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An education more like the past may not make for a better future

22 Jun, 2012

ExamNew proposals for a reform of the primary and secondary school curriculums have hit the headlines recently. Hilary Leevers asks what that might mean for science education in the UK.

Last week a civil servant from the Department for Education tried to smooth the passage of the new proposals for the primary science curriculum. Participants at a conference on science education were told that they should not infer anything about the secondary curriculum from what had been announced for the primary. There was some consternation over how, if the secondary curriculum did not relate to the primary one, there could be a coherent learning pathway but I certainly did not imagine that we might be facing a cliff edge.

According to the proposals leaked in the Daily Mail, and later discussed by Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, in Parliament, the National Curriculum will be abolished for secondary schools. Other radical reforms propose the re-introduction of O-level style examinations, intended only for the more academic students, and a less challenging CSE-style counterpart – and these examinations are planned to be run by a single exam board.

The Wellcome Trust will of course be responding to the consultation in due course, but here are some of my first thoughts on the news.

The importance of science in a National Curriculum

As more and more schools opt to become academies or set up as free schools, they opt-out of their obligation to follow the National Curriculum. Free schools and academies are required to follow a “broad and balanced” curriculum that is meant to include science, but it was expected that schools would choose to follow the National Curriculum as the gold standard. It seems an abrupt shift of view to entirely eliminate the National Curriculum and leave schools to fend for themselves without set guidance on what subjects and topics should be covered.

Northern Ireland has already, in 2007-08, released its schools from following a National Curriculum post-14. Thus students no longer need to study a balance of science subjects and can, for example, choose to take one, two or three of biology, physics and chemistry GCSEs. This has led to a change in the distribution of science studies: in 2007 entries for biology, physics and chemistry GCSEs were pretty evenly spread across the subjects, but following the changes there were 40 per cent more biology GCSEs than physics and chemistry in 2011. In England, the biggest risk of decline would most likely be physics given how many secondary schools lack a physics teacher.

If the secondary National Curriculum is withdrawn it is vital to ensure that there is still a statutory obligation to teach all three sciences up until the age of 16. It may be that certain incentives will be in place to encourage the teaching of all the sciences, but incentives rarely offer a guarantee. For instance, although schools would no longer be judged on the proportion of their students who gain 5 A-Cs at GCSE, the English Baccalaureate would stay – presumably counting the new examinations as well as GCSEs. To achieve an EBacc, students need GCSEs in maths, English, a humanities subject (geography or history), a modern foreign language and two sciences. Up until now the two sciences could either be two combined science GCSEs or two of physics, chemistry and biology GCSEs, so long as the students had sat all three subjects. It will be very important to ensure that the right combination of regulation and incentives assures a breadth of science for all students up until the age of 16.

New academically selective examinations run by a single board

If there is no National Curriculum and there are no programmes of study, how will schools decide what to actually teach? The examination specifications will become even more critical in defining the content of classes and it is vital that they are broad and developed with expert input.

In recent years, there has been growing concern about the way in which competition among examination boards could reduce the challenge and quality of examinations – as highlighted by the report of the Science and Learning Expert Group (2010) and more recently in the Wellcome Trust’s response [PDF] to the Education Select Committee’s inquiry on Examinations.

The proposal is for a single examination board to set the new examinations – this should reduce competition and sustain challenge. However, examination quality also relates to the expertise of the question-setters. Having two new levels of examinations to run alongside the current GCSEs in every subject risks diluting examiner expertise.

It is vital to remember that GCSEs benefit students by avoiding pigeonholing them into high- or low-aspiration courses at the tender age of 14, as the old O level and CSE system did. Instead, students can keep their options open until they are entered into examinations. It would be a shame indeed to return to days in which students’ aspirations are curtailed at 14.

The language around the press coverage of the ‘O levels’ leak has been all about ‘back to the future’.  It may be that some of the rigour of O levels was lost in the transition to universal academic education and the GCSE, but ministers need to be careful about yearning for a golden age that never was. Robustness, rigour and high academic standards, yes. But do we really want to go back to a time when students could take limited or even no science qualifications at 16?

Hilary Leevers, Head of Education and Learning, Wellcome Trust

Find out more about the Wellcome Trust’s education work

Image credit: Flickr/albertogp123
One Comment leave one →
  1. 22 Jun, 2012 2:21 pm

    Spot on Hilary. Let the blogs speak!

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