Education Quandary: 'Does it matter if a pupil does a double science award at GCSE, instead of three separate sciences?'

Hilary's advice

This query comes from a parent looking at secondary schools for her son. She has no idea whether he will want to study science at A-level, but he does want to keep his options open.

However the sad truth is that if he goes to a state secondary school he is likely to study the so-called double award, as fewer than a quarter now offer separate physics, biology and chemistry. The double award covers all three sciences, but in less detail than if you studied the three subjects separately. Schools say that students who take it have no problem moving on to A-level, but the award's standards have been criticised by the Government's curriculum watchdog, the QCA. Recent changes to some GCSE science teaching have switched the focus away from content and towards debates about science-related issues, making GCSE science more watered-down, say critics.

Yet the country's declining scientific base is such a problem that the Government says it wants schools to pool resources so that all pupils can be offered the chance to study three science GCSEs, and the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust is drawing up plans for 600 of its schools, specialising in science, technology and engineering, to reintroduce the separate sciences.

This might offer your son some hope of a more rigorous science education when he gets to this stage, although all schools will continue to find their hands tied by a chronic lack of good science teachers.

Readers' advice

In the modern world, no young person should remain ignorant of science and technology. It is also what they need to get decent jobs. The CBI and the Royal Society have warned that we face a big problem with the lack of young scientists coming through. Find a school that offers good science and encourage him to pursue it.

Peter Layburn, Lancashire

The question you must ask is not how many sciences he will study, but how well he will be taught. My daughter hated science lessons and gave up science as soon as she could. Yet at 25, she reads books by people such as John Gribben and Bill Bryson, and loves discussing scientific issues with her father, a chemical engineer. He says that she is a born scientist and is furious about the waste of her talent. School science is a crime which teachers should be tried for, he says.

Emily Harrison, Devon

Double science is a reasonable preparation for A-level. You are right that it is not as ideal as doing separate sciences, but the hard fact is that most pupils don't want to do any science at all. The big problem is that the subject takes effort. It is hard and fact-based and requires pupils to learn things, and today's pupils much prefer lessons where they can shout out their own opinions. They don't want to put in the effort for later rewards.

Ken Enright, Birmingham

Next Week's Quandary

Dear Hilary, Last week our seven-year-old went to school in tears because her cat had had to be put to sleep. At circle time her teacher wanted her to share her feelings, but she refused. Now this teacher has told me that my daughter will run into trouble if she "keeps bottling up her feelings". Surely this is none of her business.

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