Teach science for science’s sake

Replacing physics, chemistry and biology with lessons in 'scientific literacy' will make children more wary of science in general.

David Perks

Topics Science & Tech

It’s the summer holidays, and the crazy examinations reporting season is upon us again. However, something odd has happened this year. Instead of a constant diet of stories scandalising rampant grade inflation, the press seems to be waking up to the strange battle over the identity of school science education.

Recently, the Belfast newspaper the Irish News, not renowned for its education coverage, devoted three pages to the decline of traditional science in schools (1). The piece echoed fears already voiced on this side of the Irish Sea that two of the examination boards offering the new GCSE courses starting next month will use multiple-choice tests to account for between 75 and 60 per cent of the marks awarded. There is little support for this move. According to Jonathan Osborne, professor of science education at King’s College London: ‘They are doing this to save money because computers can mark the papers.’ (2)

Boris Johnson, the Conservative MP, became an unlikely protagonist in the debate over school science when he wrote an article in the Observer mourning the decline of the ‘crunchier subjects such as the sciences, maths and languages’. This was followed by a rapid stream of cogent replies posted on the Observer website. I counted 76 pages of postings from a wide range of people. It seems that Johnson’s claim that ‘some testing academic subjects are being ghettoised in the independent sector and grammar schools’ touched a nerve (3).

On the face of it, the problem facing science education is simple: how do we get more young people interested in studying science at school and university? The trouble is, the answers being offered are poles apart – and there is too little emphasis on valuing specialist science subjects as a distinct body of knowledge worth teaching to a new generation.

In Science and Innovation Framework 2004-2014: Next Steps, published in March 2006, the New Labour government put the case for more specialist science teachers and a turn away from integrated science teaching to the teaching of separate science subjects (4). The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), on the other hand, has just introduced a new framework for teaching integrated science at GCSE level, which takes us even further away from teaching the sciences as distinct disciplines: physics, chemistry and biology (5). It would seem the government has a difference of opinion with its own educational authority on how to go about solving this problem.

It was something of a relief, then, to read the latest report by Professor Alan Smithers and Dr Pamela Robinson of Buckingham University. This is their second of three reports tracking the decline of physics as a school subject. They have carried out this survey to show that it is ‘important that policies should be grounded in the numerical picture’ (6). Their report highlights the decline of both student uptake of physics at school (A-level entries down 35 per cent since 1990) and university (17 major physics departments closed between 1994 and 2004). It also flags up the problem of supplying enough specialist teachers to sustain physics as a school subject – only 1 in 8 science teacher trainees have a physics degree.

Their account of the decline of physics has come at a time when the government seems to have recognised the need to promote the hard sciences. The government has laid down ambitious targets for the recruitment of specialist subject teachers and encouragement of more students to study A-levels in physics, chemistry and mathematics. This is tied to efforts to promote the subjects at university. Part of the government’s agenda is to promise every pupil the entitlement to study three separate sciences at GCSE if they achieve level 6 at Key Stage 3 from 2008. This represents a substantial extension of current provision; currently only eight per cent of students sit the separate science examinations, and even fewer within the state sector. GCSE physics teaching is now very much the preserve of the grammar schools and the independent sector. It is unclear how the government intends to increase separate science provision.

Bizarrely, at the same time as the government is prioritising separate science teaching in schools, the QCA is doing the opposite, introducing a new science programme of study at GCSE which dictates that all science GCSE courses from September 2006 must include an emphasis on ‘scientific literacy’ for at least the equivalent of one GCSE or 50 per cent of a typical double-science GCSE course.

This shift towards citizen science goes much further than the current double-science integrated course in distancing itself from traditional physics, chemistry and biology teaching. Teaching ‘scientific literacy’ looks at science in the news, especially in relation to controversies about the use of science and technology. This approach places a big emphasis on debate and discussion about the ethics of using science. Rather than teaching through laboratory experiments, the new science is more like media studies, with an emphasis on textual analysis and the identification of bias in the accounting of stories about science. The aim is to create a ‘critically aware’ consumer rather than a future scientist.

The two approaches to science education could not be more dissimilar. Both claim to be able to promote a wider take-up of school science and to counter the decline in the study of the physical sciences at university. But it’s difficult to see how we can go in both directions at once.

Smithers and Robinson, in looking at the historic decline of physics, may have given us enough ammunition to make up our own minds about which approach makes most sense – more separate science teaching or a new integrated science approach.

As they explain, the decline in physics massively accelerated in the period after the introduction of the present combined science GCSEs or double-science course. Between 1990 and 1996 the decline in A-level physics entries was on average 2.5 times the current decline. This occurred mainly in the state sector outside the grammar and independent schools. Physics as a separate subject was even more popular under the old O-level system. At its peak there were nearly four times the number doing O-level physics than the current number doing GCSE physics. The introduction of double-science GCSE was meant to encourage the take up of physics, especially among girls. However, physics is still predominantly a male discipline with only 22.4 per cent of the total taking A-level physics being female.

So, the introduction of integrated science did nothing to halt the decline in physics as a school subject; it in fact accelerated that decline. This does not bode well for the introduction of the new science GCSE courses that are being promoted as a way of encouraging the take-up of science post-16.

The truth is that well-qualified and enthusiastic subject teachers make a massive difference to the chances of students doing well at school. As Smithers and Robinson argued in their first report: ‘Teachers’ expertise in physics…is the second most powerful predictor of pupil achievement in GCSE and A-level physics.’ (7)

Concentrating on introducing a ‘scientific literacy’ course can only be a distraction from what we really need – which is to encourage subject specialist teachers into the profession and value them for what they can teach young people. At my school, we have taken the decision to enter all our pupils for separate science GCSEs in physics, chemistry and biology. We hope that by valuing the subjects we teach as distinct and coherent bodies of knowledge, we can give subject specialist teachers the chance to really enthuse the pupils in the subject they studied. If we want to encourage young people to take up the sciences, surely this is a risk worth taking?

David Perks has taught science for 20 years and is currently head of physics in a large comprehensive school in Tooting, South London. He is speaking about science education in a debate on Tomorrow’s Innovators at the Battle of Ideas festival in London in October 2006.

(1) Alarm at grades for guesswork in science, Irish News, 7 August 2006

(2) Pass this GCSE without writing a word, Daily Telegraph, 10 June 2006

(3) ‘A teaching scandal we can’t afford’, Boris Johnson, Observer, 9 July 2006

(4) Science and Innovation Framework 2004-2014: next steps, HM Treasury, 22 March 2006

(5) Key Stage 4 Science programme of study, QCA

(6) Physics in schools and universities 2: Patterns and Policies, Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson, Centre for Education and Employment, University of Buckingham, August 2006

(7) ‘Physics in schools and colleges: Teacher deployment and student outcomes’, Smithers, A and Robinson, P, University of Buckingham, 2005

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Topics Science & Tech


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