GCSE Physics: The lunatics have taken over the asylum

William Hogarth's Bedlam

William Hogarth's Bedlam

On January 18th 2010 I attended a meeting called by QCDA – the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Authority – who were seeking the input of professional physicists into the ongoing revision of the Physics GCSE syllabus. It quickly became clear that QCDA staff thought they knew better than everyone else and they were condescending and contemptuous of anyone else’s opinion. In particular, the head of ‘development’ stated that the problem with GCSE physics ‘was physicists’ and that ‘everyone thinks their subject is hardest:- physics is no harder than religious studies’. I didn’t really know what to do about this experience, and on the same day my cousin died in Ireland, and I had to travel for her funeral. The week was busy and a write-off. However on Satuday I saw an article about ‘worthless exams’ in the Guardian and this re-ignited my desire to do something. I wrote a letter to the paper!

My letter was published today, but my friend Alom Shaha had already posted the letter on a ‘How Should we teach Science‘ web site and I been shocked – overwhelmed indeed – by the extensive support from a wide range of (mainly) teachers. Please read some of these comments. They are shocking and moving. Alom headed this with the phrase I had used to summarise this meeting to my bosses: the lunatics have taken over the asylum.

I really don’t know what to do next. I am busy and this is not my job, but it also doesn’t appear to be anyone’s job to stand up for standards in exams if that means that more people will ‘fail’. QCDA has completely politicised the construction of curricula and will not rest until physics is as easy as religious studies. This matters because many real people – generally we call them children but they are people and they will become citizens – are being disempowered. Why? Because actually physics and engineering remain exactly as hard as they ever were – but the holders of these worthless qualifications will simply not be able to study physics, work in physics, or more widely – bring the benefits of physics insights into whatever career they adopt. Its a tragedy. Its a car crash in slow motion, and it may already be too late.

5 Responses to “GCSE Physics: The lunatics have taken over the asylum”

  1. Emma Says:

    Well done Michael! Keep working at it!

  2. melindwr williams Says:

    Mike Stuart and Alom Shaha have posted this statement on the website ‘How should we teach science’ as part of a fuller set of thoughts about science education. It seems, to me, to be an admirable aim.

    ‘All young people also have the right to receive the skills that will enable them to assess whether the information they receive from the media, advertisers, journalists and politicians is reliable and evidence-based. Some young people must also be prepared for possible future science-based study and careers.’

    Difficulties begin to emerge as soon as they use that little phrase, ‘Some young people … ‘ because it raises the spectre of selection and education according to aptitude. It is a political hurdle, and we can argue long and hard about the merits or de-merits of selection and the perceived ‘dumbing down’ of the science curriculum. ‘Success for all’ does not, after all, mean ‘the same for all’.
    There is an equally large educational hurdle to overcome if all young people are to gain a good grounding in, and an enthusiasm for, science in the 11-16 years. Many secondary schools persist in identifying GCSE as their first important point of external accountability, followed by A-levels. It isn’t entirely their fault – they are subject to comparisons based upon aggregated grades. One of the results, though, is that a school’s best science teachers (and I don’t mean its best scientists, because science teachers are just that, teachers; they are not scientists) are typically allocated to the following priority: A-Level; GCSE; 11 – 14. The outcome is that a great many pupils, who enter secondary school from primary with a strong early interest in science are quickly de-motivated. Much has been done in England – through the National Key Stage 3 Science Strategy, for example – to combat this, but progress is slow. Once again, it is the GCSE boards who tend to be the sand in the gears of change – although it is worth looking at http://www.21stcenturyscience.org/ to see a refreshingly honest approach from the University of York.
    As to physics being ‘hard’. I don’t agree that it is any harder to study, at a deep and meaningful level, than any other subject, and I do worry that this erroneous message is peddled by teachers and scientists together. What makes any endeavour hard is not possessing the correct tools and skills. Physics has a particular, but not unique, skill-set that should include mathematics. It is not the only subject that requires mathematics, though, and, like science, maths is often taught indifferently at critical periods in a developing pupil’s life. If I were an R.E. teacher, I would be very disappointed at your implication that physics is, indeed, harder than R.E. Each, when studied to a sufficiently advanced level requires the capacity to observe and collect information, to question fact and belief and to extrapolate experience and manipulate abstract ideas.
    If we are to argue for rigour and aspiration in our children’s education, then it must apply to all subjects and not just to physics.

    • Michael Says:

      melindwr williams

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. The gist of your comments appears to be that there isn’t a problem here. I disagree. You raise two distinct points ‘Education by aptitude’ and the question of ‘difficulty’. Actually, I think these issues are connected.

      If we take the analogy of sport, we try to identify ‘talent’ at the earliest possible opportunity and apply training. People have no qualms about rejecting people not good at sports. I recall very intimately the misery and humiliation of my PE lessons. Why that couldn’t have been made a pleasure I don’t know. In contrast people are very reluctant to identify intellectual talent. Some people have an amazing aptitude for science and in private schools that aptitude will be stretched – like tasking an athlete with more and more difficult challenges. However at state schools focussed on GCSE results – people who will make Grade A easily are not stretched. And the easier Grade A becomes the more these people who will not be challenged. This is not exclusively a curriculum issue but also a teaching issue. However the basic fact is that Physics and Chemistry and Engineering have not become any easier in the last 20 years: But GCSE Physics has become dramatically easier. Indeed it is no longer an intellectual test of Physics but simply a guessing game of (a) teachers playing the exam boards and (b) students playing the questions. Students with an aptitude for physics who are denied the chance to extend themselves are being harmed in the same way that students who find reading difficult and are not offered special help are being harmed.

      Regarding difficulty I could not disagree more strongly. Physics at this level is more difficult. I personally found Physics relatively easy and I never really understood why people found it hard. But they do! People can balance the arguments in a discussion on religion, but in physics they need to do a sum and get the numbers and the units right otherwise they are wrong. Completely wrong. This seems to be the element that frightens people. The QCDA woman wanted to stress the uncertainty in physics, but at the level of GCSE, there is for all practical purposes no uncertainty. And returning to the analogy of sport, I would find running 100 m in 12 s impossible, but others could do it easily. Should my inability be cause for not emphasising their prowess? I don’t think so. Should other people’s inability to do physics be a cause for not emphasising the prowess of those who can. Definitely not.

  3. melindwr williams Says:

    “The gist of your comments appears to be that there isn’t a problem here.”
    I don’t mean that at all, but the problem is one of politics, and the difference between educating scientifically literate citizens and encouraging future scientists.
    Education by aptitude should be the intention of our society, if by that you mean education that diagnoses aptitude early and then works to buld on that while also fostering aptitude in those areas where it is less apparent. I don’t mean by this that everyone will want to become a physicist, but that those with an early (innate if you like) aptitude for science are stretched, while those who do not yet show an aptitude are engaged, encouraged and supported to progress as far as they are able to or want to. Your own sad experiences of sport at school illustrate that teachers have not always ridsen to this challenge. You showed no aptitude and were not encouraged or engaged. If you had been, then you might have succeeded better. I had a similar experience with maths when I started secondary school. One bullying maths teacher succeeeded in changing me from a confident child who enjoyed the subject into a frightened pupil who dreaded his lessons and, therefore, the subject.
    I agree that GCSE is not the same as O-level (but please see my comment to your later post).
    I think we are on the same wavelength, Michael. In my post above, I write, “If we are to argue for rigour and aspiration in our children’s education, then it must apply to all subjects and not just to physics.”
    You write, “Regarding difficulty I could not disagree more strongly. Physics at this level is more difficult..” and “People can balance the arguments in a discussion on religion, but in physics they need to do a sum and get the numbers and the units right otherwise they are wrong.” That is only true because many pupils at this level have not been taught the skills they need to do physics well. Mathematical skills, for example, are often not taught in a way that is transferable to other subjects. If they were, then more children would possess the tools they need to do science well, and we’d have more aspiring scientists.
    Not all scientists need to be, or can be, “first rate” scientists, after all, but there’s certainly room for more pupils to become scientists. Ricard Strauss acknowledged that; “I may not be a first-rate composer, but I’m a first-class second rate composer.”

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