Beyond 2013?

Last week the Association for Science Education (ASE) ran a New Curriculum Question Time event with a panel of moderate-to-big hitters including Brian Cartwright (Ofsted’s National Adviser for Science) and Paul Black. I wasn’t there but there are some notes on the ASE website and a little bit on Twitter. It’s not entirely clear to me whether there is still (or ever was) an opportunity to influence either the KS4 NC or the next generation of GCSEs in science subjects but I suppose, if not, it could be seen as the first step towards influencing some future review. I think I’m correct in suggesting that the Beyond 2000 report was published in 1998 and informed the 2004 NC review and the 2006 GCSEs. To me, the notes from the ASE are addressing some of the same issues as Beyond 2000; could this be the start of “Beyond 2013”? and might we see this come to fruition not in 2016 but around 2021?

Anyway, so much for the crystal ball gazing; what about the issues discussed? Well, it’s hard to make out any kind of cohesive theme from what’s on the web but there seems to have been discussion of future science citizens versus future scientists, skills versus knowledge, and the future for assessment of practical skills and the soft skills that go with them. I find myself drawing parallels with Beyond 2000, which defined the problem with great clarity but, to my mind, was short of a convincing proposal. Or rather, the proposal was convincing but, seen from the sixth form perspective from which I was viewing it, the outcome was unsatisfactory.

As things stand there is very little disagreement amongst sixth form teachers about which is the better preparation for A-Level. I don’t know if the data supports this view but if it is true that students do better at A-Level off the back of triple (and there is a good, quantitative research question for someone if it’s not been done already) then that suggests triple isn’t a “non-essential extra” and the old dichotomy between “scientists and … future science citizens” resolves into triple for one and double for the other, with career decisions made at 13 or 14 (which they often are anyway). What happens a lot at the moment is that the ‘top’ sets cram triple into the time others have for double, and then pupils from both routes go on to A-Level with the ones that were already behind in y10 starting at a disadvantage because they know less science. That doesn’t seem like a very good system to me. If that’s not going to continue to happen then someone needs to make an outstanding job of the next generation of Additional GCSEs (at least they’ve got plenty of time…) so that, given equal teaching time, the double provides the same foundation for A-Level as the triple. I guess that if the double were very carefully matched to the skills and content needed for Y12, with the triple covering other content of interest (for physics maybe some more depth in astronomy and cosmology; electronics; nanotechnology; new materials; medical physics…) then maybe they would be seen to be equal preparation for future scientists but then this can’t give equal recognition to the needs of the future science citizens because this solution packs the double with the content needed by future scientists. It could go the other way with the double filled with all the more broadly-appealing, qualitative topics, (and particularly the topical questions about climate change, magnetic fields near power lines, nuclear power…) and triple powering through forces and motion and circuits, but then the gap from double to A-Level would be almost unbridgeable.

Ever since I read the Beyond 2000 report, I have found myself thinking that you either have one qualification route that does its best to cater for both groups (neither very satisfactorily), or two routes with one completely focused on training scientists and burying misconceptions that matter later, and the other focused on HSW for controversial topics and popular science. The idea of a common qualification with a bolt-on for future scientists seems like genius but it doesn’t work because of the way pupils and/or schools have to make decisions and fit everything in. I know it’s controversial but I would go for two completely separate routes with every school offering both, and then focus on making KS3 science a great experience, making the “future science citizens” GCSE course engaging and, very importantly, as rigorous as the “future scientists” course, and do everything possible to ensure that schools are not allowed to decide that keen scientists are going to be “citizens” on the basis of relatively poor performance at KS3, whilst also allowing potential A* pupils that want to focus on arts and humanities to do so. If the two routes are genuinely of equal difficulty, and equal size (if the future scientists route content is right then it won’t matter that it’s only a double GCSE) that should sort itself out. Combine that with really good careers advice in Y9 and I reckon that at 14, kids can be trusted to make good decisions. There is even some evidence (Bennett et al. 2013) that having a choice at GCSE, with good advice, helps increase take-up at A-Level. But maybe this isn’t any better than what we’ve got, and maybe it would end up with two unequal courses – science, and basket-weaving – which would be a disaster. Worth a thought, though.

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