'Pop science' for all pupils in radical plan for school syllabus

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The Independent Online

The traditional school science syllabus of physics, chemistry and biology is to be scrapped and replaced with a new "core curriculum" focusing on contemporary topics such as cloning, genetically modified food and diet under government proposals to be announced this month.

The traditional school science syllabus of physics, chemistry and biology is to be scrapped and replaced with a new "core curriculum" focusing on contemporary topics such as cloning, genetically modified food and diet under government proposals to be announced this month.

Reforms to the national curriculum will see the amount of compulsory science studied at age 14 to 16 drastically reduced to create more exciting and topical lessons teaching "pop science" or "science for citizens".

The proposals are a response to complaints by the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee that school science is so outdated and boring that many young people are being put off the subject for life.

But traditionalists have condemned the plans, saying that the shift from learning basic principles to debating topical issues is a "retrograde step".

The new mandatory core would give broad explanations of scientific theories and provide young people with "a framework for making sense of the world". Topics covered would include the gene theory of inheritance, evolution by natural selection, the germ theory of disease and the Earth and the universe. It would also teach key principles such as chemical reactions using everyday topics including air pollution. It would aim to engage young people using issues that interest them in the hope they will retain important concepts for life, which might be forgotten after traditional lessons.

The course would also train young people to reflect on scientific ideas. Every student would be taught how to interpret scientific data and to understand its limitations.

Supplementary courses in traditional science subjects would still be provided for students who want to study along orthodox academic lines. This is likely to include courses in topics that are not currently covered at GCSE, such as studying the human brain.

Further optional courses would also be available to teenagers aiming for careers in science or technology. Vocational courses could include the science used in transport or communications.

Nick Seaton, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, said: "This is fairly typical of New Labour. They have politicised English, history and geography into a discussion of issues; now it seems they have started on the sciences. Everybody needs a good grounding in basic science to help them in later life. Young people do not need to spend more time debating topical issues."

Any new science curriculum is unlikely to be introduced until 2005 or 2006. A pilot scheme – called Science in the 21st Century – will begin in September in 50 schools.

John Holman, professor of chemical education at York University, who developed the pilot, said: "We have to face the awkward fact that the science we currently teach to the many is only 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."

Science specialists have broadly welcomed the plans, mainly because they are relieved their subject will retain its compulsory status until pupils are aged 16. The rules governing the national curriculum are expected to be relaxed to allow more young people to opt out of lessons in languages and technology to spend time on work experience or college courses. The plans will prevent any pupils opting out of science because they will all be expected to study the "core" topics.

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