Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report


24. The vast majority of evidence that we received in our inquiry related to science for 14-16 year olds. It is clear that the major problems lie at key stage 4. Though we have met some inspirational teachers and some inspired students it is clear that the curriculum and assessment at key stage 4 is preventing school science from being exciting. The curriculum is said to be inflexible, irrelevant, repetitive and prevents debate. The limited range of courses available fail to meet individual needs. The practical work required for these courses is frequently uninteresting and demotivating. The potential for the imaginative use of ICT is not exploited. As a result, many students lose any feelings of enthusiasm that they once had for science. All too often they study science because they have to but neither enjoy nor engage with the subject. And they develop a negative image of science which may last for life.


25. Michelle Ryan, a teacher at Ricards Lodge High School, Wimbledon told us "in schools, as a head of department, the most important thing to us is exam results. Success is a very, very powerful driving force".[25] The effect of this is that teachers dedicate class time to teaching only that material which is directly required for the GCSE. Lexi Boyce, a student at Long Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge, told us "to be able to pass exams, which is what you are doing, you only have time to cover the facts and learn them".[26] When we visited Westminster School, one student commented that being good at science just showed that you were good at memorising facts. This leaves little time to follow up or explore areas of interest to students, or indeed of interest to teachers. Because of this teachers and pupils alike feel that the curriculum is overloaded. TIMSS quantified the amount of emphasis that teachers in different countries place on scientific reasoning and problem solving. In England it was less than half that of the international average.[27] We suggest that this is a reflection of the assessment demands, which give too much emphasis to low level intellectual skills such as recall.[28] Derek Bell, from the Association for Science Education, said that the key issue affecting science education "is about giving teachers the space and time to teach as they would wish to teach in terms of getting students involved and motivated".[29] This is reflected in comments that we have heard from students. Lucy Ferguson, a student at Guildford High School who had chosen not to study science at A level, said of her experiences at GCSE that "I would have liked greater flexibility so I could do stuff I enjoyed, stuff that actually interested me".[30] The GCSE science curriculum is over-prescriptive. This puts students off science because they do not have the flexibility to explore areas which interest them. It kills the interest in science which may have been kindled at primary school.


26. In the online survey of young people's attitudes to GCSE science hosted by the Science Museum, 67% of respondents said that GCSE science should be based primarily on real life, relevant issues. Students at Portchester Community School in Hampshire thought they studied science because "it gives us an explanation of events in everyday life".[31] Teachers at St Augustine's Catholic College, Trowbridge suggested that their notable success at attracting students to continue with science was because they made particular effort to make science relevant.[32] Relevance is something that can be brought to the curriculum by teaching science using examples and contexts that the students can relate to. For example, Vicky Parkin, a student at Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College, Darlington suggested that the manufacture of ammonia in the Haber process should be taken out of the GCSE curriculum because it was not relevant to those studying general science.[33] When we proposed this to a teacher at Quintin Kynaston School he pointed out that the Haber process had been developed to facilitate the manufacture of explosives in World War I: through bringing this history into his science teaching he felt that it was possible to make the topic interesting and relevant for his students.

27. One way of ensuring relevance to students is to teach contemporary science. Some aspects of modern science have made it into the National Curriculum. For example, at key stage 4, the National Curriculum requires students to be taught "the basic principles of cloning, selective breeding and genetic engineering".[34] But most science taught at ages 14 to 16 has remained largely unchanged for decades. David Moore of the Association for Science Education, told us that "We need to provide opportunities where [students] can discuss what is going on in today's science rather than the science of 50 or 100 years ago".[35] Hannah Greensmith, a student at Birkenhead High School, Wirral told us that "we should learn more about what is going on in the world around us and up-to-date issues like the foot and mouth crisis..., which we hear about every day".[36] If students are to be able to see the relevance of their school science, the curriculum should include recent scientific developments.

Failure to engage in debate

28. The Science Museum's on-line survey of attitudes to GCSE science found, not only that young people wanted to be taught more relevant and contemporary science, but also that 69% wanted this to include controversial issues. This might mean discussing the health effects of using mobile phones, the disposal of nuclear waste or the investment of public money in exploring Mars. In the same survey, 48% of the respondents reported that they found discussion and debate in class to be the most useful way of learning, more than for any other classroom activity. However, research conducted by Ralph Levinson of the Institute of Education for the Wellcome Trust has shown that many science teachers feel that they lack not only the time to tackle the discussion of controversial issues in class, but also the confidence to use this type of teaching style.[37] In addition, almost half of the science teachers that were interviewed by Ralph Levinson felt that science teaching should be "value free". In contrast, their humanities and English teaching colleagues actively promoted discussions on ethical and social issues with their classes. As Jerry Ravetz puts it, "science education is one of the last surviving authoritarian social-intellectual systems in Europe".[38] The Head of Biology at St Augustine's Catholic College, Trowbridge said that she was concerned that where the curriculum did include areas of controversy, they were tended to be presented as facts. She cited the greenhouse effect, where there is considered to be a "right answer for the purposes of the exam paper".[39] Students want the opportunity to discuss controversial and ethical issues in their science lessons, but this happens very rarely.[40] Engaging in debate is an approach to teaching that is unfamiliar to many traditional science teachers; and the way that science is assessed means that students are not rewarded for thinking for themselves or for contributing their own ideas.


29. Students have complained to us that the GCSE courses feel repetitive, going over much of the ground that they covered in earlier years. Ed Walsh, a teacher at Roseland Community School, Truro told us that "An awful lot of what we teach at the moment is bread­and­butter stuff and some of it is fairly repetitive".[41] Teachers from schools in Bolton expressed particular concern about the "spiral" nature of the curriculum where topics are revisited in different key stages.[42] On each occasion the topic is intended to be covered in more depth, but students may experience this as repetition.[43] Martin Hollins of QCA told us that, from their own monitoring of GCSE science, "that there is a quite a lot of repetition in the teaching, to make sure that students have got something".[44] It seems that this repetition is being driven by the examination system with teachers going over old material so that they can feel confident that their students are fully prepared for assessment. Martin Hollins told us that, in revising the National Curriculum, QCA "made more of a distinction between what it appropriate at a particular age group".[45] The effects of these changes will not become apparent until the new key stage 4 National Curriculum is first assessed in 2003. During GCSE students repeat much of the science that they have covered in key stage 3. Inevitably they find this boring.

Limited options

30. Mike Collins, a teacher at Hengrove School, Bristol told us "For post­14 I do not think there is a clear view about why we are making students study science. I think we should but I do not think the answer is the same for all students".[46] Sylvia Thomas, a teacher at Darlaston Community School, Walsall agreed: "I think one size does not fit all, that is absolutely obvious, ... we need diversity".[47] Mike Collins wants to see "a greater range of science courses post-14 designed for different purposes: preparation for further more advanced study; learning science in the context of vocational areas which use scientific skills; a more general 'science for citizenship' course".[48] We are told that the current "science curriculum [is] broadly similar to that formerly offered to students in academic streams as a preparation for more advanced study".[49] However, at the same time it is intended to be a curriculum appropriate for all students to study, regardless of their interest or ability in science.

31. The main options available at 14-16 are single, double and triple GCSE. All of these courses take a very similar approach to science. Most students take the double award, while schools may offer the triple award to more able students and single award to less able. The single award was not intended to be for less able students. It is interesting to compare the responses of the three groups of students to the Science Museum's on-line survey. For example, some 12% of triple award students reported struggling with maths within science, rising to 20% for double and almost 40% for single award students. And over 50% of triple award students thought that their science GCSEs had not gone into enough depth, while over 20% of single award entrants - more than double that of triple award - said that they did not care. This suggests that single award students are less engaged and interested by their GCSE science course than triple award students and that the triple award course is insufficiently demanding of the students who do it.

32. Teachers at St Augustine's Catholic College in Trowbridge said that current arrangements particularly let down less able students, forcing them to do work with which they struggle.[50] Ofsted tell us that the single science GCSE "is poorly matched to the needs and interests of those [lower attaining students] who take it".[51] It was suggested at St Augustine's that a more practically based curriculum might be more acceptable for less academically gifted students. By comparison, in the Science Museum's survey, the single award students reported doing less practical work than others, with triple award doing the most. At the same time it seems that higher attaining students are not well provided for. Mike Collins from Hengrove School, Bristol told us that GCSE science "is recognisably academic preparation for further advanced study [but] what they get is a watered down version of it, which is not very motivating".[52] The Nuffield Foundation fear that "the reduction in challenge for the more able¼is making many of them bored with science".[53] This view is reiterated by the scientific learned societies when they say that "the current curriculum¼fails to inspire and challenge many who have the ability to continue with science­based studies".[54] The science curriculum at 14 to16 aims to engage all students with science as a preparation for life. At the same time it aims to inspire and prepare some pupils to continue with science post­16. In practice it does neither of these well.

33. Vocational qualifications should provide an alternative but few schools have chosen to offer foundation and intermediate GNVQ science at key stage 4 instead of GCSE. The GCSE in Applied Science, described in paragraph 22 above, may be more popular when it becomes available in September 2002. This is an attempt by Government to raise the status and take-up of vocational qualifications by aligning them more closely with traditional courses. Several teachers have told us that they see this new GCSE as a step in the right direction in providing a range of courses to suit different students.[55] This may be true for students that are more motivated by the different styles of learning and assessment associated with vocational qualifications. But the Association of Colleges are concerned that this new course may be too closely aligned with existing GCSEs to offer something genuinely different. In particular, they say that it "offers nothing for those with lower achievements".[56] This is difficult to judge because the Applied Science GCSE has not been piloted. The Deputy Head at St Augustine's Catholic College in Trowbridge said that he thought that plans for this new GCSE were not yet mature and needed testing before being unleashed.[57]

Problems with practical and field work

34. Practical work forms a significant part of science education in England. Indeed, the TIMSS survey of 14 year olds in 1999 reported that it is only students in Hong Kong and Thailand that spend more time on conducting experiments than students in England.[58] Students themselves will carry out a range of practical work including dissection; one-off experiments, where they follow a set of instructions that allow them to observe a particular scientific principle; and longer pieces of investigative work, where students aim to explore an aspect of science in more depth. A full investigation would involve students planning their own experiment, carrying it out, analysing the results, drawing conclusions and evaluating how successful their investigation was. The hands-on 'carrying it out' stage involves laboratory practical work. At GCSE, students are required to demonstrate their skills at every stage of an investigation through coursework. Practical work may also mean demonstration of experiments by teachers to their students instead of by students themselves. This is normally to prevent a health and safety risk to students, but may also be because of a shortage of equipment, consumables or time.

35. Fieldwork can be broadly defined as practical work that happens outside the laboratory. Teachers are most likely to make use of the external environment when teaching ecology or earth science. Some schools will be able to carry out interesting fieldwork in their local area; others may need to arrange a residential visit. As in a laboratory, students can carry out full investigations in the field, or carry out specified practical experiments. Organising field work can be difficult because of the time involved if an off-site visit is needed. Science teachers may be reluctant to lose class teaching time and other subject teachers, who may feel under similar pressure to cover course content, may be reluctant for students to miss their lessons. The Field Studies Council tell us that "there is a very worrying decline in the quantity and quality of fieldwork being provided for students studying biology".[59] The National Curriculum suggests that students carry out field work, but it is not required. Schools could be encouraged to use fieldwork to fulfil the coursework requirements at GCSE. We endorse the view of the Field Studies Council that fieldwork should be strongly recommended in all courses.


36. The Science Museum on-line survey found that the majority of students (71%) enjoyed practical work and 79% reported that practical work had helped them to understand their science. Charlotte Whitaker, a student at Redland High School, Bristol told us that "you are able to link the practical that you have done with your theoretical knowledge and it helps so much to be able to [make] that link".[60] Hannah Greensmith, a student at Birkenhead High School, Wirral told us that she found dissection in biology particularly useful because "it gives you hand-on experience working with what you are learning about".[61] Many of the teachers that we have spoken to see practical work as a fundamental part of their teaching. James Salmon from the Anglo-European School, Essex told us that "We want children to do as much practical as possible because they enjoy it, it motivates them and it gives them skills that they can use later on".[62] Michael Terry from Copthall School, Barnet said that "Good quality science teaching requires extensive opportunities for practical and investigative science".[63]

37. However, not all students enjoy the practical work they are required to do for GCSE. Ashley Clarkson from Bede Sixth Form College, Teesside encapsulated the view of many students that we have spoken to: "all [practical work] did was create variety in the course, and variety is good everywhere in education because it helps you remember things more clearly".[64] Sajad Al­Hairi from North Westminster Community School in London wanted to see more variation within the practical work itself: "If there were a range of experiments that gave you a different approach and helped you experiment and research more, that would help".[65] The Head of Physics at St Augustine's College in Trowbridge, which has had considerable success in attracting girls to science, suggested that girls in particular were less motivated by practical work.[66] One of the most common complaints we have heard from students was expressed by Anika Lewis from Colchester Sixth Form College: "a lot of the practicals we did never worked so it did not help us, it did not show the theory in practice as it should have done".[67] Students see little point in carrying out practicals where they already know the result and are just expected to follow instructions to reach that end.[68] Students we have spoken to are aware that practical work is very time-consuming, leaving less room for covering the factual content of the GCSE courses. A level students from Hammersmith and West London College, who had been educated pre-16 in countries where practical work forms a very minor part of science education, told us that their theoretical knowledge was greater than that of their English counterparts. One asked what was the point of doing practical work if you did not understand the theory behind it. On the other hand, they were enjoying the opportunity to get involved with practical work at A level.

38. Derek Bell, speaking on behalf of the Association for Science Education, warned that "There is a great danger of being conned into [thinking that] the answer to it all is doing more practical work. Doing practical work in itself is not going to help children learn more effectively or motivate them. So we have to be clear why we are doing those practicals".[69] Sylvia Thomas from Darlaston Community School, Walsall supported this view when she told us that "We put practical in where we think it is needed. I do not necessarily think kids are as enthused as they were in the past about practical".[70]


39. Ofsted tell us that "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".[71] Teachers at Quintin Kynaston School in London endorsed this view. Corinne Stevenson, a science adviser from Hounslow LEA, mentioned the other constraints. These included the poor state of some school laboratories, a shortage of technicians and the size of science classes, all of which make it difficult for teachers to manage practical lessons.[72] We return to these issues in paragraphs 126-138 below.

40. In our view, practical work, including fieldwork, is a vital part of science education. It helps students to develop their understanding of science, appreciate that science is based on evidence and acquire hands-on skills that are essential if students are to progress in science. Students should be given the opportunity to do exciting and varied experimental and investigative work.

Problems with coursework

41. Students at Quintin Kynaston School, London told us that coursework investigations accounted for most of the practical work that they carried out at GCSE. This goes some way to explaining the issues identified above. The general principle of carrying out investigations is popular with teachers that we have spoken to.[73] Teachers from Bolton said that investigation should be a teaching style rather than a method of assessment.[74] In practice, teachers from schools in Fareham, Hampshire said that investigations are taught and carried out to maximise exam results rather than to develop skills.[75] The topics for GCSE coursework investigations are not specified but Mike Collins, a teacher at Hengrove School, Bristol, says that the range of investigative work is narrow "largely so teachers can ensure reliability".[76] The '59 Club, made up of the Heads of Science at 26 independent schools, say that coursework is "testing the teachers rather than the pupils. Marks reflect how well the pupils have been coached to clear the requisite hurdles".[77] Teachers and students that we have spoken to when visiting schools have described completing coursework as jumping through hoops and have suggested that it has almost no educational value. The '59 Club say "the present system has become a mind-numbing and disheartening bureaucratic exercise...Practical work should be an enriching experience but instead has become a dismal slog."[78] The way in which coursework is assessed for GCSE science has little educational value and has turned practical work into a tedious and dull activity for both students and teachers.

Problems with using ICT in science

42. The revised National Curriculum, introduced in September 2000, for the first time required Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to be used for teaching subjects across the curriculum, including science. Illustrations given in the National Curriculum of how ICT could be used for teaching science include using data handling software to analyse data from fieldwork, using the internet to find out about current developments and issues and using automatic datalogging equipment to record results. DfES's memorandum states that "the investment we are making in ICT is transforming the way being taught".[79] They give interactive whiteboards as an example of where developments in ICT "allow teachers to access data and images and share [them] with the whole class, in a way not before possible". Indeed, when we visited Quintin Kynaston School in London we were impressed by the use made of interactive whiteboards. However, the lack of time available for training meant that those teachers who were confident using the technology were not able to pass these skills on to the other staff. Teachers from schools in Bolton said that they particularly needed more support from technicians with expertise in ICT. They were having to prepare "backup" lessons in case the ICT equipment failed.[80] Michael Terry, a teacher at Copthall School in Barnet, tells us that the "increased emphasis on teaching using ICT [has been introduced] without any understanding of the practical difficulties involved in using ICT in the classroom".[81] This is reinforced by Sylvia Thomas, a teacher at Darlaston Community School, Walsall, who tells us that "ICT requirements are impractical in all schools I have worked in".[82] ICT may have the potential to revolutionise science teaching but the evidence would suggest that it has not yet had a real impact in many schools.

43. The Science Museum's survey of young people asked about their use of the internet in science. While 44% reported enjoying using the internet for research, only 8% thought that it was a useful way of learning. Joel Brown, a student at Dixons City Technology College, Bradford told us "Everybody likes going on the internet and surfing around but in terms of how effective it is we are really concerned".[83] Mark Towers, a student at Farnborough Sixth Form College in Hampshire, thought that the problem was that while it was possible to find lots of information using the internet "it does not really have any relevance because it is of a standard that is beyond you at that time".[84] The BBC Bitesize website, which is specifically designed for students revising for their GCSEs, was mentioned to us by several students at Quintin Kynaston School, London as one that they had found useful. It is not enough to invest in computers for schools. If students are to gain skills that will be useful to them in the future, ICT needs to be used intelligently to support other subjects areas. There needs to be a clearly defined role for ICT within science teaching if it is to have any real educational value.

25   Q231. See also Ev 89, para 12 Back

26   Q189 Back

27   TIMSS 1999 International Science Report, Chapter 6, figure 6.12. Available via  Back

28   Ev 108, para 5; Ev112, para 3; Ev 134. See also comments relating to maths Ev 138, paras 2.2-2.3 Back

29   Q343 Back

30   Q211 Back

31   Ev 198 Back

32   Ev 203, item 3 Back

33   Q169 Back

34   Extract from the National Curriculum for science. Available via Back

35   Q337. See also Ev 173, para 15 Back

36   Q94 Back

37   Ev 107, Appendix 9, para 2. Valuable Lessons: Engaging with the social context of science in schools. 2001. Available via See also Ev 159, paras 15-17 Back

38   Ev 109, Appendix 10 Back

39   Ev 203, item 4 Back

40   Newton, P., Driver, R., & Osborne, J. (1999). The Place of Argumentation in the Pedagogy of School Science. International Journal of Science Education, 21(5), 553­576. This research found that deliberative discussion between pupils, or between pupils and teachers, of science or its applications occupied less than 5% of classroom time.  Back

41   Q267 Back

42   Ev 200 Back

43   Q265 Back

44   Q454 Back

45   Ibid. Back

46   Q265 Back

47   Q271 Back

48   SED65 Unprinted evidence. See also Ev 92, para 2.3 Back

49   Ev 155, para 5 Back

50   Ev 202, para 2 Back

51   Ev 135 Back

52   Q265 Back

53   Ev 155, para 6 Back

54   Ev 83, para 2 Back

55   Ev 200; Ev 202, item 2 Back

56   Ev 103, para 121 Back

57   Ev 204, item 7 Back

58   TIMSS 1999 International Science Report, Chapter 6, figure 6.9. Available via Back

59   SED20 Unprinted evidence. Se also Ev 136, Appendix 21 Back

60   Q130 Back

61   Q85 Back

62   Q232 Back

63   SED70 Unprinted evidence. See also Ev 93, para 7.1; Ev 94, para 4 Back

64   Q176 Back

65   Q213 Back

66   Ev 203, item 3 Back

67   Q131 Back

68   Ev 200 Back

69   Q349 See also Ev 161, para 11 Back

70   Q271 Back

71   Ev 135 Back

72   Qq233 and 234 Back

73   For example Q244, Q265, Q312 Back

74   Ev 200 Back

75   Ev 196, para 3 Back

76   SED65 Unprinted evidence  Back

77   Ev 207 Back

78   Ibid. Back

79   Ev 126, para 46 Back

80   Ev 201 Back

81   SED70 Unprinted evidence Back

82   SED62 Unprinted evidence Back

83   Q182 Back

84   Q186 Back

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