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


Notes on meetings held at St Augustine's Catholic College, Trowbridge, by Dr Andrew Murrison, MP for Westbury, on 19 April 2002


  St Augustine's Catholic College is a specialist technology college in Trowbridge, Wiltshire. It is a comprehensive school with a student roll of approximately 850 students between 11-18 years of age. Its OFSTED report last year stated ``St. Augustine's is an excellent school''. At my request the Headteacher, Mr Brendan Wall, set up a day for evidence gathering that included students at various stages, Headteacher, Heads of departments, the Head of curriculum and the chief laboratory technician.

Summary of findings

1.  Two strands of thought, often from the same witness, emerge in terms of the curriculum:

    (a)  That it was important to maintain the integrity of ``hard'' science and that there has been an element of ``dumbing down'' in recent curriculum developments.

    (b)  That the curriculum should be made more ``relevant'' to daily life.

2.  The curriculum was letting down the less able forcing them to do work that they struggled to absorb. It was felt that courses must be suited to their needs, strengths and abilities and that this might involve a more practically based curriculum for them.

  3.  The entry of girls into science is limited by perceived career options and lack of role models. However, girls tend to out perform boys at science.

4.  All were agreed that science should play a part in the citizenship curriculum. There was concern, however, that matters of debate should not be dressed up as facts.

5.  Biology is seen as distinct from ``hard'' science having much in common with the humanities. It was not felt that it provided a good ``in'' to other sciences.

6.  Health and Safety is not seen as an impediment to practical work,

7.  Laboratory Technicians may not necessarily wish to be directly involved in the classroom or be looking for a definite career structure.

8.  Doubt was expressed over the assumption that standards in schools are improving and it was felt that exams had got easier. There was a suggestion that public examinations exclude some of the harder elements of the curriculum.

9.  Concern was voiced at the pressure that today's students experience, particularly in relation to tests and exams.


Item 1.  Interview with Headteacher

It emerged that the school does lots of science early on and a GCSE in Science is completed two years earlier than normal thus satisfying the Government's curriculum requirement. One innovative measure has been the introduction of a science theme day which is a whole school activity. This is done using an enrichment day which occupies the last day of term.

Item 2.  Interview with Head of Chemistry

The Head of Chemistry perceives two groups:

1.  The life sciences group.

2.  The massed physics and chemistry group.

He saw the students who were likely to be attracted to these two groups as being different although he admitted to a synergy between chemistry and biology. He felt that the perception that the science was difficult and that biology was perceived as the easier of the science options. He felt that chemistry supports biology but not the other way around.

Although the Head of Chemistry felt that there should be a move towards making science applied he felt that, as a member of the ``old guard'', he wanted his students to understand theory. Nevertheless he felt that the Vocational GCSE was a good idea in principle. When asked about the implications of health and safety regulations he felt that they did not present a problem in the classroom and did not limit the practical work carried out.

He felt that citizenship issues might usefully be drawn into science but he was concerned that this might dilute the curriculum and dilute the science.

He pointed out that, in matters such as voting, scientific decisions may be involved and that in a market economy with economic choices science is definitely involved. That he was strongly opposed to "fat" in the curriculum came across strongly.

I asked the Head of Chemistry what he felt about the Salters course, He said it would not appeal to him as he perceives it to be rather similar to the Nuffield course. He was not that keen on compulsory balanced science to the age of 16 and was concerned that the less able found it hard and as a consequence might feel demotivated and humiliated if forced to do it.

The Head of Chemistry felt that there should be a more off the shelf approach to teaching so that a teacher could come into a classroom take a lesson off the shelf and get on with it. If it was in WORD format it could be rendered bespoke. He felt that market forces should influence pay and that workload and not pay were the issue with the teaching profession currently. He would like to see sub-16 three levels:

—  Single Award GCSE.

—  Double Award GCSE.

—  Triple Award GCSE.

The Single Award would have its content cut by about 40 per cent and would half the time devoted to it. He felt that there should be a modular approach to the curriculum so that, for example, you do all of equilibrium in one year. The current approach he feels wastes delivery time. He felt strongly that if a matter is in the curriculum it should be potentially in the exam paper. He felt that examiners "wimp out" by excluding the hard topics eg moles.

Item 3.  Interview with Head of Physics

The Head of Physics discussed the six 40 minute sessions of science that are taught at St. Augustine's from Year 7. This enables students to do GCSE at the end of Year 9 and thus enables Students to study at a higher level in Years 10 and 11, thus having more choice having satisfied the national curriculum requirements early on. He felt that science should go through to Year 11 but that all three need not necessarily be taught. In other words at this stage science does need to be "balanced".

He felt that citizenship and science went together as the latter was required to form judgments about every day life and national policy, for example energy generation.

Later on in the evidence gathering session it emerged that the Head of Chemistry was regarded as an inspirational teacher. This linked in with his statement that he likes to ask his students "why do science?". It is a rhetorical question the answer being that an understanding of science helps you to understand life.

The Head of Physics did not feel that safety issues impacted much on his ability to do practical work although radioactive sources and high voitages are only allowed in the sixth form. He has had some success in getting girls to do physics and felt that they were better at it than boys. Almost 50 per cent of physics students in Year 12 are girls at St Augustine's.

He felt that we were not raising standards in schools and that in fact exams were getting easier. He felt that the degrading of standards is tied in with the watering down of harder science and pointed out that a lot of this was not in the double syllabus.

He found it difficult to define why St Augustine's was successful in getting students to do science, and particularly girls, although he suggested that perhaps the school's effort to make science relevant may have helped. He agreed that science was perceived as being hard in comparison with other subjects and that school children decide what to do on the basis of what they find easiest. He noted that girls were not encouraged by practical work and indeed were rather put off by it. He felt that people should be encouraged to do develop thinking skills rather than learning by rote. The Head of Physics was worried that the curriculum had taken out what he had regarded as important material and put in what he saw as being not so interesting items such as energy. He said "bring back momentum" and bemoaned the loss of the things like the study of turning forces.

Item 4.  Interview with Head of Biology

The Head of Biology felt that her subject was an "easy option" in comparison with other science subjects, Children could see the relevance of it and the weaker students tended to chose biology. She felt that biology was not mainstream science although there was some overlap, for example in its reliance on practical work. Furthermore, she did not feel that it provided good "in" for science generally as had been suggested for female students, for example. She was keen on balanced science as it is best for access to science.

She pointed out that biology is very facts-based which sets it apart from other science subjects. She felt that the subject was important in the citizenship curriculum but was worried about the time aspects of it. The Head of Biology was concerned about the curriculum and said that it tended to put possibilities as facts where that was inappropriate, For example, she cited the green house effect where there is considered to be a "right" answer for the purposes of the exam paper.

The Head of Biology was in favour of balanced science up to the age of 16 except that she felt that more able students ought to have the option of single science. She felt that relevance was important especially to the lower ability groups. She had not examined the Vocational GCSE and is not necessarily for or against it. She was concerned that schools must give lower ability students something to aim at and if that is a Vocational GCSE then that would be fine.

On the subject of girls she felt they fell into three groups:

1.  Scientific girls heading for medical school.

2.  Girls heading for nursing, work with the RSPCA etc.

3.  Humanities types.

She mentioned that the television impacts greatly especially in forming career choices to do with animals and therefore choices in school.

The Head of Biology was concerned about the curriculum and the less able. She felt that the curriculum is too factually based and that it might be appropriate to make it more centered on project work. Furthermore, she felt that the curriculum should be more flexible for the less able.

Wisely she pointed out that "people are different". She said that children know when they don't understand, as do their peers. It was important therefore to ensure that children are given something that they are able to do according to their abilities. She was worried about the national curriculum and the fact that it is more detailed at 16 than at 17. She made a strong plea against too much testing and cited particularly the pressure that applies at year 12 and the time involved in testing children. She was concerned about the distress that this causes children. However, she acknowledged the need for "in house" testing so that progress reports can be handed to parents. In the context of pressure and distress she cited a student who had overdosed.

Item 5.  Interview with Senior Laboratory Technician

The Senior Lab Tech had been at the school for several years. She agreed that the pay was not very good and that there was not seen to be a career structure. However she was not worried about this as her job fitted in well with her domestic life. She did not feel that she wanted to be involved in the classroom as, being a graduate, if she had wanted to teach she would have done so. However, the other Lab Tech has apparently been involved in doing some demonstrations. She did point out that this was a very personal thing and that it should not be assumed that Lab Techs want to be involved in the classroom.

We discussed citizenship and she very wisely pointed out that this was a faith-based school and that it would be difficult to separate citizenship from religious education. In terms of health and safety she felt that was not really an issue in holding back practical work although consumables tend to constrain the school's ability to embark on extensive practicals.

The Senior Laboratory Technician felt that we should have compulsory science at the age of 16 as it is a ubiquitous discipline in every day life. In terms of the less able, she felt that practical work might be something that they could do and they should be allowed to have a go at it in order to give them tools to get on in life. She pointed out that children tend to love practical work. She felt that the perception of poor job options meant that children perhaps were less inclined to be interested in science and that girls tended to prefer something which was more obviously sociable.

Item 6.  Interview with Pupils

Four senior students gave evidence over lunch without teaching staff present. They felt that practical work was very important. They felt that science was seen as hard and that biology was less confrontational. In terms of encouraging people to go into science they felt that IT usage should be increased.

Item 7.  Interview with Deputy Head—Curriculum

The Deputy Head—Curriculum was an IT specialist/biologist. He pointed out that GCSE science at 14 was achieved at St Augustine's in 67 per cent of cases. He would like to see the key stage 3 and 4 curriculum aligned more to the real world so that pupils were enthused. This might involve more industrial and commercial applications so that students can see the relevance of science to their career options. He felt that one factor limiting the number of students going into science and technology courses was the low attractiveness of science based career options, He was concerned that there was no dovetailing at Key stage 2 and 3 so that primary school children cover quite interesting material which they then have to cover again on entering senior school.

The Deputy Head pointed out that there is 26 and three-quarter hours contact time at St Augustine's which is unusually high. The school is currently doing an audit to determine if there are gaps in the curriculum to be plugged in order to teach citizenship. He felt that there would be a re-branding to some extent of material that is already covered as part of the St Augustine's curriculum. He was a bit concerned that there had been a lot of cross curriculum themes in the past which had failed because nobody "owned" it.

He felt that science should be taught up to the age of 16 and did not agree that there should be no science for the less able. Rather, he felt that the curriculum should reflect the needs of the less able and perhaps that Vocational GCSEs might help. However, he felt that it might be more beneficial to call them ``Practical Science'', these might be project-based eg recycling. He felt that the Vocational GCSE is immature and needs testing before being unleashed.

He felt that the girls need something relevant to them in order to encourage them to study science. He thought that there was a poor perception of post-18 science and that they needed female role models.

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