NC38: Memorandum submitted by SCORE

(Science Community Representing Education)

Summary

As a guidance framework to ensure all young people have equal access to quality education in the sciences throughout their statutory schooling, a National Curriculum can be a positive influence on teaching and learning.

 

The effects of a high-stakes assessment system have distorted the positive influence of the National Curriculum, leaving a legacy of rigid adherence to its content by many science teachers whose practice would be much improved if they were more confident in using recent flexibility to meet the needs of their pupils.

 

If we accept the dominant role played by the National Curriculum, then we need to better understand how what is intended becomes reality in the classroom. We should ensure that all significant change is thoroughly piloted before introduction and sufficient support is available to teachers in order that they make positive impacts from the change.

 

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) have made welcome efforts to reduce the prescription of the National Curriculum, but there has been a tendency for that prescription merely to be shifted onto test papers and qualification specifications.

 

Changes to the English system of testing and assessment - learning lessons from change elsewhere in the UK and involving teachers from the start - could lead to significant improvements in science teaching and learning, and in the value of the National Curriculum.

 

This response has been prepared by the SCORE partnership and therefore represents the combined views of the following organisations: Association for Science Education, Biosciences Federation, Institute of Biology, Institute of Physics, Royal Society, Royal Society of Chemistry, and the Science Council.

 

The SCORE partnership aims to bring collective action and a strategic approach to strengthening science education, and believes that the key to maximising the impact of its efforts, especially their influence on government, lies in a greater degree of collaboration and in having a sense of common purpose. Through this collective action, the partnership aims to increase its influence over the direction of science education in the years to come, in particular over teacher supply and retention, curriculum development, assessment, delivery of support to teachers and students, and strategies for reaching all young people regardless of age, background, level of ability, gender, ethnic origin and geographical location.

 

Association for Science Education www.ase.org.uk

Biosciences Federation www.bsf.ac.uk

Institute of Biology www.iob.org

Institute of Physics www.iop.org

Royal Society www.royalsoc.ac.uk

Royal Society of Chemistry www.rsc.org

Science Council www.sciencecouncil.org


Arguments for and against a National Curriculum

 

1. SCORE considers that the provision of a National Curriculum gives schools a framework to ensure all pupils have an entitlement to a broad and balanced curriculum in the years of statutory education. However, whilst such provision can do much to promote equality of opportunity, such as ensuring all girls have access to the physical sciences, it can constrain flexibility in teaching and learning.

 

2. As the National Curriculum is enshrined in law and bound by a high-stakes assessment system, changes have been difficult to pilot and therefore have had unpredictable consequences which a thorough system of trialling might have revealed before blanket introduction. For example, despite a much greater number of students being exposed to physics between the ages of 14-16 when the National Curriculum was introduced, there was a drop in the numbers taking the subject post-16.

 

3. The move towards science as a single subject across the 11-16 age range as opposed to separate sciences has had a profound effect on the recruitment and retention of specialist science teachers. It has also had a significant effect on the management of science within schools, where some head teachers do not appear to recognise the breadth that is covered by the sciences and the consequent challenge for teachers, support staff and students. There is some evidence to suggest that where schools have maintained the profile of the individual sciences they are more successful in recruiting to post-16 physics.

 

4. We would recommend that for the 14-16 age range the subject named Science in the National Curriculum becomes 'The Sciences' and explicit reference is made within any curriculum documentation to the nomenclature commonly used in the scientific community to name these subjects e.g. biology, chemistry and physics. SCORE also recommends that the importance of mathematics for science is made explicit in the teaching of both subjects.

 

 

The purpose of a National Curriculum

 

5. A National Curriculum should provide a basic framework for subject knowledge, skills acquisition and conceptual development within which teachers have the freedom to explore the subject and enthuse their pupils. There should not be an assessment 'straitjacket' forcing teachers either to teach to the test or to narrow the emphases of their teaching because of the demands of league tables.

 

6. For a number of subjects, including science, it is not unreasonable to ask what is meant by the National Curriculum. Currently at Key Stage 3 many teachers use the QCA Scheme of Work to develop their teaching programmes. We understand that this is not being replicated for the new programme of study but that further guidance material is being produced by the Secondary Strategy. At Key Stage 4 the science that young people learn depends more on the specification chosen by their teachers than the stipulations of the National Curriculum. Whilst there is considerable consultation about the contents of the statutory National Curriculum there is much less opportunity to comment on the material that effectively determines the curriculum taken by young people.

 

 

The balance of central prescription and flexibility at the school/classroom level

 

7. In the sciences, the need to balance the development of a scientifically literate population with the provision of an adequate supply of scientists and engineers is worthy of careful consideration. The National Curriculum (and the way it is used in the classroom) needs to respond to individual and local needs, as well as those of the national workforce. This 'dual purpose' is well known in the science education community but has not been straightforward to reflect in the National Curriculum.

 

8. The right balance between prescription and flexibility can only be maintained by having confident and competent specialist teachers in place, and supporting them through professional development and adequate resource. Whilst SCORE is agreed that all pupils across the 5-16 age range should be exposed to teaching across the sciences, we are also convinced that this content should be delivered by subject specialists to students above the age of 14.

 

 

The impact of the current testing and assessment regime on the delivery and scope of the National Curriculum

 

9. Testing and assessment clearly have impacts on the teaching and learning of all subjects in the curriculum. However, we feel that the current system has had a particularly detrimental impact on science, and may thwart recent attempts to reflect the fact that science is as much about process as content. These positive changes to the science curriculum, associated with increased support for enquiry-based pedagogy, are undermined by a system which values factual recall and superficial conceptualisation over deeper understanding and engagement.

 

10. In particular, we are concerned that the assessment system has played a major role in the current perception among many young people that the sciences, along with some other subjects including mathematics and foreign languages, are more difficult than other subjects at A level. SCORE has recently commissioned some work from the Curriculum, Evaluation and Management (CEM) Centre at the University of Durham and we would be pleased to share this with the Committee once it is complete.

 

11. The resource-intensive assessment system adopted in England yields very little information of value in relation to improving achievement and explaining differences, for example on the basis of gender or socioeconomic status.

 

12. The pressure on teachers in both Primary and Secondary phases to 'teach to the test' and focus on increasing the number of pupils getting Level 5, 6 or 7 in Key Stage tests and gaining 5 A*- C at GCSE is immense. This has led to a severe imbalance between assessment for learning (formative assessment) and assessment for accountability (summative assessment), which represents an impoverishment in the quality of science teaching and learning.

 

13. Time which could otherwise be spent on long-term scientific investigations, enrichment and enhancement activities, debates about the wider significance of science and discussions about career prospects with science qualifications are to a considerable extent taken up with class revision, test administration and data management. Concerns have been raised that while the National Curriculum may be in part responsible for setting and raising standards at the lower end of the ability spectrum, it has at the same time capped expectations of those at the higher end. We note that the private sector is protected from statutory testing and therefore has much greater freedom to provide more tailored learning, especially regarding stretch and challenge for more able students.

 

The likely impact of the single level tests currently being piloted

 

14. Given that these tests are currently being piloted we feel it is somewhat premature to comment on their impact. We can only expect that should the pilot show serious deficiencies and unintended consequences of this proposed reform, particularly if they increase the burden and pressures of testing in England, the proposals will be amended or even rejected.

 

15. We are surprised that not more attention has been paid to the experiences of Wales and Northern Ireland in reducing external Key Stage tests, and suggest that these should be closely monitored and weighed against the proposals in the Making Good Progress consultation.

 

16. We question the value of blanket testing at Key Stages 2 and 3 and suggest sampling a statistically significant proportion of the cohort allied with a national requirement for teacher assessment, noting the efforts Scotland is making in this area through their 'Assessment is for Learning' programme.

 

 

How well the National Curriculum supports transition to and delivery of the 14-19 Diplomas

 

17. It is difficult to comment on this until we have a clearer view of the contents of the proposed Science Diploma. However, we are unsure of how the statutory content of the National Curriculum will articulate with the aims identified for science at level 1 & 2 within the Science Diploma. A related issue is how the recent drive to increase the numbers studying triple science can be incorporated within the Diploma structure, particularly at level 2.

 

18. There is also an issue about the relationship between diplomas with significant science content and existing science qualifications. For example will an engineering diploma at level 2 provide sufficient preparation for level 3 science qualifications?

 

 

The role of the new style Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in relation to the National Curriculum

 

19. We hope that the new arrangements increase clarity regarding which agency is responsible for improving the system of testing and assessment. We have been disappointed in the past with QCA's commitment to significant and ongoing attempts to moderate standards between awarding bodies and ensure equality across subjects and qualifications, and hope that, once operational, Ofqual will succeed where QCA have failed in this regard.

 

20. While the moves to a reduced National Curriculum have the potential to yield many benefits, we are increasingly concerned about the market forces operating in national qualifications at Key Stage 4 where awarding bodies attempt to sell their qualifications to schools keen to optimise their league table positions, particularly when those awarding bodies increasingly also operate as, or in close association with, commercial publishers.

 

21. While the competitive market in qualifications would be dissolved by creating one awarding body, it has been claimed that the current situation has advantages in maintaining a diversity of offer and ensuring a continued investment in curriculum development and innovation. We feel that this ongoing question about the optimal number of awarding bodies needs further discussion and prompt resolution.

 

22. We propose that the regulatory authority carries out a review of the current arrangements for the unitary awarding bodies to explore what impact the reduction in the number of awarding bodies has had in terms of value for money and innovation. We believe that reduction should have led to improved comparability across examinations without losing the benefit of the curriculum development through different specifications with their own particular flavour. But we are concerned that this curriculum development is being stifled by the awarding bodies' engagement in publishing. The fact that awarding bodies are in competition and are also generating revenue as publishers of educational resources casts some doubt over the whole examination system. In the current system, there is nothing to prevent an exam board from positioning itself as easier than its competitors with virtually no method of ensuring that they are not. It is difficult to see the benefits of competition in this environment.

 

23. We would also recommend that the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) and the QCA agree and publicise a best practice model of curriculum development - from initial research and consultation through to implementation and evaluating impact - which could be used as a quality standard for future change. We believe that Government must give more consideration to how concepts and skills are developed at different stages of science education. The current piecemeal approach to curriculum reform makes it almost impossible to provide a coherent approach.

 

 

The role of teachers in the future development of the National Curriculum.

 

24. The system of testing and assessment should be reviewed, in close consultation with teachers, in order to increase the positive role of assessment for learning. We have been disappointed with recent attempts from the QCA regarding teacher consultation which have seen mediocre use of technology severely constrain the number and diversity of respondents.

 

25. Positive results from any significant change in the nature and assessment of the National Curriculum will be dependent on equally positive developments in the culture of teaching. School and college teachers emerging from a period of centralised prescription will need more relevant, high-quality continuing professional development (CPD), and adequate time to develop and implement better practices, in order to feel confident about making decisions about what is right for their students and their school.

 

26. It is disappointing that the Government still does not seem to have accepted the fact that proper piloting and evaluation before national roll out is essential for effective curriculum change. It has been shown time and again how valuable this process is in ensuring that new qualifications are effective and we would be very disappointed to see any reduction in piloting. Indeed, we deeply regret that it was not possible to pilot aspects of the proposed national curriculum at KS3 before its implementation this September.

 

27. We note that, in 2007/8, science teachers are attempting to implement some or all of the following changes:

teaching the second year of new GCSEs;

preparing to teach separate award sciences at GCSE from 2008 in response to the non-statutory entitlement for pupils who attain level 6 at KS3 in science to be able to take triple science at GCSE;

preparing for the new A level courses to be taught from 2008;

preparing to deliver some science elements in the new diplomas.

 

.March 2008