Schools adviser proposes GCSE science shake-up

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Education Editor

Proposals for pupiIs to specialise in two rather than three sciences for GCSE exams are being considered by government advisers.

Sir Ron Dearing, the Government's chief adviser on exams, has put forward the plan after a new study revealed that three-quarters of 16-year-olds are taking GCSE science courses which reduce their chances of doing well at A-level.

The figures, to be published next month in Sir Ron's review of post-16 education, confirm the view of critics of the Government-backed courses who say that they have proved disastrous, because they are not demanding enough, do not prepare pupils adequately for A-levels and give them "an inflated idea of their abilities".

At present, around three-quarters of pupils take "double-award" science, which includes physics, biology and chemistry and counts for two GCSE grades. The Government backed the courses when the national curriculum was introduced seven years ago, to ensure that everyone studied all three sciences and to stop girls dropping physics and boys biology.

However, separate exams for physics, chemistry and biology were retained under pressure from independent schools, which said double-award science was not demanding enough.

State-school teachers said it was impossible to fit three separate sciences into the crowded GCSE timetable. Figures in Sir Ron's report show that pupils who take the popular science course lag behind those who take three separate sciences by as much as one A-level grade. They are based on the results of pupils who sat GCSE in 1992 and 1993.

In proposals yet to be finalised, Sir Ron, who is examining the mismatch between GCSE and A-level, suggests that pupils should do one exam involving all three sciences, perhaps after a year of their GCSE course, and then specialise in two.

He will meet members of the Royal Society to discuss the problem in two weeks' time.

Hugh Wright, vice-chairman of the Headmasters' Conference of top public schools and head of King Edward's School, Birmingham, said: "Double-award science has turned out to be disastrous. It prepares people less well for A-level and gives people an inflated idea of their abilities ...

"We have to run conversion courses for people coming into our sixth form from other schools who have done dual-award science."

Professor Alan Smithers of Manchester University, who is researching why science is unpopular with sixth-formers, said that first-year university students in his study were highly critical of double-award science. Some said it had put them off doing A-level science, others that it had not stretched them and some of those who had gone on to A-level had found it particularly difficult.

Professor Smithers said: "The combination of biology, physics and chemistry means you only get two-thirds of the time given to single-subject science. There is bound to be a gap when it comes to A-level. You have to be very bright to do all three sciences separately."

Robert Rees, education manager of the Royal Society, said that the society supported double-award science."For the first time for many years pupils are having some exposure to all the sciences. We would not want to see girls opting out of physics," he said.