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scientists comment on the GCSE science curriculum

These comments follow the publication of a report into science education by the House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee, which includes scathing criticism for the GCSE science curricula.

Peter Atkins, Chairman of the Committee on Chemical Education at the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, and Professor of Physical Chemistry at Oxford University, said:

“Nothing is more important and exciting than science education. We owe it to the younger generation to introduce them to the power of scientific explanations, and the deep pleasure it provides. School teaching of science is in the grip of outdated and unimaginative curricula. That’s not to say that we should give up teaching facts, which are the bedrock of science. Instead, we must stress the importance of how science uses relatively simple ideas to generate huge insights into the world. Most of all, science education should convey the idea that understanding adds to our delight.”

Professor John Holman, Director of the University of York Science Curriculum Centre, said:

“As a former head teacher and science education specialist, I have to say that Ian Gibson has put his finger on the problem. The problem is that the GCSE science curriculum is trying to cater for everyone at once. These GCSE students are the citizens of tomorrow, who need to know about science in order to make better sense of news stories such as those relating to the risks of HRT – and that means understanding risk as well as hormones. But some students are also the science specialists of the future, who need a good foundation for A-level and university studies. GCSEs end up serving neither particularly well.

“I was glad that Ian Gibson recognises the new pilot science courses that QCA have asked us to develop here at York. With a core Science Course for Citizens, and additional modules for specialists, it should provide much needed flexibility as well as bringing frontier sciences such as gene therapy, cosmology and atmospheric monitoring into the classroom.”

Andy Bullough, project coordinator at the Centre for Science Education at Sheffield Hallam University, which is in the forefront of devising and running innovative curriculum projects in the UK, said:

“I was a teacher in South Yorkshire for 11 years, and I know that resources are very tight in secondary schools. The National Curriculum does rely on teaching a lot of scientific facts, but there’s plenty of scope for teachers to be more adventurous in what they teach kids – the trouble is they are often not encouraged to do so. There is a culture that discourages science teachers from being creative in the classroom.

“The science curriculum also fails to give students the opportunity to develop their communication skills. This is such a key element in being a good scientist, but it’s being neglected. The relevance of science to broader society is also ignored, and this simply turns kids off.”

Sir Alistair MacFarlane, chairman of the Education Committee of the Royal Society, said:

“School science concentrates too much on churning out exam candidates who feel like potential contestants for quiz shows such as ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’. Pupils are required to memorise facts and figures in a way which does not develop an appetite for the real spirit of science and an understanding of its relevance to everyday life. Both the curriculum and the assessment system need to be radically improved so that pupils can see how they can use science throughout their lives.

“We are glad that the Select Committee has endorsed our calls for the Government to improve substantially the technical support for science lessons. Technicians are often the unsung heroes of school science, and their pay and conditions are deplorable. Without their expertise it would be impossible for students to gain the vital first-hand experience in practical lessons of the experimental method that lies at the very heart of science.”

Alun Jones, chief executive at the Institute of Physics, said:

“The Committee recognises the crucial importance of science education both for future economic competitiveness and for quality of life. We are especially pleased that the Science and Technology Committee report strongly recommends a wholesale review of GCSE science to provide the flexibility needed to widen options and to encourage more students to continue with science after the age of 16.

“Whilst the recent £50 million provided by the DfES for laboratory refurbishment is welcome, it will be money wasted if adequate technical support is not provided too. Without confident, high quality teachers, especially in areas of shortage like physics, any attempt at curriculum reform is doomed to fail. We urge the government, in its forthcoming white paper, not only to address the issues of concern raised by the Committee’s report but also to investigate and deal with the five major deterrents – pay, conditions, status, workload and technical provision – that are deterring the enthusiastic and motivated scientists that schools need from starting a teaching career.”

Dr Peter Cotgreave, Director of Save British Science, said:

“We particularly welcome the recommendation that careers advice must be improved, because many young people do not appreciate how valuable an education in science will be when they enter the job market. There is virtually no unemployment among physics graduates.

“The Committee did not consider teacher supply, because they believe that this subject is so great that it requires an inquiry of its own. The issue was raised repeatedly by the educational community, because the shortage of new teachers in some subjects, especially physics and chemistry, has now become a catastrophe.”

Note to editors: Copies of this report can be obtained from 11 July 2002 from TSO outlets and from the Parliamentary Bookshop, 12 Bridge Street, Parliament Square, London SW1A 2JX (020 7219 3890) by quoting House of Commons paper No. 508-I. A volume of oral and written evidence will be available at the same time as 508-II. The text of the Report will also be available on the Committee’s internet homepage.

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