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Reforms to science at GCSE and A level: content delivery and practical skills

Published: Aug 5, 2014 6 min read

STEM learning

The Westminster Education Forum held a series of seminars for a predominantly teacher audience on Thursday 22 July 2014 about the ‘Reforms to Science at GCSE and A-level: content delivery and practical skills.’

Among the questions raised at the seminar around the new science GCSE seminar were:

  1. What are the teaching and learning implications posed by the move to new linear GCSEs, with coursework and modules removed?
  2. Does the content of the new science GCSEs link with the content of the mathematics GCSE in a way that will adequately facilitate cross-curricular teaching?
  3. How can Government address concerns that making the content of the GCSEs more challenging has the potential to put pupils off taking up science at GCSE and A-level?
  4. How well will the new GCSEs prepare students for the transition to A-level? Given that ‘triple science’ [TS] – the three individual science GCSEs – consist of more advanced content than the science double award qualification [DS], what steps can schools take to ensure that those studying the double award are not at an unfair disadvantage in preparation for A-levels?

My points on the questions above to the audience were as follows:

There are teaching and learning implications of linear assessment

It’s not really so helpful to just concentrate on chunks of teaching time, and argue for a two-year versus a three-year GCSE. What we need is bigger curriculum thinking: a five-or even seven year progression that effectively plans over successive stages, where teachers have time to revisit both skills and content.

‘Young’ teachers may have never experienced anything other than modular exams themselves. Similarly, current teachers have been teaching modular curricula for more than 12 years, and have acquired ‘habits’ that go along with that approach. That’s not meant pejoratively, it’s simply a consequence of the past curriculum changes. There is however, a lot of supportive professional development that would benefit teachers making the transition to more synoptic teaching and learning.

Increased demand of both literacy and mathematics

To answer the question of ‘whether the content of the science GCSE links with that of the mathematics GCSE’, with another question: has the mathematics GCSE been designed to complement the science GCSE (or vice versa)? How much co-planning was there? If it has been designed so, it will be much easier, more sensible, and incentivising for maths and science departments to be able to work together to deliver a more seamless education. Equally, what can the science department gain from working with the English department? And do they have the time to do so?

It is the ability of the teachers to absorb these changes and transfer them into suitable learning experiences for their students that is really the challenge. For example, there has not been a wide-scale whole-school approach to numeracy across the curriculum since 2002 (National Strategies). Again, there are professional development implications.

Erm, it’s not about the content

When you look at the curricula of other countries, they are remarkably similar in cognitive demand at comparable ages. The proposed science GCSE has overall similar science content to the existing one.

We shouldn’t confuse ‘challenge of content’ with what ultimate grade boundaries will be to reduce grade inflation; they are not comparable things.

It is teachers who provide the challenge

It is teachers who provide the transitions between stages

The issue is the quality of the teaching rather than the content of the curriculum.

A key solution is to professionally develop the teaching workforce so that they are able to cope with the constant change

The issue is how teachers in post-16 offer the right transition from different pathways

Does Triple Science  have ‘more advanced content’? I don’t think this is wholly precise. It is true that some concepts are more demanding, but on the whole, triple science has more breadth than double science rather than more complex content.

As such, it is not necessarily an advantage to those who have done it over double science; some post-16 teachers assume their students have come from the double science route, and plan and teach accordingly. However, many colleges are now only enabling triple science pupils with A* /A to take post-16 qualifications, as it is more straightforward for them than the work they would need to put into the transition for those from grade B or below or from double science.

The most disadvantaged are really those double science students who attempt an A level with a C grade from the lower tier, as they have not had the breadth of content of double science higher tier. It might not always be the case – it might be that they can and do succeed with the right transition – but it requires a commitment and willingness from  post-16 teachers to provide this

It is however fair to say that triple science students who are required to take it in double science time are disadvantaged also, and this too has the potential to put students off taking it post-16. This is the key point from Ofsted’s ‘Maintaining Curiosity’ report – it is the lack of sufficient curriculum time and quality of teaching which are the limiting factors to pupils’ success.

A wider perspective is that for some students triple science is right and the depth it allows them motivates them, as they like the challenge, it suits their interests and helps them move to post-16 sciences.  However double science level and content is the right choice for other students , particularly for those who want to spend their curriculum time in other areas i.e. sports, music, arts, humanities before possibly specialising in post-16 science. The needs of the individual student must be considered rather than shoe-horning them into a one-size-fits-all qualification.

Here is the full presentation I made to the Westminster Education Forum;

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