Jenny Stephen: The murder of GCSE science is a tragedy

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The Independent Online

It looked like we might only need to hold one funeral in UK secondary education, for modern languages. Now it looks like a double funeral. Newly published specifications for science GCSE have gutted the traditional syllabus and sent independent schools flocking to the iGCSE - the more traditional international examination.

Education, education, education? That is what we were promised. Reduction, reduction, reduction seems to be what it really meant. The reality of what we have been sold these past few years, culminating in this recent assault on science, is in parts quite dire.

One example? Modern foreign languages such as French and German are no longer a compulsory aspect of school life post-14, in stark contrast to all other European countries and in defiance of an increasingly global economy.

We had a debacle in the wake of the Tomlinson report, whereby a golden opportunity to reform the 14-19 agenda was fudged. A-levels are still the gold standard - it has to be true: Ruth Kelly told us it was - yet schools and universities know they are not, and are confused by the plethora of A grades.

The consequence is the rapid spawning of aptitude tests in medicine, law and other subjects for top universities that cannot otherwise select. We have the curious concept of specialist schools, academies and the rest of our splintered educational system alongside a one-size-fits-all curriculum.

We look in vain for essential programmes of skills needed for the workforce, the acknowledgement that chunks of the curriculum are too boring to engage students or the realisation that some good learning will never be easy.

In the midst of all this we have forgotten one simple fact of our history. The wealth of this country was built on trade. Trade involves making, inventing and designing things before you can sell them. How are our engineers and scientists valued by the Government? Where is their status? Are they fawned over alongside the celeb A and B lists, photographed grinning in near disbelief alongside our political leaders and given a place in the reformed House of Lords, like those who contribute the most money to political parties?

No. The Government has a novel approach to the lack of scientists and engineers. First, we shut down university departments because the universities cannot fill the places they have available. Clever thinking - money is saved, very economically sound. Then, for some reason, schools cannot recruit good science graduates to teach science.

We are lucky the solution was not to stop teaching science at 14, as happened with modern languages, but rather to make science "easier", or even to make it "relevant". Relevant to what? The shortage of graduate scientists to teach?

Throw out the mathematics in physics (too hard). Throw out the abstract concepts in chemistry (requires hard graft). Throw out challenging practicals (health and safety). Throw out any academic approach (one size fits all doesn't allow for this). There we have it - a new science GCSE specification that not only guarantees pupils will not be prepared for A-level, but which will also have lost the fascination with the spark of genius that is the true world of science.

Thus we've solved the problem over closing university science departments. There will be no students for them. At least, no UK students. We can carry on making a mint from overseas candidates who will then leave with their degree and go back to make a mint for their own country. The image problem of scientists and engineers? There won't be any to have an image, and we can shelve worrying about where the future wealth of the country will come from.

It is a tragedy, and one act of it is that after all the talk of partnership between the maintained and the independent sectors, this act of folly is driving a wedge between the two. Independent schools are going in droves for the iGCSE in science and maths, where coursework is a thing of the past and basic academic principles remain.

Those taking iGCSE will not find their studies stopping at isolating one negative effect of using an aerosol spray or solving the brain-defying problem of threats to life on a distant planet. They will have to manipulate numbers, grapple with real concepts of science and possibly even try it out for real in a practical. They will be living witnesses that real science can be fun because it can be hard and demanding, not in spite of it.

The writer is head of South Hampstead High School for Girls