Probing the new science GCSEs

Materials World magazine
1 Dec 2006

Diane Aston loves her job.

'It’s absolutely brilliant. The kids are generally really responsive!’ she enthuses. As she passes around parts of turbine blades, jet engines and hip replacements to year 10 Science students (in their first year of the two-year GCSE course for 14 to 16-year-olds) at Walthamstow Hall, an independent girls’ school based in Sevenoaks, UK, it is easy to see why she enjoys teaching so much – the pupils are fascinated by the materials on display.

The ‘smart’ thermochromic kettle in particular draws a gasp, as it changes in colour from purple to pink when the water is boiled.

Aston, in fact, is not a teacher in the traditional sense, but the Education Co-ordinator at the Institute. She runs the Schools Affiliate Scheme, which involves travelling around the UK to member schools presenting on ‘Materials in Action.’

‘It’s to give them inspiration,’ she says. ‘To make [the pupils] aware of the materials around them that they take for granted.’

Unlike the teachers at the schools she visits, however, Aston has the advantage of only having to hold the attention of an individual class for 90 minutes once a year.

In the midst of ongoing headlines concerning the lack of interest in science among pupils and declining numbers studying the subject post-16, it seems the new Science GCSEs, introduced in September 2006, have been developed to help teachers promote a dynamic climate of learning, where questions such as the insightful ‘Why was that material used?’ to the excited ‘Where can I get that kettle?’ are asked.

Getting down to business

According to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) that devised the new programme of study, it needs to cater for both those individuals who will pursue a career in science and technology and those who won’t, so that all pupils are ‘scientifically literate’ – aware of the relevance and importance of science to society.

The QCA aims to ensure that pupils are studying science that is ‘relevant and up-todate’ and that there is ‘choice in the courses to prepare [students] for different career routes post-16’. It also hopes to ‘develop interest in and enthusiasm for science’, and ‘encourage more pupils to choose further science study post-16’.

To meet these objectives, a new statutory core course has been introduced that is equivalent to a single GCSE and will be studied by all students. The course covers the following topics within biology, chemistry and physics – organisms and health, chemical and material behaviour, energy, electricity and radiation, as well as the environment, Earth and the universe.

Pupils must also be provided with the knowledge, skills and understanding of ‘How Science Works’ – looking at scientific data and theory (see box far right). QCA encourages teachers to use a variety of methods of learning, including practical demonstrations, information technology, discussion and investigation.

Alongside this compulsory qualification, students who wish to pursue any of the sciences post-16 can opt to study more in-depth GCSEs that include Additional Science and Additional Applied Science, as well as courses in the three separate sciences. QCA specifications make up only 50% of the content for each of these additional science subjects, with the individual awarding exam body deciding on the remaining criteria.

Schools are therefore said to have more flexibility in their choice of programme. All courses are divided into units of assessment, with the amount of coursework varying and often undertaken in the classroom rather than at home.

The Government expects that all pupils will have the opportunity to study at least two science GCSEs, Core Science and Additional Science, which is equivalent to the previous double award qualification.

Removing the rigour?

But however admirable the intentions for establishing the new programme, there has been much criticism voiced in the media, with claims that the qualifications are ‘dumbing down’ and are ‘not proper science’ – the core course allegedly encourages debate on issues such as climate change but fails to cover the basic scientific concepts to ensure comprehensive analysis of such areas.

The Association for Science Education has reacted to this by issuing a statement of support. It explains that the courses were developed by the QCA in collaboration with the likes of the Royal Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Institute of Physics and the Institute of Biology, and that they enable Heads of Science to select a criteria for study that better suits their pupils’ needs.

But what do the science teachers think? Susan Wilkinson, a Chemistry teacher at Walthamstow Hall, which has selected the AQA syllabus for its pupils, is ‘not convinced’ that the courses will benefit all students.

She explains, ‘No doubt, we did lose as many as half of our girls at year 10 who started to feel they did not know what the subject was talking about. So this should have more interesting content for the lower ability pupils or those who have no interest in science. ‘When they study plastics, it is not only going to be about writing out the equation for polymerisation, it will be about new and exciting plastics. I am going to do an experiment with them making silly putty – we would not normally have had the chance to do that. [The practical work] still involves investigating, planning, analysing and evaluating.’

Wilkinson fears, however, that the new GCSEs will do a ‘disservice’ to the school’s most scientifically able pupils.

She says, ‘There’s no doubt that they will have less factual content if you put in all the things they want you to, [such as] the discussion, the current issues. The syllabus does not tell you how much you need to delve into the broader concepts. You look at the time you have.’

She stresses that the nature of the exams will also dictate how the courses are received.

‘We don’t know yet if they are more like comprehension questions – that will advantage a certain type of pupil that might not do a lot of work but has common sense and wit, and will be able to answer questions on the disadvantages of burning fossil fuels without us teaching them but by reading the newspapers. The ones who slog and learn do well because they really work. If they then find the paper is basically comprehension and this learning is not necessary – they will get disheartened.’

Wilkinson’s concerns about her more scientifically orientated pupils are echoed by Mark Patchett, Head of Physics at King Edward VI Handsworth School in Birmingham, UK.

He says, ‘I have a divided opinion. The general philosophy of trying to make science accessible with the concept of "How Science Works" is good, but the academic rigour needed for more able students is not.’

He suggests that there may be a domino effect, with ‘A’ levels and, eventually, university degrees being adjusted to accommodate this shift.

‘You may see the dumbing down of ‘A’ levels to cope. For example, in ‘A’ level Physics, we cover potential dividers and sensors – the grounding for that was in the old GCSE, but now it has been completely taken out. I do not think the rigour is there for reading science at universities, as they will struggle at ‘A’ level. How will we produce the world’s best scientists?’

Stop, look and listen

For all the uneasiness from teachers such as Patchett and Wilkinson, who admit they are accustomed to teaching scientifically able pupils, Professor John Holman of the University of York, UK, stands firm on the benefits of the new system.

A secondary schoolteacher for 25 years and a university lecturer since 2000, Holman is co-author of one of the range of GCSE programmes on offer. The 21st Century Science courses were piloted by the OCR awarding body in 80 schools across the country from 2003-6, and are now available to all. One thousand schools have signed up so far.

Holman insists, ‘There is a lot of misunderstanding. Scientists need to look more closely at the syllabus. It aims to produce a core module that is more appropriate for everyone and not just future scientists. That does not mean they are spending all their time discussing. They are learning through a variety of methods. It is about being able to read a [scientific] story in a newspaper critically and vote for a political party, knowing the theories and laws of science.’

In response to concerns from teachers about the more scientifically inclined students, Holman reiterates that the Additional Science GCSE caters for these individuals. He argues that the structure will in fact benefit them, as there will now be a coherent group of pupils that wish to study science further. This will enable teachers to ensure that they stay focused and are not distracted by those students that are less interested.

From his own experience in teaching, he adds, ‘able people can be challenged by doing more than learning facts. They get bored [otherwise]. What does challenge them is to look at data and see what conclusions they can draw from it. About an hour ago, I was teaching 150 students at the University of York. The amount of ground you can cover when you have students who are motivated is incredible.’

On the frontline

Whatever the point of view, science teachers who rely on a didactic style of teaching may need to adopt a different manner to suit the new qualifications. Simon Richards, Head of Physics at Alsager School in Stoke-on-Trent, UK, is steadfast in his opinion that it is teachers who make the difference.

'I think recruitment to ‘A’ level is teacher dependent.’ He argues that the impact of the new system depends on ‘how it is [taught] by the school. It is possible to teach it in a very instructive way. My approach is to try to enthuse children by relating the lesson content to real life and asking questions that hopefully make them think. I strongly believe that practical activities are the best way to learn. I try not to be too bound by the syllabus and be reactive to the needs of the students. It seems to get some pretty good exam results.’

Wilkinson agrees that this may be the approach required and suggests that more training will be needed for teachers.

‘Issues such as global warming, genetic engineering and nuclear power are important, but whether [the core module] will create a scientifically literate public will depend on how it is taught. You have to take care [the pupils] don’t pick up buzz words and reinforce their own prejudices.

‘Research and discussion has been done in the past, but we need more experience on how to make discussion productive, to consider all sides of an issue,’ she insists.

Ultimately, with the new GCSEs only having been taught for less than one academic term, it is early days and the debate will continue. Moreover, there remain interrelated concerns that may need to be monitored and addressed – Key Stage 3 (11 to 14-year-olds) and its influence in encouraging pupils to study the more in-depth additional GCSEs, the number of independent schools switching to the international GCSE and Baccalaureate in reaction to the new courses, and the need for a continued flow of specialist teachers in the three sciences.

Richards adds, ‘The fact that we [Alsager School] have specialists in all three disciplines of science preparing the new units, means it is unlikely to cause any problems in terms of delivery. But the great problem [nationwide] seems to be recruiting enough physicists [and] chemists.’ The jury is out.