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


Memorandum submitted by OFSTED

  The following provides an inspection-based commentary on science education from 14-19 and suggests questions that the Committee might wish to consider.


Standards and take-up

  Standards of achievement in science have risen slowly at the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). In 2001 92 per cent of all 15 year old candidates attempted one or more GCSEs in science. Of these 98 per cent achieved at least grade G and 52 per cent achieved grade A* to C, with girls' performance just 1 per cent above that of boys. By far the most popular GCSE science option was Double Award, taken by 84 per cent of the entry; 9 per cent attempted Single Award and the remainder (7 per cent) took all three separate sciences: biology, chemistry and physics. Compared with 1999, the proportion of pupils taking GCSE science has risen slightly, success rates have improved by a similar amount and the differential between boys and girls has decreased.

  At Advanced level the proportion of the total candidates taking science subjects has declined over recent years at a time of overall growth in post-16 education. Nevertheless, biology remains the fifth most popular subject (out of 26 including general studies); chemistry ranks seventh and physics twelfth. There are some early signs that the Advanced Subsidiary (AS) examination is resulting in an increase in the proportion of students taking physics courses post-16. Several new courses have been introduced and have proved popular. Standards in the new AS physics are more variable than in humanities. Take-up of AS biology is good but the range of ability of students is great and drop-out rate relatively high.

  English pupils' capabilities in science compare favourably in international surveys such as that recently carried out by the Organisation for Economic and Cultural Development (OECD). This can be attributed in part to the strong emphasis placed on science in the school curriculum but also probably to the wider educational impact of organisations that promote science. It is important to recognise this success whilst addressing the issues of national concern. For example, the reduced take-up of science in Higher Education in the UK appears to be part of an international trend and therefore cannot be wholly attributed to weaknesses in our system.


  Pupils' views about school science are largely formed during Key Stage 3, so it is important that good foundations for 14-19 are laid. There has been encouraging improvement in the attainment of pupils at the end of Key Stage 3 and this trend should continue over the next few years as a result of the Government's Key Stage 3 Strategy for science. This improvement should remove one of the obstacles to progress at Key Stage 4 and provide a secure base for 14-19 studies. Science Year will also hopefully raise the profile of science and pupils' interest in the subject.


  The quality of teaching in science is middle-ranking when compared with that in other subjects. It is generally well organised and lessons are highly structured with a clear sense of purpose. Work set for pupils in the 14-19 age range is for the most part tightly focused on the demands of examination syllabuses and assessment requirements. However, teaching in science often lacks charisma and does not have sufficient obvious relevance to maintain pupils' interest and motivation. Too many lower attaining pupils consequently become disenchanted with the science curriculum whilst some abler pupils are insufficiently challenged.

  Many science teachers feel constrained by what they see as a content laden National Curriculum and a restrictive assessment regime. A small, but growing proportion of schools exercise the freedom which exists to apply the National Curriculum in ways that take account of the widely differing needs of pupils. For example, some teachers give far greater emphasis to the practical applications of science than examination syllabuses require. However, much science teaching continues to concentrate on the imparting of factual information. Until the Key Stage 3 Strategy pilot, science teachers had received very little recent in-service training except that related to changes to examination syllabuses and assessment.

  Most science teachers are specialists in the sense that they have a science-related qualification. However, as the range of initial qualifications has broadened and the curriculum changed, the match has almost certainly become weakened. It is for example not clear that an engineering degree will enable a teacher to understand pupils' misconceptions in biology or that someone who has taught biology for 20 years will readily make the switch to teaching topics in physics. The increased emphasis on subject knowledge in initial teacher training has undoubtedly helped new teachers but the decline in the number of teachers with a background in physical science has had a larger adverse effect. Many Heads of Science have had little training in management and are unable to support non-specialist teachers.


  Double Award science dominates Key Stage 4, with more than four-fifths of pupils prepared for this examination. The one in 10 pupils who take Single Award science are usually lower attaining, as the grade-profile for GCSE shows. This option is essentially a sub-set of double science intended for those whose strengths and inclinations lie elsewhere in the curriculum; it is poorly matched to the needs and interests of those who take it. A small proportion of pupils (one in 14) are prepared for separate biology, chemistry and physics, often with little or no more lesson time than Double Science. There is little evidence to link this separate science option with improved take-up or performance post-16. There is some evidence that it is more difficult to obtain higher grades in separate sciences than in the Double Award.

  The current National Curriculum for science has been criticised by teachers and teacher-trainers for being overloaded and lacking relevance. It is, however, difficult to distinguish between the influence of the curriculum framework and other determinants on classroom practice. Changes to the National Curriculum orders have had little impact on classroom practice, whereas adjustments to assessment have done so. It is likely that changes to the curriculum need to be linked to assessment review and professional development if they are to have a substantial impact on classroom practice. The proposed Qualifications and Curriculum Authority KS4 pilot is planned to address all three aspects and represents a possible way forward.

  There have been some interesting curriculum initiatives post-16, including applications based A-Level courses which make extensive use of CD-ROM teaching and student materials and an AS in Science for Public Understanding. These are broadening the appeal of science subjects post-16.


  Preparation for practical assessment is very thorough, particularly at Key Stage 4, although the range of activities used is small. Non-assessed practical work is often routine and only a small minority of schools plan for the systematic development of investigative practical skills across Key Stages 3 and 4. 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. Understandable concerns with issues of safety have resulted in a reduction in some types of work, notably demonstrations that have previously proved memorable. In most cases these could be safely done provided precautions are in place.


  Much work in science is sharply focused on the demands of assessment. At GCSE, success in Double Award science contributes 40 per cent to the target of five grade A-C passes per pupil, so science results come under particularly close scrutiny. It is therefore inevitable that the science curriculum has become narrowed by teachers' perceptions of the best way to achieve examination success. For example, Scientific Investigation (SC1) has become limited to those experiments that are seen by teachers as tried, tested and successful in generating good examination grades. This narrowing of the practical curriculum is a consequence of teachers' reluctance to risk a broader interpretation the common GCSE assessment criteria.

  Some of the more recent GCSE syllabuses are written so as to give an increased emphasis to the applications of science and its relevance to everyday life. However, so far, examination assessment materials have not reflected this shift in emphasis to any great extent and this has lessened the impact on classroom and laboratory practice. The proposed introduction of "applied" or applications-based science courses at Key Stage 4 will require different assessment models from those currently used and will raise issues of comparability that have previously militated against variety in the science curriculum.


  Is there any substantial evidence that the new AS/A2 courses are having an effect, whether positive or negative, on take-up of science subjects post-16?

  Are the trends in science take-up post-16 in the UK similar to those in other countries or is the decline more serious here?

  Should the KS3 strategy prepare pupils for GCSE decisions and study as well as improving KS2/3 transfer?

  Is it desirable that all science teachers should be equipped to teach across the full science curriculum 14-16? If so, what steps should be taken to encourage and facilitate the professional development of science teachers in order to improve their ability to do so?

  Are the current proposals to pilot an alternative Key Stage 4 curriculum sufficient to ensure that the public understanding of science receives sufficient attention and pupils who have the ability and aptitude go on to further studies in science? If not, then what more needs to be done?

  How can issues of comparability of demand and parity of esteem be addressed in such a way that the assessment of science allows genuine variety in the curriculum? Is it, for example, possible to have different assessment models for "academic" and "applied" science and acknowledge that grade for grade they are of the same worth?

February 2002

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