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


Memorandum submitted by fforwm


  1.  fforwm welcomes the opportunity to provide a written memorandum to the Science and Technology Committee in its welcome Inquiry into Science Education 14-19. This response has been drawn up with the assistance of members of fforwm's Curriculum Policy Group.


  2.  fforwm is the national organisation representing all 24 further education (FE) colleges in Wales. It is an educational charity and a company limited by guarantee. The fforwm Board comprises college principals and chairs of corporations, appointed by member colleges. fforwm provides a range of services to its members including networks, conferences, research, consultancy and the sharing of good practice. It also works closely with a wide range of partners in seeking to deliver high quality post-16 education and training. Through fforwm, colleges are represented on various committees, working parties and other groups influencing and shaping policy in post-16 education and life-long learning. fforwm has recently set up a Curriculum Policy Group, comprising senior curriculum managers from six colleges in Wales, to assist the Board in developing proactive policies on a wide range of curriculum matters.


  3.  The 24 FE colleges in Wales offer a huge range of courses to some 220,000 students. They include general FE colleges, tertiary colleges, specialist land-based colleges, a sixth form college and an adult residential college. Colleges also provide higher education (HE) courses directly funded by the Higher Education Funding Council Wales (HEFCW) or through partnership arrangements with HE institutions in Wales. They make a significant contribution to the economic development of Wales and are central to the ambitious agenda set by the Assembly for raising the skills levels of the working population of Wales.


  4.  Science provision in the colleges in Wales includes:

    —  GCSE courses in chemistry, human biology and physics (by far the most popular is human biology).

    —  AS and A level courses in biology, chemistry, human biology and physics; over the last four years there has been a decline in the number of students enrolling in chemistry (down 20 per cent) and physics (down 25 per cent) programmes and an increase in the number of students taking biology (up 25 per cent) and human biology (up 67 per cent).

    —  Science input to other courses, for example, Sports Science, Childhood Studies, Health & Social Care, Engineering, Hairdressing and Beauty Therapy. Most of these courses, which include modules of applied science, have experienced an expansion in student enrolment; engineering, where there has been a fairly significant decline in enrolments, is the exception.

    —  GNVQ Intermediate and Advanced Level Course in Applied Science; there are only two such courses running in Wales currently and both have low enrolments.

  5.  An interesting point to note is that there has been a small increase in the number of students combining science subjects with other subjects, for example, humanities. Perhaps we have the first signs, post-Curriculum 2000, that students are embracing a mix of humanities and science subjects in a more positive way. This contradicts findings by a University of London Institute of Education/Nuffield Foundation research project quoted in the TES of 15 June 2001.

  6.  The experience of Coleg Gwent (Wales's largest FE College) in September 2000 demonstrates the pattern of provision:

    —  1,253 students enrolled on AS courses (single subjects)

    —  of these:

    —  92 enrolled for Biology

    —  64 for Chemistry

    —  17 for Environmental Science

    —  20 for Human Biology

    —  56 for Physics

      compared with:

    —  122 enrolled for Psychology

    —  85 for Sociology

    —  84 for English

    —  67 for Mathematics.


  7.  The way in which science is taught:

  There tends to be too much emphasis on theoretical aspects and not enough on practical work.

  8.  Where science is taught:

  Much of science is taught in somewhat old-fashioned laboratories. This contrasts strikingly with the more modern laboratories used for teaching computing, IT and electronics. There is a serious image problem that adversely affects science and aspects of engineering.

  9.  There are encouraging signs that colleges are beginning to respond. For example, Jane Davidson AM, Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning, National Assembly for Wales, recently opened a £1.75 million purpose-built science centre at Coleg Gwent (Crosskeys) to mark the launch of Wales Science Year.

  10.  Mathematical content:

  There is a marked correlation between the decline in the number of students studying chemistry and physics and the numbers studying mathematics. Similar trends are evident in engineering and economics. All of these subjects are dependent on students having a sound basis in mathematics. 16 year-olds, although having completed GCSE mathematics and achieving a grade C pass or better, do not have the necessary understanding of mathematics (especially algebra) to cope with A, AS science or applied engineering courses. Many students lack confidence in the manipulation of equations and formulae.

11.  Lacking relevance:

  Much of GCSE, AS and A level science provision lacks relevance to everyday life. It is only in vocational contexts that students really develop an appreciation and understanding of scientific applications.

12.  Assessment:

  This has been largely based on recall of factual knowledge rather than understanding and application. Surely, there should be much more emphasis on the assessment of practical work in the sciences and on students "learning by doing" science. The inclusion of a formal practical examination in the new AS courses is a welcome development. The amount of formal assessment is excessive, with students and staff constantly on an assessment "treadmill". There is too much emphasis on assessment at the expense of learning/understanding/enjoying the subject. Examinations still have too many questions based on recall rather than testing understanding and application.

13.  Aspects of teaching:

  Science teachers in some FE colleges project an ageing profile when contrasted with their counterparts in other curriculum areas. Physics and chemistry teachers are almost invariably male and there is a significant age and gender stereotype (although in at least one college in Wales, science lecturers are entirely female). Some colleges are experiencing difficulties in recruiting well qualified science teachers.

14.  The use of equipment in teaching and learning:

  The equipment in science departments varies in quality. The best and most modern equipment is usually associated with purpose-built laboratories well equipped with up-to-date computers. The worst reflects the old fashioned, space consuming, inflexible and inappropriate facilities of days gone by. In many cases, practical work is not carried out in an investigative way, to reinforce theory or to teach a new skill, but is carried out to fulfil assessment criteria.

15.  Lacking responsiveness to the needs of industry and employers:

  Science departments tend to be driven by an academic, HE orientated set of aims and objectives. A recent research project published by fforwm on "the Contribution of FE Colleges to Economic Development" drew attention to the needs of employers in pharmaceutical, plastics and polymers. Only one college in Wales currently has part-time courses to meet the training needs of such businesses and this is at HND/HNC level.

16.  Quality and standards:

  Although most of provision is deemed to be of a satisfactory standard and some 40 per cent of science provision to be good or outstanding, an above average amount of provision for the FE sector as a whole in Wales is deemed to be less than satisfactory. GCE A level pass rates are often good but GCSE pass rates at grade C or above are poor in many FE colleges. A number of colleges experience poor retention rates in science courses which are subsequently reflected in unsatisfactory completion rates.

17.  Science curriculum 14-19:

  Separately taught sciences at GCSE are felt to provide a better grounding for those who wish to progress to AS and A level. Students who have studied balanced science courses seem to be at a disadvantage compared with students who have studied single sciences. Some students underachieve at GCSE because they have performed badly in one of the "combined subjects". There is a strongly held view that the content of the National Curriculum, especially at Key Stage 4 (14-16 year age range) restricts the time available for practical work.

18.  Conclusion

  fforwm believes that there should be increased investment in the recruitment and training of science teachers, closer links between educational institutions and industry in the teaching of science, a strong focus on the vocational aspects of science and a planned increased investment in science facilities. At present, the choices available to students in science do not meet the range of ability, aptitude, interest and perhaps career aspirations. Science provision will need to respond to the widening ability range of students in post-16 education and training. Students should have the opportunity to follow a more skills-based vocational course with less emphasis on academic rigour.

February 2002

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