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


Memorandum submitted by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA)

  1.  The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) was established by the Education Act in 1997 from the merger of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications. Its remit includes:

    —  monitoring, developing and supporting the curriculum, including the national curriculum;

    —  developing assessments and securing the development of qualifications founded on national quality standards;

    —  regulating external qualifications and national tests.

  2.  This memorandum draws on evidence from the work of the science team and others at QCA and the partners with whom the Authority carries out its remit. It identifies key issues and seeks to relate these to the Inquiry's terms of reference.


  3.  The key issues from QCA's perspective focus on:

    —  who should study science, and for what purpose;

    —  what science students should study from ages 14 to 19;

    —  how contemporary science issues, practices and applications can be included in the courses students study;

    —  how students can best be engaged in the science they study;

    —  how assessment and qualifications systems can be designed to support the aims of science teaching, whilst guaranteeing credibility and confidence in the outcomes.


  4.  The national curriculum at key stage 4 (for 14-16 year olds) requires all students to study science. There is no parallel requirement post 16.

  5.  The aims of the school curriculum as set out in the national curriculum handbook for teachers[29] are twofold: to meet the learning and achievement needs of pupils and to address their personal development. The handbook describes the importance of science[30] in ways which underpin both of these aims. The programmes of study for science include the knowledge, understanding and skills considered appropriate for all 14 to 16 year olds. The emphasis on a common entitlement means that choice is limited to three variants, all providing a balance of content across the sciences. The Government expectation is that the great majority of pupils will take double science or three separate sciences[31] at key stage 4. This expectation is largely realised in practice. The very large majority of pupils take GCSE qualifications, while a few take qualifications at Entry level.

  6.  There is provision in regulations for students to be "disapplied" from the requirement to follow the science programme at key stage 4 and instead to follow a work-related learning course. Only a very small number take this option. The opportunity to strengthen work-related learning will be offered to more students with the introduction of the new GCSE in Applied Science from September 2002. This programme has its origins in GNVQ Science at foundation and intermediate level. It sets learning in clear technical and work-related contexts.

  7.  The White Paper Schools Achieving Success[32] proposes a more flexible key stage 4 curriculum and greater coherence post 16. The forthcoming consultation paper on 14 to 19 education arising from this White Paper will offer a curriculum framework and suggest outcomes. The introduction of the GCSE in Applied Science will contribute to flexibility and coherence. In addition, QCA is developing a pilot framework for GCSE in the sciences for 2003 which would include:

    —  a single GCSE with an emphasis on "science for everyday life," which all students would take;

    —  additional modules which focus on either key ideas across the sciences or the application of science in a range of contexts. It is expected that most students would take a range of these modules, leading to one or two additional science GCSEs and allowing progression to GCE AS/A level, Vocational A level or work-based programmes.

  8.  In contrast to the common entitlement at key stage 4, the diversity of courses available post-16 reflects a wide spectrum of educational and employment needs. Thus, GCE AS/A level particularly supports entry to higher education in sciences and related areas (such as medicine) while vocational qualifications focus more on skills for employment and further technical learning. Increasingly, the Government is looking to increase flexibility, notably by strengthening the progression route from vocational qualifications to higher education. Further, new general courses like the AS in Science for Public Understanding enable more post-16 students to maintain an interest in science, even if their main lines of study lie elsewhere.


  9.  The scope and content of available courses reflects the balance of purposes outlined above. Thus, the balance pre-16 favours what is appropriate to the personal development and future learning opportunities for all, whereas post 16 there is a greater diversity of more precisely-focused courses. The most recent revision of the National Curriculum was designed address a perceived overcrowding of content and provide a broader interpretation of the nature of scientific enquiry and scientific knowledge.

  10.  GCSE science content is required to reflect and build on the national curriculum programme of study at key stage 4. The requirements include the skills involved in scientific enquiry, knowledge and understanding of topics relating to common concerns (such as health) and key concepts such as energy and the structure of matter. Those who expect to continue their science studies follow either a double award or a three-science programme, both of which include a more extended range of topics, including plant biology and concepts such as chemical bonding and electric charge. Nationally-required features are specified in QCA's accreditation criteria, and individual GCSE specifications can be viewed on the websites of the awarding bodies.

  11.  The new GCSE in Applied Science incorporates a work-related emphasis through its three components of:

    —  laboratory procedures and scientific skills;

    —  scientific understanding of living organisms, materials, mechanisms and electrical devices;

    —  the use of scientific understanding and skills to solve work-related problems.

  Details are available on the QCA website.

  12.  The framework for QCA's pilot GCSE in the sciences will permit alternative balances to be struck between "science for all" and progression routes to scientific and technical specialisations. The core course will place emphasis on topics at the heart of individual well-being—such as health and food—and on the evaluation of data and media coverage of contemporary science issues. Students will be able to choose additional modules incorporating more specialist content appropriate to their interests and expectations. The approach is designed to give a greater degree of flexibility and help prevent the over-crowding which can result from presenting all science topics to all students.

  13.  Post-16 science courses properly reflect a diversity of purposes, with content designed to provide various lines of progression from GCSE. GCE AS/A level courses include the principles and concepts which characterise the subject, together with supporting competences, notably in mathematics.

  14.  Mathematical competence underpins understanding in many areas of science. The mathematical requirements of courses pre and post 16 are clearly specified in QCA criteria and in individual qualification specifications. At key stage 4, requirements are in line with the expectations of national curriculum mathematics.

  15.  The specifications of science qualifications also stipulate ICT requirements. Opportunities for ICT use are highlighted in the national curriculum for science, and identified in all qualification specifications. QCA is currently working with the British Educational and Communications Technology Agency (BECTa) to provide further guidance and examples of good practice in the use of ICT in science.

  16.  Finally, science programmes at key stage 4 are designed to complement national curriculum design and technology through, in particular, the problem-solving approaches included in scientific enquiry and the technological applications of scientific principles. The new GCSE in Applied Science, and the pilot GCSE in the sciences will further enhance the links to design and technology, through contexts such as food production, transportation and forensic science.


  17.  There is tension between the wish to reflect the ever-changing face of science and the need to avoid undue turbulence and uncertainty in learning programmes and progression routes. Courses and assessment methods need regular, measured review to ensure that an appropriate balance is struck between the fundamental and the contemporary. Some relevant initiatives are outlined below:

    —  in the recent revision of GCSE science specifications, care was taken to reflect up-to-date applications of science (such as mobile `phones), current issues (the biotechnology of cloning for example) and developing ideas about the nature of science;

    —  in the GCSE in Applied Science, work-related contexts have been drawn from current practice and linked to relevant national occupational standards in consultation with the relevant national training organisations;

    —  in the pilot GCSE in the sciences, the criteria for evaluating data and public discussion of science issues were tested against current media reports, to ensure the course would provide suitable opportunities for pupils to engage in science-based discussion;

    —  during the revision of AS/A level specifications, several "project" courses were developed and piloted by leading educational and scientific institutions, including the Nuffield Foundation, the Salters Foundation and the Institute of Physics. Such projects continue to inspire innovation including, for example, ICT-based developments, context-led approaches to scientific concepts and enhanced practical investigations. A new Nuffield A level Biology programme is due to be piloted in September 2002;

    —  science Year, in collaboration with QCA, has commissioned a review and organised a seminar to discuss ways of ensuring contemporary science is included in all post-16 science courses. Approaches range from devising additional qualifications or units to providing professional updating for teachers.


  18.  Earlier sections of this memorandum have noted how a refocusing on the purposes of science education pre and post 16 can promote courses and qualifications which represent modern science validly and are relevant to students' needs.

  19.  Suitable content is a necessary but not sufficient condition for ensuring students' engagement. A key additional factor is the quality of science teaching. This is affected in turn by initial training, continuing professional development, and the supply of curriculum advice and teaching resources. QCA aims to use its specialist knowledge and the insights gained through monitoring to support developments in these key areas.

  The following examples illustrate the range of this aspect of QCA's current work:

    —  monitoring indicates that most teachers and advisers consider the approach to scientific enquiry in the revised national curriculum science programme well designed to stimulate pupils' interest;

    —  monitoring also shows that almost all schools have used the QCA/SEU schemes of work for key stages 1, 2 and 3 in some way and have found them particularly useful in planning teaching programmes;

    —  QCA is advising the DfES on curriculum planning and assessment in connection with the development of training materials for the key stage 3 science strategy. The strategy aims to raise pupils' achievement and thereby extend their post-14 options. The training programme is also likely to impact on teaching at key stage 4 and, possibly, post 16;

    —  QCA provides teachers directly with guidance on curriculum planning and examples of pupils' work to illustrate good practice. The guidance includes planning for pupils with different needs—for example, the gifted and talented and pupils with learning difficulties. Good practice exemplars focus on identifying levels of pupil performance, recognising progression, responding innovatively to curriculum change, and addressing the science-related issues raised by living in a plural society. Resources are published on QCA's website and sent to educational institutions as published booklets;

    —  QCA's innovative pilot GCSE in the sciences is expected to prompt the development of teaching and learning resources by independent agencies, as has been the case with the curriculum projects mentioned earlier. Good teaching and learning materials and appropriate assessment strategies help to support effective change and the influence of projects often spreads beyond those directly involved in the courses.


  20.  Assessment arrangements must be fit for purpose. Outcomes need to be valid, reliable and manageable if they are to support learning programmes. Each contains similar pattern of objectives: knowledge and understanding, application, and practical/investigative skills, but different weightings reflect the different purposes of each qualification.

  21.  Confidence in assessment and qualifications systems relies heavily on the maintenance of standards. This is a major aspect of QCA's work. The Authority's science team contributes to the monitoring of national curriculum assessment arrangements and all accredited science qualifications to help safeguard validity, reliability, comparability of standards and fairness across the field.

  22.  QCA's regular scrutiny and monitoring programmes and the extensive review of the "Curriculum 2000" reforms have highlighted a number of issues. These include:

    —  the possible distortion of learning programmes by an over-concentration on the external assessment;

    —  the implications for validity, manageability and reliability of internal assessment;

    —  the amount of time required for assessment; and

    —  examination timetabling problems, notably for practical assessments in science.

  23.  Other issues arise wherever alternative paths are provided. So, for example, all content and assessment options raise comparability issues. Further, while the "staged" assessment of units of content can motivate students and provide useful feedback, it can equally raise concerns of assessment overload and fragmentation. The latter problem, has been addressed in A level by the requirement of a synoptic element of assessment towards the end of the course. This component will be implemented for the first time in summer 2002.

  24.  Vocationally-related qualifications, including the new GCSE in Applied Science, typically have around two-thirds of the assessment carried out internally with external moderation. This enables teachers to set assessment tasks appropriate to the student's situation—for example, in relation to a particular piece of work-experience. Implementing the new GCSE will provide challenges to many teachers, who will need professional support and training if the assessment is to prove manageable and fit for purpose.

February 2002

29   The National Curriculum Handbook for secondary teachers DfES/QCA, 1999, p.11. Back

30   Ibid, p.102. Back

31   Ibid, p.17. Back

32   Schools Achieving Success, DfES, 2001. Back

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