Cloning, GM foods and test tube babies: a curriculum for a scientifically literate nation?

Proposed reforms to science teaching have less to do with dumbing down than with combating ignorance among non-specialists
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ANYONE WHO has struggled to understand the debates over cloning or genetically modified food, but found little to enlighten them in their distant memories of school science will surely rejoice at the news that the curriculum is to be overhauled to make it more relevant to everyday life.

Anyone who has struggled to understand the debates over cloning or genetically modified food, but found little to enlighten them in their distant memories of school science will surely rejoice at the news that the curriculum is to be overhauled to make it more relevant to everyday life.

Ministers agree there is little point in making all pupils study the same science curriculum from 14 to 16 whether they are enthusiasts who intend to study science at university or loathe the subject and plan to drop it as soon as possible.

The introduction of the national curriculum in 1988 boosted the status of science and established it as a compulsory subject for everyone aged five to 16. In primary schools the subject is regarded as a resounding success, but secondary school science has repeatedly come under fire for being boring and out of date.

The dwindling number of students taking A-levels in the physical sciences in particular has also caused concern. Last summer 36,648 students sat A-level chemistry, down from 42,697 in 1992. In physics 31,543 took A-levels in 2002 compared with 41,301 a decade earlier. Only biology has increased in popularity over the past 10 years rising from 48,742 candidates to 52,132.

Education experts maintain that the problem begins in the early years of secondary school, but is compounded during students' GCSE courses.

Teachers and scientists are now questioning whether the current science curriculum is suitable for today's children.

All pupils must study science until they are 16. But by the time students start their GCSE courses aged 14 they will have vastly different interest in and aptitude for the subject.

More than 80 per cent of students now take double science GCSE, a qualification worth two GCSEs, which covers topics in physics, chemistry and biology. The qualification was primarily designed as a stepping stone for those intending to take A-level science, although many employers and academics criticise the lack of depth. Educationists area now questioning whether the majority of pupils, who do not want to be scientists, should have to take this GCSE course.

John Holman, professor of chemical education at York University, said: "We have to face the awkward fact that the science we currently teach to the many is only ever practised by the few. The majority of students will go on to be citizens who need scientific literacy. At the moment the needs of those who want to be science specialists tend to dominate what is provided for everybody."

Experts in science education are desperate to tackle the concerns of the Science and Technology Select Committee, which published a scathing critique of school science last summer. The all-party committee of MPs concluded that GCSE lessons were so boring that youngsters were being put off the subject for life.

It lambasted practical work for having become "a tedious and dull activity", coursework was "boring and pointless" and students were frustrated by the lack of flexibility in the current over-crowded curriculum.

The report complained that GCSE courses ignored the issues that students were likely to encounter in everyday life and discouraged them from thinking for themselves.

Scientific controversies such as the MMR vaccine, cloning and genetically modified food provided real opportunities for discussion that were currently being lost.

Ministers are well aware of the problems. Ever since the curriculum was last reviewed in 2000 there has been debate about how to ensure that school science can reflect contemporary issues while retaining its academic rigour.

In response the Government is about to launch a review of the science curriculum, which would reduce the compulsory content to a "core" that will aim to boost the scientific literacy of future citizens. Add-on courses in traditional science subjects would still be provided for students who needed them, with separate options for teenagers who would prefer more vocational science lessons.

The proposals will be announced when Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, publishes the Government's plans for secondary education later this month.

Changes to the curriculum are unlikely to be introduced before 2005 or 2006. Ministers learnt the dangers of rushing through changes after last summer's fiasco over A-level grading.

The proposals will build on a new GCSE course devised by academics at York University and the Nuffield Curriculum Centre, which will be piloted in 50 schools from September. The new course – called Science for the 21st Century – will feature a core programme, worth a single GCSE, which will concentrate on developing students' understanding of science through everyday topics.

The course was commissioned by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the agency that advises the Government on the development of the national curriculum.

A spokesman for the QCA said: "The public is increasingly bombarded with scientifically based media reports and confusing product claims. This course is designed to enable students to make informed decisions about things that involve science and understand and critically reflect on the information included (or omitted) from media reports and other sources of information."

The architects of the new course dismiss any suggestions that the new format will lead to the dumbing down of school science. "What matters is to have a broad understanding of the main scientific explanations that give us a framework for making sense of the world around us. We want students to understand these major science explanations – not losing them in the detail, or introducing such complexity that many simply switch off."

All students will also learn the limitations of scientific data, the difference between correlation and cause and the concept of risk involved in many scientific decisions.

Are you well informed?

Steve Connor, Science Editor, on the basic facts of science that every school-leaver should know

* That the world is made of atoms and molecules that can interact to form new substances, which can be in the form of solids, liquids and gases.

* The basic laws of physics. Why some substances are radioactive and an overview of the main sources of radiation.

* That living things interact and depend on one another through a complex web of ecological networks.

* That life involves vital processes such as respiration and photosynthesis, which require a constant turnover of oxygen, carbon dioxide and water.

* That inheritance involves discrete units called genes that are encoded in DNA.

* That evolution of life on Earth involves a process called natural selection. Life appeared some 4 billion years ago and the first recognisable humans walked upright just a few million years ago.

* That living things are composed of cells, and infectious diseases are caused by germs, namely bacteria, viruses and fungi. Why good hygiene can cut the risk of food poisoning, and why antibiotics are useless against viruses such as flu.

* The physical basis of energy and a overview of the main sources of energy we can use. The difference between renewable energy and non-renewable sources and their link to the greenhouse effect and global warming.

* How Planet Earth was formed, how the continents have moved around on tectonic plates. How the atmosphere, oceans and land interact.

* Our place in the wider universe. How it all began in the Big Bang and some comprehension of the enormous timespans and distances of space.