A special investigation into the new science GCSE

GCSE science will never be the same again. Instead of the Periodic Table, pupils will learn how mobiles work - or study air pollution. Will this make it too easy? Hilary Wilce reports
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The Independent Online

Naturally, traditionalists are horrified. They say it is yet more dumbing down of the curriculum, and that it will lead to educational apartheid; in future, only independent school pupils will know enough science to be able to go on to study medicine. Melanie Phillips of the Daily Mail slammed the changes as "science lite" and "propaganda".

But Bob Barton, 15, of Sinfin Community School in Derby, thinks it's a great idea. "I mean," he says, gesturing at a classroom poster of the periodic table, "why do I have to learn all the abbreviated names on that? All right, I need to know the general idea, but I'm going to be an engineer. I don't need to remember it all. It's stupid." His only regret is that the transformation is coming too late for him.

The changes being introduced address the realities of school life, not how the traditionalists would like things to be. For years, there have been worries about schoolchildren losing interest in science. The numbers taking A-levels have plummeted, and the House of Commons Select Committee on Education and Skills said the curriculum was so boring it could put children off for life.

Now a new approach has been developed, based on the recognition that, while relatively few students will go on to study science, everyone in the modern world needs to be scientifically literate. Things such as climate change and health worries will loom large in the lives of tomorrow's adults, and the new science programme emphasises getting pupils to understand how science works.

Under the new system, all students will study a core GCSE, simply called science. On to that broad foundation, most will then add an additional science GCSE, in either general or applied science, depending on they want to pursue the subject. General science will go deeper into scientific concepts, while applied science will be suitable for pupils thinking of science-related work. Or pupils can take individual GCSEs in physics, chemistry and biology. This way, says the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the new GCSEs will cater for all needs.

The Association of Science Educators agrees. "There have been fears from a few people, but we have been able to reassure people that there is depth as well as breadth," says Marianne Cutler, the director of curriculum development. "It's not a watered-down GCSE, and it is certainly not easier."

John Holman, the director of the National Science Learning Centre at the University of York, says: "It always depresses me whenever people criticise things without a close look. They should look at the kind of questions students are being asked, about things like how we should use data. It's much more challenging than just remembering facts."

Andrew Hunt, the director of the Nuffield Curriculum Centre, points out: "The research evidence, which is considerable, found that science, as it was being taught, was failing the majority of young people. They found it boring, dull and uninteresting. This approach is different, but it is just as challenging, and for many more children it is more appropriate."

How does it differ? It is determinedly wedded to issues that affect pupils' lives. One exam board's set of new courses - 21st Century Science, from OCR, which has been developed with the Nuffield Curriculum Centre and the University of York Science Education Group - introduces pupils to ideas of chemical change through studying air pollution, and looks at the immune system by scrutinising vaccination policies.

Pupils who study additional applied science might look at how mobile phones work, or study the properties of materials by looking at sports and medical equipment. Those who do additional general science will study the behaviour of forces, and the wave model of radiation.

John Holman says that 80 schools have put 15,000 students through these courses, and the results are promising. "This is a more differentiated curriculum with much more flexibility. Teachers are reporting increased motivation." He acknowledges, however, that there is always a halo effect with a pilot. And it remains to be seen whether more students go on to do science after 16.

But some schools believe the signs are encouraging. "When you talk to children about 21st Century Science, there is real engagement there. They see the point," says June Cannie, the principal of Sawston Village College in Cambridgeshire, which has been piloting the new courses. "It's science from a consumer's point of view. It's very motivating. And there are different models to choose from. We wouldn't be meeting the needs of all our children if someone was dead keen on physics and we couldn't offer them the chance to study it." However, parents sometimes needed to be persuaded that the new approach was valid, she said.

Launching the new GCSEs in London recently, Professor Robert Winston said many press reports of scientific studies were misleading, and it was vital that people should be able to understand data about things such as nuclear power or water shortages. "Science is always mixed up with politics. There are political consequences if we do not understand science, and we mustn't forget that. At the moment, more people say they would rather experiment on human beings than bacteria! In the centre of the USA, more than half of people believe in creationism! You have to ask, really, where education is going wrong." The new GCSEs would, Lord Winston said, help to make science relevant and exciting, and create a more scientifically literate nation.

However, some heads of science fear that, while the new system gives children an entitlement to two sciences, schools with staffing and money difficulties, or where science isn't a priority, might make it hard for pupils to take up the offer, leaving them with only one, very basic GCSE. "But the Government has said it expects at least 80 per cent of pupils to get two science GCSEs and that if it doesn't happen, it will take measures," Marianne Cutler says. More worrying to her are the acute staffing difficulties in schools. "If there is a shortage of teachers, or if teachers aren't fully prepared for the changes, it is going to be a missed opportunity."

Heena Patel, the head of science at Whitmore High School in west London, which has been pioneering 21st Century Science, agrees. "It's a good course, much more structured and hands-on. But my gut feeling is that it's not going to make that many more pupils want to go on in science. Good teachers are the thing that makes the biggest difference. But they aren't there. There are no physicists out there at all. I've got a department of 14 here and I'm fully staffed at the moment, but two people are leaving next year. How am I going to fill those posts?"

Sue Jones: 'We've worked hard as a department to make science accessible and relevant. It's about doing and remembering'

Sue Jones is full of enthusiasm for the new science GCSE she is piloting as the head of science at Sinfin Community School. It would be an exaggeration to say that pupils are as upbeat, but they are at least in class and doing their work. The school, which is improving after being in special measures and which serves an ethnically-mixed part of south Derby, has been trying a course called Gateway science with its lowest achievers.

Today they're writing down, on posters of the human body, where the effects of drugs and alcohol take hold. Lewis Harrison, 14, looking up "paranoid" in the dictionary, says he prefers this practical way of doing science. Oliver North, 14, says they have been studying protein, and why the body needs it. "It's not so boring. It relates to teenagers. I never used to listen."

Anisha Hill, 14, is also keen. "Last year, we didn't do any experiments," she says. "Now we do loads." The teacher, Janet Brough, says the pupils are working better together and she can see their social skills developing.

The old double science award was unsuitable unless you were academically bright, Jones says. "We decided to target children who struggle, or who were disaffected. It gave us the opportunity to take pressure off and still let them get a GCSE grade. We lost some along the way, but all those who kept coming last year got a GCSE. Some came to science and nothing else. One boy would come to his lesson on a Monday and go home afterwards. He wouldn't come to anything else."

Pupils study subjects such as health, beauty and car mechanics, and get marks for tasks such as being able to present information or set up an experiment. In the year they'll make soap, boil up orange peel to extract essential oils, and look at bike gears.

The school believes the new national programme of science, coming in next autumn, offers great flexibility. "There are alternative paths, something for everyone," says deputy head Howard Jones.

"We've worked hard as a department to make science accessible and relevant," says Jones. "It's about doing and remembering. The new courses are moving towards this. There are huge opportunities to be flexible and creative with them. You can play to your strengths. But some heads of science are worried that if there are problems with funding and staffing, they will be squeezed down to just the core."