Secondary School Science: Fit for purpose?

Autumn 2010 promises to be an interesting time for University-level science courses in the UK. Although many colleagues around the country are presently unaware of the fact, students joining their degree programmes in October may arrive with very different background training in science compared with previous generations.

In 2006, major reforms of GCSE Science courses were introduced in England and Wales. The motivation for the changes stemmed from a fundamental question about the purpose of school science. At risk of gross oversimplification, the history of these developments goes something like this.

When I were a lad
Back in the old days (add “good” only if you feel this is appropriate) pupils were offered a range of O Level choices and they could elect to pick three, two, one or even no science courses depending on what they wanted. Science was not therefore a ‘core’ part of everyone’s post-14 education – it was taken by those who had an interest in the topic, a substantial portion of whom might well go on to study science at a higher level too. The curriculum reflected this and might be considered as the first rung leading towards a science career, it was “science education for the proto-scientist”.

From O Levels to GCSEs
Jump forward to the early years of the 21st Century. The National Curriculum (NC), ushered in by the Educational Reform Act of 1988, is looking increasingly problematic and nowhere is this more apparent than in relation to Science. Under the NC, Science has become a compulsory subject, studied by all UK students up to the age of 16 regardless of interest. The content of the course has been adapted from the previous O Level model when, you will recall, the emphasis was on the training of future scientists. The vast majority of those taking compulsory GCSE Science have no intention to continue with the subject to a higher level (whilst I was a secondary school teacher one pupil really said to me “Sir, why do I need to know the structure of an atom?” and I had some sympathies with him).

Over time, therefore, a groundswell of opinion felt that rather than “science education for the proto-scientist” what we really needed was “science education for public understanding” (there is a whole different debate on “public understanding” v “public engagement” but I’ll save that for another day).

New curricula for a new generation
It was this change that the 2006 GCSE modifications were meant to herald. Gone was much of the content and fact regurgitation in favour of greater emphasis on “How Science Works”. The emphasis would be on making sure all students had a grasp of the important role played by science in their daily lives, so that they had a grasp of the relevance of science stories on the news, even if they were perhaps a little less sure of the details. This development was inevitably controversial – shortly after the launch of the new curriculum Richard Sykes of Imperial College described the content as “soundbite science” and Baroness Warnock labelled it “more suitable for the pub than the school room“.

Post-16 Science
The students who began their GCSEs in Sept 2006 moved on to their A Levels in Sept 2008. Given their radically different background, of course, it was also necessary to give A level Science courses a dramatic makeover. Again, the content was altered to place greater emphasis on How Science Works with the inevitable consequence that some factual knowledge had to be removed to make room for this dimension.

Once again, this development has received some public criticism. To my mind, the most interesting controversy to date has centred upon the January 2010 exam for Biology module 4 in the AQA Specifications. This was the first unit take in the second year of the A Level course and outrage about the emphasis within the paper led to unprecedented protest, including the obligatory Facebook petition.

Critics argued that so much of the paper was about data handling that you actually didn’t need to have revised any of the module-specific content to take the paper. When the dust had settled, however, many teachers were willing to concede that the paper had done nothing more that put into place exactly the sort of altered emphasis that had been promised when the new curriculum was launched, although the exam board should have done a rather better job of communicating this to schools in the form of model questions and guidance in the run-up to the paper. What this will all mean for this summer’s results remains to be seen.

Onward to University
Those who are keeping track of my thesis will no doubt have spotted already that the pioneering cohort of students taking the new style A levels will become the undergraduates starting degree programmes this autumn. One important question therefore is: how well prepared will these new model students be for University-level Science courses? Amongst university academics who are aware of the changes, opinion about their potential merits have been divided. Many are concerned about the loss of background knowledge resulting from the cutting of factual content. Personally, I am quite excited by the prospect; if the student starting this year have a better grasp of the methodology and the scope of science, including its limitations as well as its strengths, then we can work on content-deficiencies together. We all know, after all, that there is no shortage of access to information these days, what we really need is skills to handle that information – to evaluate it and discern the wheat from the chaff. Perhaps the fresher of 2010 will have those skills more obviously than there predecessors.

Don’t forget the other question…
There is a second important question, however, namely: how well prepared will university-level courses be to receive these new model students? My over-riding suspicion is that few universities will have made any concrete plans to do anything differently to the pattern that has been followed for the past few years. In many ways, this is a natural position for universities to adopt – it takes minimal or no effort to carry on as before, at least initially. It could legitimately be argued that it is very difficult to know what changes are necessary or appopriate given that we don’t actually know yet whether or not there will be a substantial and significant difference between the new breed of undergraduate and the older version.

At a very minimum, I do feel that it is incumbent upon coordinators of first year courses and convenors of first year modules to be aware that this autumn’s intake may have different strengths and weaknesses. It may be worth undertaking some baseline evaluation to assess the knowledge and skill-set of new students (though, of course, this will be even more meaningful if several years of previous data were there for comparison). Personal tutors need to know that issues may arise.

All change (again)
Of course, such is the obsession with tinkering with school curricula, GCSE specifications are actually changing again this year. Yes, that’s right – before we’ve even had a chance to see if the last set of changes have delivered greater understanding of the process of science or whether they have caused significant harm to students’ factual knowledge, the materials are being thrown up in the air once again. Now that IS irritating.



  1. Good post Chris. I suspect that there are only a handful of first year lecturers aware of these changes, I hope that you can circulate this widely!
    Just as importantly for us as educational researchers, have we got any plans for pre- and post- curriculum change measures?

    • As I indicated in the post, I think the chance to do the baseline survey pre-changes has probably been missed.

  2. Thanks for the reminder, Chris. As you say, I’m not sure what if anything we should do other than be aware of it and try to be prepared to respond to any noticeable differences as and when they arise.

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