades that reflect achievement across the sciences.

      (b)  Separate biology, chemistry and physics GCSEs can be studied; this is sometimes called triple science. QCA specify that each of these GCSEs should contain 25% more subject content than the related component in double award GCSE. In 2001 each of the separate sciences were entered by 6-7% of the cohort. Some of these students will have been in the independent sector and may not have taken all three of the sciences.

      (c)  Single science GCSE keeps the balance across the scientific disciplines but with approximately half the content of double science. It was entered by 8% of the cohort in 2001 and students are awarded one GCSE. This option was intended for a minority of students who have a particular reason to spend time on other subjects (gifted linguists, for example). In practice, the low pass rate (only 12% of entrants passed with grade A*-C in 2001, compared to 52% for double science) suggests either that the course is taken mainly by lower ability students or that it is more difficult than the other GCSE science courses.

The National Curriculum states that "The Government firmly believes that double science or the three separate sciences should be taken by the great majority of pupils". Figure 2 shows that this is the case.

Figure 2: The proportion of the GCSE cohort entering single, double, triple or no science GCSEs.

14. In 2001, 8% of the cohort did not enter any GCSE science. This is similar to the figures for English and maths GCSEs, which saw no entries from 8% and 7% of the cohort respectively. There are a number of possible explanations for this. In 2001, 0.21% of the cohort were officially disapplied from the science requirements of the National Curriculum by their schools. This was so that they could instead spend time on work related learning and would have meant that they did not study any science at all.[14] It is worth noting that the Green Paper 14-19 proposes that the facility to disapply science at key stage 4 should be removed. Other students will have been entered for entry level certificates, designed for those pupils who would be unlikely to achieve a grade G at GCSE; or have been entered for a science General National Vocational Qualification (GNVQ).

15. The awarding bodies offer several different specifications within each of the three possible structures for science GCSE. Schools are free to choose which of these they want to use. For example, for double science GCSE, AQA offer both a modular and a co-ordinated specification. The main feature of the modular course is that 30% of the marks are based on six tests taken at fixed points throughout the two year course; the co-ordinated qualification is examined only at the end of the course. In 2001, 44% of double science GCSE entries were for modular specifications.[15] In both of these approaches the traditional boundaries between biology, physics and chemistry are largely maintained. In contrast the Salters specification, one of the those offered by OCR, takes a topic-based approach where science is taught through familiar contexts and applications.[16] For example, the topic Food for Thought includes teaching about plant nutrients (biology) and the manufacture of fertilisers (chemistry). In 2001, candidates for the Salters specification accounted for 10% of the entries to double science GCSE.

16. For the new GCSEs that will be examined from 2003, QCA specifies that 20-30% of the marks in any science GCSE must be assessed through coursework. The 20% minimum must be based on assessment of pupils' investigative skills as defined in figure 3. On the basis of these criteria, the awarding bodies have agreed a structured mark scheme which is common across all GCSE science courses and is worth the minimum 20%. The shared mark scheme is intended to ensure that standards are comparable across the awarding bodies.

Figure 3: Investigative skills: extract from QCA's specification for GCSE science

Candidates must be able to:

    (a)  Devise and plan investigations, drawing on scientific knowledge and understanding in selecting appropriate strategies;

    (b)  Demonstrate appropriate investigative methods, including safe and skilful practical techniques, obtaining data which are sufficient and of appropriate precision, recording these methodically;

    (c)  Interpret data to draw conclusions which are consistent with the evidence, using scientific knowledge and understanding, whenever possible, in explaining their findings;

    (d)  Evaluate data and methods.[17]

Proposed developments at GCSE

17. QCA will be piloting a new approach to GCSE science from September 2003 in volunteer schools.[18] In this pilot, which has a working title of "Science for the 21st Century", all students will take a common single core science GCSE. This will incorporate the key concepts from across the sciences (for example, chemical change, biodiversity, energy sources) but give equal emphasis to scientific literacy and students' abilities to use skills such as interpreting data, understanding risk and appreciating the impact of science on society. Students will then take extra modules leading to a second or third GCSE either of an academic nature, which would be expected to prepare them for AS and A level science, or of an applied/vocational nature, which would allow them to move on through vocational routes such as the Advanced Vocational Certificate of Education (VCE).

Science at AS and A level

18. Since September 2000 a new structure for AS (Advanced Subsidiary) and A (Advanced) levels has been introduced which aims to broaden the range of subjects studied by students post-16. It was envisaged that students would chose to study 4-5 subjects in their first year post-16, leading to the award of an AS level qualification in each. They might then choose to continue with three of these subjects for the second year, known as A2, and leading to the award of a full A level.

19. The traditional science subjects of biology, physics and chemistry are offered by all three of the awarding bodies at AS and A level.[19] Some 50-60% of the content of each specification is defined by QCA and therefore common across all the awarding bodies.[20] The flexibility over the remaining content has led both to the development of courses where schools are able to select topics within specifications and to the development of several innovative courses. These include: Salters Advanced Chemistry developed by the University of York with sponsorship from the Salters' Company; the Advancing Physics course developed by the Institute of Physics; Salters Horners Physics developed by the University of York with sponsorship from the Salters' and Horners' Companies; and the Salters-Nuffield Advanced Biology which is under development at the moment. The first two of these specifications are offered by OCR and the latter two by Edexcel.

20. A further interesting development is the introduction of an AS level in Science for Public Understanding, developed by the Nuffield Foundation and offered by AQA. This course aims to give students the opportunity to reflect on scientific issues in a wider context than in a specialist science course. Students are expected to gain a knowledge of selected topics drawn from across the sciences. These are studied in either historical or topical contexts. The course has attracted some 770 entries this year, over half from girls.

Vocational qualifications

21. Some students choose to follow vocational courses, which are more closely linked with the world of work, instead of the traditional GCSE or A levels courses. These are appropriate for students who prefer learning through work-based contexts and being assessed mainly through coursework rather than exams. The vocational courses most likely to be followed by 14-19 year olds are the General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs), which are linked to broad vocational areas including Science, Health and Social Care and Engineering. Each GNVQ can be taken at three different levels: foundation, intermediate and advanced. Advanced GNVQs, which have recently been renamed and launched as Advanced Vocational Certificates of Education (VCE), are equivalent in standard to traditional A levels. Intermediate GNVQs are equivalent to GCSE grades A*-C and Foundation to GCSE grades D-G. GNVQ courses are most commonly taken post-16 with intermediate level appropriate for those who have not achieved grade C in science at GCSE and advanced as an alternative to A level. DfES also permits schools to offer foundation and intermediate GNVQ science at key stage 4 even though the courses do not fulfil the National Curriculum criteria.[21] This option has not been widely taken up by schools or students. Statistics on the number of students entering Advanced GNVQs are presented in figure A9, Annex 3.[22] Numbers for intermediate and foundation GNVQs are lower.

22. From September 2002 a new GCSE in Applied Science will be offered by all three awarding bodies. It is intended to replace the Intermediate and Foundation GNVQs in science, which QCA has said will be examined for the last time in 2006. This new GCSE is designed to appeal to those students who do not enjoy traditional academic study and aims to prepare them to move on to further vocational courses or employment. The course is expected to take the same amount of time to teach as the double award science GCSE and two thirds of the assessment will be based on coursework, reflecting the emphasis on the development of technical skills. It is expected that the course will attract considerably more entries than the GNVQs.

International comparisons

23. Students in England have taken part in two recent studies that aim to compare the performance of young people in science across countries. The Third International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS), carried out in 1999, assessed the performance of 13 and 14 year olds across 38 countries.[23] In science, England was placed ninth. Although this ranking was higher than the previous TIMSS, carried out in 1995, the actual performance was broadly the same. A further TIMSS study will be carried out in 2003. The Programme for International Students Assessment (PISA) was carried out by the OECD in 2000 and involved 32 countries.[24] On the assessment of 15 year olds' scientific literacy, England was ranked fourth.

10   QCA was established by the 1997 Education Act as a merger between the School Curriculum Assessment Authority and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications. Back

11   The National Curriculum is available at Back

12   AQA specification for Science: Double Award (Coordinated) Back

13   A total of 576,700 students entered GCSEs in 2001. Source: GCSE/GNVQ and A/AS/VCE/AGNVQ examination results 2000/01 (early statistics). DfES. October 2001. Table 4. Available via Back

14   Figure provided by QCA and based on information provided by schools. The actual figure may be higher. Since 1998, schools have been able to disapply individual students from science at key stage 4 so that they are able to take part in work related learning. Disapplication from design and technology and modern foreign languages is also permitted, although for a wider range of reasons. In 2001, 2.2% and 4.3% of the cohort were disapplied from design and technology and modern foreign languages respectively. The DfES Green Paper 14-19 proposes that, at key stage 4, design and technology and modern foreign languages should become optional for all. Back

15   Figures provided by AQA based on entries across all awarding bodies. Back

16   The development of the course was funded by the Salters' Company. Back

17   Extract from QCA's GCSE criteria for science. Available at Back

18   Ev 115, para 7 Back

19   Biology includes human biology. Other AS and A level subjects that incorporate significant amounts of science are environmental science, geology, physical education, and psychology. See also Ev 136, Appendix 22 and Ev 140, Appendix 24 for proposed new subject areas. Back

20   QCA's criteria for AS and A levels can be seen at Back

21   This is permitted under the provisions of Section 96 of the Learning and Skills Act 2000. Further information is available from Back

22   See p 87 Back

23   For further information see  Back

24 Back

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