Science Education: A new report

Our Society: London Street Scene

Our Society: London Street Scene

This week saw the publication of BIS’s Science and Learning Expert Group’s report, “Science and Mathematics Secondary Education for the 21st Century”. In its own diplomatic way it says ‘science education is a shambles and we need to do something‘. ANd they comment specifically on many of the same points I have been banging on about since I learned about this scandalous situation. However despite their very welcome words, I am not holding my breath. Before I comment let’s do the basics:

The Report

This report is eminently rational and there is not that much to disagree with and plenty to rejoice about. It is really pleasing to hear the great and the good state profoundly that something about which one has been ranting on (I do that occasionally) is true. For example they comment that

…there is a strong perception that assessment has become the ‘tail that wags the dog’ of the education system and that the assessment process has been inadequate in the testing of students depth of subject knowledge and understanding of key concepts.

Recommendation 9 of their report is that QCDA should:

Ensure that the Higher Education sector and other stakeholders are engaged in the design and development of qualifications and assessment in ways that will enable them to accept accountability for and ownership of the quality of the system. In particular, standing STEM expert groups should be established in each major subject to advise on the development over time of 5-19 curricula and GCSE and A level criteria in these subjects. This should be part of a process within QCDA that puts partnership and shared ownership with stakeholders at the core of its culture. QCDA must ensure that it draws transparently on the best professional, academic and employer expertise in order to develop the National Curriculum, the qualifications criteria signed-off by Ofqual, and to advise ministers; and also ensure that stakeholders are clear about how they can influence the final products;

Summarising this means that QCDA need to make specification for exams which enable people to attend higher education, and not just lower the bar and let HE cope with the ensuing mess. Why weren’t they doing that already? Recommendation 11 begins

…the style of examinations should be rebalanced towards assessment of students’ in-depth problem solving and deeper understanding of subject concepts; and there should be greater emphasis on the accurate use of the English language in answers to examination questions.

Well I agree. Recommendation 12 is particularly withering in its comments on Ofqual. In particular it bluntly calls for the endorsement of text books by awarding bodies to stop! Wow! Since that is the purpose for which these bodies exist – the concept of their existing for the public good is now sadly laughable – I really find it hard to see that happening. They also recommend that bodies should not compete to lower standards! Well its a great idea, but it is very hard to see how it will come to pass.

The developing regulatory framework currently being developed by Ofqual for awarding bodies should be strengthened as follows:

●in approving A level and GCSE specifications, Ofqual should ensure that the awarding body has matched the specifications to meet fully the relevant subject criteria, and that sufficient examining expertise and resources are available to the awarding body to deliver their specifications;

the GCSE and A level awarding bodies should be regulated to prevent competition between them resulting in a lowering of examination standards;

●ensure that the governance mechanisms of the organisations that set curricula and qualifications criteria and that deliver the examinations provide the necessary executive challenge and public accountability for the quality of their work;

the practice of awarding bodies endorsing textbooks should be stopped; and

●awarding bodies should ensure that they recruit and ensure training for a sufficient supply of examiners to improve the quality of examination question-writing across the full range of science and mathematics specifications. This will be particularly important if the call for more mathematical content in questions is to be implemented effectively, and if we are to have better ‘How Science Works’ questions.

Recommendation 13 also reflects many of the things that I have heard A level teachers asking for:

There should be a major effort to reduce the modular burden of summative assessment at A level. This should include:

●restricting modular examination sittings to a single period during the Summer term to avoid disruption to teaching and learning at other times of the year and discourage unnecessary re-sits;

●making guidance, exemplar material and support available to any school which wishes to teach some or all of its A levels in linear fashion – ie with all the necessary examinations taken at the end of a continuous two year course; and

●the examinations at the end of the A level course should include synoptic questions aimed at ensuring that students retain an understanding of subject content and concepts across the breadth of the subject matter covered during the two year course of study.

And the report has lots more to recommend it. However, I doubt that almost anything will come to pass.

Why it won’t make any difference

The Report is sponsored by BIS, and not the DCSF who run QCDA. So comments in the report about what QCDA or Ofqual should do are likely to be ignored. The Expert Group were focused on improving education in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (collectively STEM subjects) whereas QCDA has a highly politicised agenda which focuses on continually lowering standards so that more people ‘pass’ public exams.DCSF can state that it is ‘responding to the concerns expressed’ or similar, and then do nothing. We did not end up where we are by accident – we ended up here having been driven here deliberately by people who view the current state of our exam system as an achievement!

And that’s it. The lunatics are still in charge of the asylum and this report is nothing more than confirmation of that by a panel of learned professors.

2 Responses to “Science Education: A new report”

  1. Melindwr Williams Says:

    Hello Michael
    As always, I find much to agree with in your frustration about the nature of the current GCSE science syllabus. It is neither fish nor fowl, and the recommendations made within the report of the Science Expert Learning Group are timely and well-considered, and, if implemented systematically, they would add rigour and challenge.
    I am concerned, though, that your stance (and that of authors of the report) miay be that science education from 14yrs should transform into a model that has only one route – that of preparation for further study of science. I do hope that I am mistaken in this, because, laudable as that end would seem, it will result in meeting the needs of the few, whle disenfranchising the many.
    There are currently two recognisd purposes for science education in our schools – even though this isn’t as apparent as it should be; one is to produce scientifically literate citizens (the majority of learners), and the other is to produce future scientists (a minority of learners). These two purposes are not entirely independent of one another, but they do require discrete syllabi and examinations. As I’ve said in previous posts, science at Key Stage 2 is pretty successful at producing children who are enthusiastic about scieence, Key Stage 3 has become better at building on this, but Key Stage 4 is – sadly – still in the grip of the GCSE Awarding Bodies, whose vested interests can be ambivalent to say the least. The National Science Curriculum itself has the potential to meet the needs of both constituencies of learners (those with an aptitude for science, and those for whom science will be just another subject), but until there are appropriate choices and exams to back these up, we will continue to produce young people at 16 who are neither scientifically literate nor scientifically well-qualified.
    The DCSF and the QCDA do not, I agree, appear to be furthering the aim of either scientific literacy or scientific qualification adequately at Key Stage 4 and beyond; however, campaigning for a more academically challenging science-qualification, to the exclusion of a more general one, isn’t the way forward either.

    • Michael Says:

      That’s a good point. This report essentially ignores the issue of wider scientific education. And it would be sensible if something were also done about the poor quality of his provision as currently embodied in the GCSE.

      If I recall correctly, this was not covered at all in their recommendations for curricular revision, which were only considered Priority 2. However their Priority one recommendations might possibly help: better science teaching including more specialist science teachers with a specialist science background.

      As I said – I actually hold out no hopes that anyone will actually act on this report – but I just find it interesting that elements of it chimed so resonantly with my own views which I formed much more quickly and much less coherently.

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