Double trouble as school ponders lab results

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A tug of war is taking place over science teaching at Hinchingbrooke school in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire. Pulling in one direction are ambitious parents, demanding that the brightest children destined for universities and medical schools should still study three separate sciences at GCSE. Tugging the other way are numerous 15-year-olds, who resent spending the equivalent of one school day in five in the labs.

In the middle is the school, a large 11-18, middle-class, grant-maintained comprehensive, with a good reputation. Hinchingbrooke went over to mixed-subject or 'balanced' science for 20 per cent of the school week for all pre-A-level pupils only a year ago. It did so for two reasons: the national curriculum encouraged it, and the local education authority had extra money on offer only to schools running double science.

Peter Downes, the headteacher, says that before double science more than half the children in the GCSE year would have studied single science. Brighter children not inclined to science would have chosen between physics, chemistry and biology. The bottom third in the two GCSE years took practical science, covering such subjects as photography and forensic science.

The brightest 10 per cent used to take three sciences. Vociferous protest when this option went has come not from pupils but parents, who see nearby independent schools offering separate sciences, and want these taught, if necessary after hours. The national curriculum does not preclude three sciences; and Dearing reforms, allowing more choice, make them easier to timetable. But the school wants able children to widen their interests to geography or the performing arts.

At the other end of the ability range, says Mr Downes, it is a different story. 'For about 15 to 20 children, it (double science) is really a struggle. It demoralises them. They feel they are doing too much of something they can't do. I have heard the science department talking more about pressures on behaviour this year than previously, and when you are in laboratories and doing experiments, bad behaviour is more serious.'

Even middle-ability pupils are protesting. Under GCSE rules performance in double science has to be averaged across the sciences. So, talented biologists who might previously have stuck to one science and gained an A, now see their biology grade dragged down by their physics and chemistry, and come out with BB or CC grades.

Compulsory double science has advantages, according to Doug Peacock, the school's head of science. It broadens experience of science, keeps career choices open and gives everyone equal status. Still, if the Dearing review is followed by a more practical curriculum for a single science GCSE, Mr Downes believes Hinchingbrooke will offer it. 'I think everybody should do science, but not everybody needs 20 per cent science. And I don't think it's right to force them.'