William Hardy is good at science – which is not surprising as his father is a professional biochemist. He also attends a state school in Cambridge which believes it has the highest proportion of scientists living in its catchment area of any British school, owing to the university and comm-ercial spin-offs from the university.
Now the parents at the Parkside Federation, which includes two secondary schools in the centre of the city, are helping teachers stage a mini-revolution. They are backing the introduction of tougher science exams to replace what they say is the dumbed-down GCSE.
William, 14, says his father is "disgusted" with the low level of the questions on the GCSE exams in biology, chemistry and physics; and he is not alone. The move to make science exams more challenging is being backed by Mark Carrington, the University of Cambridge biochemist who is chairman of the school's governing body: "I have two sons who have done science GCSE and A-levels, and I found that the science they did was nice and cuddly science which didn't provide the depth of understanding you need to progress," he says.
"At Parkside we have probably got the most scientifically literate set of parents in the UK and one of the things they contact me about most about is the content of the science courses," says Carrington, a world expert in infectious disease.
Parkside is in the vanguard of some 60 state schools that plan to take advantage of one of the coalition Government's first acts – the lifting of Labour's ban on the use in state schools of the IGCSE, the more rigorous exam based on the former O-level. Produced by a British exam board – the University of Cambridge International Examinations – it is sold to schools and colleges abroad. Behind the incoming Government's decision lies a furious row over what many teachers, parents and scientists claim has been a gradual dumbing-down of science since the GCSE replaced O-levels and CSE exams in 1988.
Parents at Parkside became even more alarmed when curriculum reform in the mid-2000s, ostensibly to make science more relevant and accessible, brought in a new emphasis on ethical issues, such as organ transplant and abortion. The new "tick-box" multiple-choice exams did not require pupils to write any scientific term or recall formulas, and led to widespread concern. A group of teachers took the unusual step of launching a Downing Street petition deploring the loss of scientific content.
Even the official exam regulator, Ofqual, called on the exam boards to improve standards, arguing that questions about the advantages and disadvantages of CCTV, mobile phones and the internet were no substitute for the principles of physics.
The exam boards say they are merely following the curriculum laid down by the (now abolished) Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and approved by the Labour government. But, worried at the gulf opening up between GCSE and A-level, many independent schools took things into their own hands and moved over to the more rigorous IGCSE, which had not been approved for use in state schools.
Under pressure from scientists and teachers, the Government ordered a report from its curriculum advisers. The report concluded in 2007 that the IGCSE should not be endorsed for the state sector because it was too difficult and was out-of-step with the national curriculum, covering material that had been moved over into the higher AS- level exam. Despite the ban, the Parkside Federation, made up of Parkside and Coleridge comprehensives and a primary school, started to introduce the IGCSE in 2008, hoping that the Government would relent. But it was forced to abandon this after the then Department for Children, Schools and Families wrote to the executive head Andrew Hutchinson to say he was breaking the law. But finally, as soon as the new Government lifted the ban last month, the school became the first in the state sector to teach it.
"Our governors, who are research scientists, believe the key thing missing in the GCSE is the mathematical content of science. The IGCSE will give our students a better grounding for the IB or A-levels, and we will have a level playing field with the independent schools which offer it," says Hutchinson. Carrington says he understands the desire to make science interesting and accessible for all pupils, but believes the catch-all syllabuses have been a disaster for those wanting to go on to sixth-form study. "Rigour and important content was lost in the process, particularly the mathematical content," he says.
"I teach science at the university, and we get undergraduates here who are the best in the UK education system and yet a surprising number of them haven't made the link between mathematics and science. They don't have the grounding that we see in students from countries such as Germany or Poland." Lesley Long, a research scientist in molecular biology who teaches at the school, says pupils enjoy the greater emphasis on practical experiments in the IGCSE course, and its more logical approach to building up their knowledge: "We have already started teaching the IGCSE, and from September there will be a choice of science courses for pupils: the IGCSE, the GCSE and the BTEC, which is a more applied course for those who want scientific knowledge for the jobs they are hoping to do."
As pupil William Hardy squirts starch into an amylase solution inside a semi-permeable tube for a classroom experiment on the digestive system, he says everyone should study science to the age of 16 because it is part of life, but there should be tougher courses for people like him who may want to become scientists. Charlie Taylor-Brown, 14, says he has chosen the IGCSE because there is a lot of science in sport and he plays for a youth football team. Miraz Rahman, also 14, is another fan. The new lessons seem "more real", he says, and he likes the practical experiments.
According to the University of Cambridge International Examinations, more than 60 state schools have signed up for training to teach the IGCSE next year. Part of the attraction is that the IGCSE does not have any "meaningless" coursework, says David Perks, the head of physics at Graveney School, a comprehensive in Wandsworth, south-west London. "The current GCSEs spend far too much time pandering to concerns other than the coherence of the subject, and half the time they seem to make no sense at all," he says. "I want to teach radioactivity, not debate whether nuclear power stations are a good idea."
Senior scientists are urging other schools to consider the IGCSE, to put state school pupils on equal footing with those in the independent sector. The decision to take out key content over the years in favour of philosophical debate about science in society has harmed the chances of a generation, according to Richard Pike, the chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry. To provide an exam suitable for pupils of all abilities, essential mathematical content had been stripped out and replaced by "tick-box" facts and questions about ethical issues, such as genetic engineering, he says.
"It's one of those touchline conversations I have all the time with parents when they are watching football or rugby. Parents are worrying a great deal about the superficial nature of the science curriculum," says Pike, an engineer who had a long career in the oil and gas industry.
"A gulf has opened up between the independent schools, which have moved to the more traditional IGCSE, and the state schools, where it has been banned. Unfortunately, over the last decade people have acquiesced in the running down of science, and I urge parents and companies to be bolder and to challenge schools and the exam boards – otherwise the country will drift into mediocrity, which is incredibly dangerous."
Science is key to the global issues of energy, food, the environment and sustainability, which are of great interest to the younger generation. But these young people are not getting the scientific and mathematical knowledge they need to even start to tackle them. "Take biofuels," says Pike. "Pupils are learning about biofuels as an alternative energy, but how many of them know that the yield per hectare is typically only four tons, which would mean devoting an enormous proportion of the UK to crops?" he asks.
The new Government has also approved IGCSE exams for maths and English, the other two core curriculum subjects. Pike hopes this will open up a national debate on exam standards. "Over the last decade very few people have put up their hands and said, 'Stop! Wait a minute, what are we doing to our young people?' I hope more and more parents and governors will now get involved."
A question from the science GCSE
They sound like items from a pub quiz, but these are questions which appeared last year on higher-tier science GCSE papers aimed at the brightest candidates:
"Which of the following ways of generating electricity use renewable sources: coal, hydroelectric, nuclear, wave, wind?"
"Put the following objects in order of size from largest to smallest: the Moon, the Sun, planets, asteroids."
The Government has a measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination policy.
It wants all children to be vaccinated with the MMR vaccine. Different people have different views about this policy:
Ranjit: "The MMR vaccine may cause autism."
Jane: "I think the risk of catching measles is greater than the risk of developing autism. But some people think the reverse."
Peter: "The MMR vaccine protects against measles, mumps and rubella."
Stella: "Parents should be forced by law to have their children vaccinated."
(i) Which person is summarising two different views?
(ii) Which person is describing an action that is hard to justify?