Science exams are failing pupils, says Royal Society

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The Independent Online

Science GCSE and A-level exams are failing to prepare youngsters for university or the world of work, according to a hard-hitting report published today by the Royal Society.

They concentrate on too narrow range of skills and regurgitating facts, which means youngsters never get the chance to experiment in lessons, says the Society - one of the country's most respected science institutions.

As a result, pupils are said to be quitting the subject in droves to take up more exciting options.

The report, produced by a team led by Professor Paul Black of King's College, London, says today's youngsters could not explain the Copernican theory of how the Earth moves around the Sun if asked by university admissions tutors.

It says of current GCSE and A-level teaching that "things are so bad that we must surely be able to do better".

"Getting pupils to learn to conduct overly simplistic, practical scientific experiments, which never go wrong, does not give them a sense of the dynamism of real scientific research," said Professor Mick Brown, the head of the Royal Society's steering group on assessing school science.

"We need a system of assessment that fuels pupils' enthusiasm for the subject by opening up this exciting world of problem solving, discovery and innovation while at the same time supporting factual learning."

Instead, "the pressure on teachers to deliver exam results is immense," he said. "Their professional skills and time must be better utilised to teach and assess science in a way that helps pupils succeed in science careers, and as informed members of society, as well as exams.

"This means using analytical skills and using an exam as a tool to help pupils learn and become enthused rather than simply as a means to a qualification."

The report says the science curriculum has traditionally been "a pre-professional preparation for the next generation of potential scientists."

However, the concentration on testing has lead to a simplified school curriculum on "the easiest items to test which are those that measure factual recall, comprehension and application. The consequence is that the validity of the examination is at best dubious," it said.

"Not surprisingly, for all these reasons and more, many students are opting out of studying science at the point of choice, choosing subjects that offer greater room for self-expression, that are taught in a manner requiring more active engagement and that offer more personal significance, enjoyment or meaning."

The report concludes that radical changes are now needed to overcome "concern over inadequacies and faults of the present system".

The Society is calling for a reduction in the "burden" of assessment to stop teachers "teaching to the tests". It urges the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the government's exams watchdog, to broaden the range of skills required of pupils in school science exams - and, in particular, prompt more oral presentation of work.

Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, is expected to outline today the government's response to a report it commissioned from Professor Adrian Smith on improving maths teaching in secondary schools. Professor Smith's report highlighted similar problems in maths to those outlined by the Royal Society over science - including pupils quitting the subject in droves.