Comments: The future of secondary school science

Exam time is fast approaching and once again this year pupils will not only be fretting MH900410098about their potential grades, but also over the following inevitable barrage of claims concerning falling exam standards. Yes, however hard you may have worked for that A* to C grade, according to the tabloids, your efforts were futile. Particularly since modern GCSEs are now little more than the academic equivalent of an award for ‘taking part’ – spell your name correctly and walk home with a qualification. But we all know that this is not really the case, that the real situation is significantly more complex.

The truth is, contrary to what we hear from politicians, comparison of exam standards is not an exact science. A seminar held in 2010 by the examinations group Cambridge Assessment concluded that “it is not possible to compare standards, definitively, over long periods of time and perhaps attempting to do so is simply confounding the problem.” Professor Gordon Stobart, from the Institute of Education compared the debate over exam standards with climbing Mount Everest noting that: “In 1953 two people got to the top of Everest, an extraordinary achievement at the time. Yet on a single day in 1996, 39 people stood on the summit.” Does this mean that the mountain is getting easier to climb? Not necessarily, it may simply reflect the fact that more people are attempting the climb and that those who do so are now better equipped.

MH900401121I took my GCSEs around 12 years ago and still remember feeling my success was tempered by claims that exams were ‘getting easier’. I can certainly vouch for the fact that they didn’t feel easy! But, then again, I had nothing to compare them to since, at that time, they were the hardest exams I’d ever taken. Interestingly, the small amount of research which exists in this area shows modern GCSEs are not equivalent to their predecessors the O-levels. A study by the Royal Society of Chemistry (the Five Decade Challenge) found that current students had a harder time answering exam questions taken from the old O-level syllabus than questions written after the GCSE switch-over. The scores for all GCSE-style questions, irrespective of date, remained relatively stable. The study found that students performed well on tests of recall but found problem-solving and tests of quantitative skill challenging.

There are many explanations for these and similar results. It is possible that exams are getting easier. However, it’s equally possible that changes to the syllabus and style of question mean that modern students show different strengths than those required to answer O-level style questions.

MH900402266Anecdotal accounts argue that a culture of ‘teaching to the test’ means that modern students are encouraged to play the system, favouring lessons on exam technique over studying all available material. A particularly worrying example of this can be seen here. To be honest, I do remember a lot of emphasis being placed on past paper learning, knowing how to answer questions and rote learning of facts and figures – something I’m actually pretty terrible at. Add to this a survey by the Confederation of British Industry showing that “more than four out of 10 employers are unhappy with youngsters’ use of English, while 35% bemoan their numeracy skills” and the notion that lecturers often complain about students’ lack of initiative, a worrying picture starts to emerge.

Wherever the problems lie, I believe that it is unfair to blame the students for these failings. Constantly reminding them that the exams they agonised over for the last few years were ‘easy’ won’t solve anything and at worst could be damaging. I also doubt teachers are at fault; they are instead victims of a culture that craves an end result without caring how it is achieved. Instead, we need to take a long hard look at the current system itself and decide whether or not it is still fit for purpose. Luckily this is exactly what education secretary Michael Gove is doing right now. In a recent letter to Ofqual he argues that that “there is an urgent need for reform, to ensure that young people have access to qualifications that set expectations that match and exceed those in the highest performing jurisdictions.”

He is embarking on a mammoth task, which I certainly don’t envy. Not least when it MH900426563comes to science education. With public debate ranging from GM crops to vaccinations, scientific understanding is a must in today’s society. Especially since it has been argued that individuals without a working appreciation of science are more likely to be swayed by pseudo-science and unfounded propaganda. Therefore, providing our children with a strong working understanding of basic science is a must.

Unfortunately I worry that Mr Gove’s reforms run the risk of ‘missing the mark’ when it comes to science. They appear to concentrate heavily on standardising the format of secondary school teaching, removing emphasis on coursework and ensuring qualifications are “linear, with all assessments taken at the end of the course.” This may indeed provide “qualifications that set expectations that match and exceed those in the highest performing jurisdictions.” However, I worry it will fail to tackle the true failings in our current science curriculum.

The Science and Technology Committee Report of Science Education – 2002 states that: “the current curriculum aims to engage all students with science as a preparation for life. At the same time it aims to inspire and prepare some pupils to continue with science post-16. In practice it does neither of these well.” Even more damning is the report’s observations on course structure. It states that “practical work, including fieldwork, is a vital part of science education. It helps students to develop their understanding of science, appreciate that science is based on evidence and acquire hands-on skills that are essential if students are to progress in science.” However, it recognises that due to pressures and time constraints placed on teachers, coursework now has “little MH900448347educational value and has turned practical work into a tedious and dull activity for both students and teachers.” From this they conclude that “many students lose any feelings of enthusiasm that they once had for science… neither enjoy or engage with the subject… they develop a negative image of science which may last for life.” And I can’t see this situation improving if reform means more emphasis on achievement in a final exam and less emphasis on continuous coursework assessments.

The proposed system may place more pressure on teachers to maintain standards through exam achievement alone, running the risk of exacerbating our ‘teach to the test’ culture and marginalising the significance of practical skills development. I hope that if these changes are thoughtfully implemented such problems may be avoided. However, the outcome of this still remains to be seen.

I wonder if there is scope for the scientific community to become further involved in secondary school science education. Successful projects such as I’m a Scientist Get me Out of Here are already gaining in popularity. But, there is still much more we can do. For example: developing online e-learning resources covering the basic curriculum whilst also enabling active scientists, working in related fields, to communicate with students through blogs and forums – placing the curriculum on the context of real-world research. I know scientists are concerned about how their subjects are taught, so perhaps it’s a good time to start building better links with schools and really getting involved?

Post by: Sarah Fox

About The Brain Bank North West

The brain bank comprises a group of scientists from the North West of England eager to enthuse and entertain with their scientific banter. To learn more about who we are see the our 'about' page. You can also find us on twitter @brainbankmanc or email us
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