Pure science revives at GCSE

Judith Judd on a trend resulting from the reduction in the curriculum
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The Independent Online
The slimmed-down national curriculum has boosted entries for individual GCSE science subjects, reversing the trend of nearly a decade and raising hopes of an improved take-up of science in the sixth form.

Figures released yesterday by the GCSE exam boards also showed that the proportion of entries getting grades A* to C - the equivalent of a pass in the old O-level - rose by 1 percentage point to 53.7 per cent.

In physics, chemistry and biology, entries were up by 6.1 per cent, 6.9 per cent and 5.9 per cent respectively. Entries in all three subjects have fallen by 80 percentage points or more since 1988 when the GCSE started.

Since then the number of entries for combined science has risen from 150,000 to nearly a million but some experts believe the fall in the take- up of individual science subjects has contributed to the drop in numbers taking the subject at A-level. Critics of combined science say it fails to prepare pupils for A-level courses.

Alan Smithers, Professor of Public Policy at Brunel University, said the improved entries for individual science were the result of the new slimmed-down curriculum. "The curriculum now gives schools more time and the individual sciences, which take more time than combined science, have revived," he said.

The review of the curriculum two years ago by Sir Ron Dearing, the Government's education adviser, cut the number of compulsory subjects for pupils aged 14 to 16.

Lord Henley, the schools minister, said: "The GCSE has been tried and tested and has proved its worth in motivating and stretching young people of all abilities. I am particularly pleased to see significant improvements in science and maths results, areas crucial to our national competitiveness."

The overall pass rate for grades A* to G remained the same as in 1995 - 98.6 per cent.

As The Independent revealed yesterday, the total entry for the GCSE increased by only 1.1 per cent though there was a rise of 3.1 per cent in the 16- year-old population, suggesting that schools are not entering thousands of weaker pupils.

Last night teachers' leaders claimed that the change had been caused by increased competition between schools.

The proportion gaining grades A - C rose slightly in science and maths and stayed much the same in English. Last year, English and maths results were slightly worse than in the previous year. The percentage awarded an A or A* overall was up by 0.6 per cent.

Entries for technology fell by 30 per cent after the requirement for GCSE-year students to study the subject was temporarily withdrawn. Instead, pupils took home economics, business studies, computing, music and art, the entries for which all increased.

Entries for history were down by 5.3 per cent.

David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, said: "We need to have far more people gaining the equivalent of 5 A - C grades, either through GCSE or vocational qualifications, if we are to meet our national targets."

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "The GCSE's critics should now pack their bags and skulk away. Their concerns have been addressed."