The call by Lord May, the president of the Royal Society, for a radical rethink of the way science is taught in schools deserves serious consideration.
The call by Lord May, the president of the Royal Society, for a radical rethink of the way science is taught in schools deserves serious consideration. The science community is alarmed at the implications of the Tomlinson report for the future of the subject. He leaves science out of his core subjects for pupils at GCSE and A-level (the proposed intermediate and advanced levels), confining himself to numeracy, language and communications technology.
The scientists argue, with some justification, that Tomlinson has failed to address the serious decline in the take-up of sciences at A-level. He has also failed to recognise the importance of science to life in the modern world - strange in someone who is a chemist. Although we support the overall thrust of the Tomlinson reforms, we believe that one of the weaknesses is that they do not do enough to bring breadth to sixth-form studies. If the report were implemented, it would still leave the UK with a narrower curriculum than our European competitors.
The scientists are annoyed that Tomlinson did not mention science when he talked about breadth at the launch of his report. To gain a distinction (the highest grade in the diploma), Tomlinson said, students should have to show breadth in studies - for example, in foreign languages. We don't question the emphasis on languages, but we agree with the scientists that science is a subject in crisis, too.
In a speech on Tuesday night, Lord May advocated a new way of teaching science in the sixth form. Rather than continue with efforts to persuade more young people to take physics, chemistry or biology at A-level (or at advanced diploma level if that replaces the A-level system), a new core subject of scientific reasoning should become part of the curriculum, he said. It would be of practical help to pupils because it would give them the tools to decide, for example, how to weigh the relative risks of having a child vaccinated against the risks of not doing so. It would deal with two problems in one go - how to make science accessible to a wider audience, and how to broaden the sixth-form diet.
Although we have reservations about cluttering the core unduly, we believe Lord May's idea should be pursued by the exam boards and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority with some urgency. Who knows: it might halt the decline in the number of young people taking A-levels in physics and chemistry.
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