Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Institute of Physics

  1.  The Institute is pleased to contribute to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee Inquiry into Science Education for 14-19 year-olds[3]. We believe that this Inquiry is timely, particularly in view of the disappointing uptake of the sciences in general and physics, in particular, post-16. The Institute has been encouraged, however, by recent curriculum initiatives at the Primary and Key Stage 3 levels, some of the outcomes of which can be applied with success at the older age-range.

  2.  The Institute fully supports the concept of considering 14-19 education as a continuum. An essential principle of such a 14-19 science curriculum is that it has to recognise the separate identities and characteristics of the major sciences. The National Curriculum has ensured that all young people study the sciences to the age of 16, but the numbers continuing with science and, indeed, mathematics post-16 have been disappointing. This is an opportunity to increase such take up which will have a consequent increase in the study of subjects such as engineering and physics in higher education, as well as improving scientific understanding for all students. These subjects are of direct benefit to wealth creation.

  3.  A continuum approach to science for 14-19 year-olds will have two major advantages:

    (i)  it would enable the structure, programmes of study and assessment of science courses for this age range to be given full reconsideration;

    (ii)  it would provide flexibility for student choice, which is not currently available.

  4.  Currently, students are constrained to follow a path which takes them to AS and A-Levels, whether academic or vocational through GCSEs. This is an unnecessary constraint on many students, whether they will follow an academic or vocational path or, indeed, a mixture of both. A 14-19 curriculum should enable individual programmes of study to be designed for each student, which would be most apposite for his or her interests, abilities and expectations. For example, some students at age 14 would proceed directly to AS-Level and possibly A-Level studies in the subjects of their choice; others would follow a path comprising both GCSEs and AS-Levels or, indeed, a mix of vocational qualifications, GCSEs and ASs. Such flexibility will, for example, enable those who wish to proceed to a degree in physics to obtain the necessary background in both mathematics and physics over a longer period, thus giving the students increased confidence and broader experience before they proceed to higher education. In essence, a properly constructed 14-19 programme of study will enable students to progress more quickly and to study their specialist subjects to a greater depth.

  However, the Institute is strongly of the view that all students in the 14-19 age range should study a broad range of subjects which would bring many students up to the levels associated with the Baccalaureate. Within this, it is important that all students reach a minimum standard across the sciences.

  5.  Physics is an experimentally based subject. An essential pre-requisite for a successful new curriculum is that school laboratories are adequately equipped—this is not so at present. Students of physics are influenced by the environment in which the subject is taught and, in particular, by the available equipment. The support provided by technicians for students and teachers is also of crucial importance. More funds are required to provide new equipment for school and college laboratories and to ensure a cadre of trained technicians to help deliver the experimental part of the curriculum.

  6.  Currently, too much student time is taken up with assessments—with examinations taken at the ages of 16, 17 and 18. Not only does this have financial implications for the schools/colleges but erodes the time available for teaching and learning. A major benefit of a 14-19 curriculum will be that the need for three successive summers of examinations for most students is removed, with consequential benefits for both school and student. The new ability to acquire, interpret and use information to solve problems and analyse situations is more pertinent in today's world than the ability to recall facts. The existing curriculum is being driven and shaped by assessment demands, rather than aims of understanding. The new curriculum should be accompanied by a broader range of assessment techniques. Open-ended, investigative work, particularly of a long-term nature, should be promoted as the most appropriate way of engendering experimental and investigative skills in students.

  We commend to the Committee the assessment approach espoused by the Institute's new Advancing Physics AS/A-Level course, which is accredited by the OCR Awarding Body. The Select Committee is invited to visit a school or schools where this course is enthusiastically received.

  7.  A new curriculum will not succeed unless there are enough confident, high quality, physics teachers. Only those with confidence and competence can teach their subject well, engaging and enthusing students, and motivating them to pursue careers in science and technology. The supply of new teachers into physics is at a catastrophically low level. In the Autumn of 2001 fewer than 150 trained physics teachers entered the profession. In the early 1990s the numbers were over 700 a year. Current initiatives by Government, our Institute and others to increase the number of graduates entering teacher training must show dramatic improvements in the near future.

February 2002

3   This submission complements that of our sister learned bodies, The Association for Science Education, The Institute of Biology, The Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, The Royal Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry, submitted separately. Back

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