Science: Taking school sciences into the next millennium

Science teaching in schools has come on leaps and bounds over the past decade, writes Maureen O'Connor, but more needs to be done to excite pupils to take it on to a higher level
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For the first time in more than a decade the science curriculum in schools is being debated. The consensus which was cemented by the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1988 has been called into question by a new report Beyond 2000: Science Education for the Future, produced by leading science educators and funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

For once a report of this kind begins with a celebration. Since Kenneth Baker - supported by the educationalists - made science a compulsory part of the curriculum from the ages of five to 16, the subject has flourished in schools, particularly with the younger age groups. It is entrenched as a core part of the curriculum and 80 per cent of 16-year-olds take a double science GCSE which includes aspects of biology, chemistry and physics. Single science GCSE, still incorporating all three disciplines but generally taken by the less able, pushes the proportion gaining a science qualification up to 90 per cent. The days when girls opted for biology, physics was dominated by boys and many pupils dropped science subjects completely at 14 are now history. So why are Prof Robin Miller of York University, and Dr Jonathan Osborne of Kings College London, the editors of Beyond 2000..., now arguing for another look at how science is taught and assessed in schools?

The problem to be solved now, the report suggests, is one which existed in 1988. The numbers taking sciences at A-level and at university have not risen in spite of the increased amount of time spent teaching science in schools. "The uptake of science post-16 remains static," Professor Miller says. "Students need to learn about the big ideas of science. We also want them to appreciate the strengths and limitations of the scientific approach to inquiry and recognise the major contribution science makes to our culture."At a time when scientific stories, from cloning to space exploration to the problems of global warming, constantly make front page news, this might not appear a controversial ambition, or one which would necessarily be difficult to achieve. But Science 2000 suggests that it does need a radical rethink of what and how children are taught in primary and secondary schools. One of the problems, says Stuart Naylor of Manchester Metropolitan University, is that secondary schools have become much more exam oriented since the introduction of league tables. Even in primary schools, he says, it is possible to find young children reciting the parts of the body by rote ready for their Standard Attainment Tests. Mechanical regurgitation for tests, he suggests, means that the excitement and relevance of science is missing. "Teachers feel that being creative in science is counter-productive," he says. The exploratory element of the existing curriculum, he added, which does not have an attainment target, is being neglected for that reason in spite of the enthusiasm of pupils and the high quality of the work being produced.

The report clearly shows problems with the current science curriculum, but many of these are being addressed through extra curricula activities, such as school science clubs, says Eileen Stanley, manager of the `young people's programme' at the British Association.

Inherent to this debate is the conflict between those who see school qualifications, particularly at A-level, as primarily part of the preparation of an elite for university entry, and those who see school subjects as a route to the education of the whole population. This conflict is particularly acute in science because of the structure of the examination system and the demand by the universities for top grades in A-level sciences for admission to popular subjects like medicine, dentistry and other medical professions. When double science was introduced as the only feasible way of making science compulsory for all children - it demands 20 per cent of curriculum time up to GCSE - the selective schools, private and State demurred. They regarded three separate science GCSEs as a better preparation for potential high-flying scientists and they have, given the extra teachers and the resources needed, by and large maintained that preference while double science has become the normal route to A-level in comprehensive schools. The conflict has not gone away and Dr Jonathan Osborne is unequivocal in arguing that school science in the 21st century should be primarily an education for the scientific literacy needed by the informed citizen. "By allowing greater flexibility in the curriculum from 14 to 16, we can address the needs of future citizens and those who aspire to scientific careers," he said. At Key Stage 4 leading up to GCSE, Science 2000 suggests, this can be done by differentiating more explicitly between those elements designed to enhance scientific literacy and those designed as the early stages of a specialist training in science, so that the requirement for the latter does not distort the former. But in general terms, the report suggests, the science curriculum should switch from the accumulation of factual knowledge to the presentation of science through a series of relevant "stories". This should enable children to see science as a search for reliable explanations of the behaviour of the natural world. They should reach this conclusion in four ways, Science 2000 suggests: by learning to evaluate evidence, learning how important scientific ideas were first developed and became accepted, learning how to construct sound arguments based on evidence and by considering a range of current issues involving the application of science and scientific ideas. The current success of school science should not be underestimated, says Dr David Moore, chief executive of the Association for Science Education. Starting from a low or non-existent base for the subject in primary schools ten years ago, the SATs results in science are now on a par with maths and English. The challenge now, he says, is to make science exciting in secondary schools and encourage more young people to keep going after 16. Science 2000 is a starting point for what may be a long debate.