The annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Southampton: 'Hurried changes to curriculum will harm pupils'

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HURRIED and sweeping changes to the national curriculum will cause 'serious harm' to children's education, a leading educational researcher said yesterday.

Professor Paul Black, who chaired a task group on assessment and testing which reported to Kenneth Baker, the former Secretary of State for Education, in 1988, maintained that the new system introduced by the Education Reform Act had been implemented too fast.

He told the British Association's annual meeting in Southampton: 'If this were a new drug, its application, even for those in dire need, would not be allowed with this degree of untried novelty.'

Professor Black, professor of science education at King's College, London, said the changes might be defended if they were accompanied by a thorough monitoring programme so lessons could be learnt. But he claimed comprehensive programmes for monitoring had been cut back by ministers.

He said part of the new system dealing with science and mathematics had been revised within two years of its original issue. An exercise to propose similar changes for technology was under way, and the threat of a revision for English 'now hangs in the air'. Professor Black described the changes as 'death by a thousand cuts'.

He drew attention to the move away from assessment of pupils by teachers towards assessment by external tests. 'I would argue to the contrary that the current ideas are based on prejudice rather than evidence and are set fair to do serious harm to children's education,' he said.

Until the beginning of 1991, he was confident that teachers had generally accepted the reforms - but now their attitude had changed.

Teachers were learning the 'corrosive lesson' that it was not worth taking the national curriculum too seriously any more because it would probably be changed again in a year or two.

Science courses in school and university are boring and burdensome, young people find careers in science-based industries unattractive, and PhDs in science may be a waste of time, Robert Jackson, Parliamentary Secretary at the Office of Public Service and Science, suggested yesterday, writes Tom Wilkie.

Mr Jackson said he was concerned that the expansion of higher education was taking place largely in the humanities and management studies, rather than in science and engineering.

He thought that one of the reasons why fewer young people were taking science at A-level and going on to scientific careers might be the perception that science courses were too long and contained too much material.

He also suggested that universities were producing too many scientists trained to PhD level. One might ask whether PhD students were merely 'a device for keeping people on to do the work of technicians'. PhD students had 'wasted the best years of their lives' doing their research and, moreover, might have been given an anti-industrial bias.

His remarks came on the day that the meeting heard fresh evidence of the relative decline in the quality and impact of British science. According to Dr Ben Martin, of Sussex University, the decline is 'something to be worried about'.

'New technologies are very dependent on basic research and, in my view, that means you have to be involved in basic research.' The 'Japanese option' of waiting for others to do the basic research before stepping in to develop new high-technology products was not open to the UK because the time between doing the research and developing a product was too short. 'If you sit back, you risk missing the boat.'

He was supported by David Pendlebury, of the US Institute for Scientific Information, who said the past decade 'has been a period of weakness for British science'. A study by the institute shows that in the area of clinical medicine, British scientists are producing more research papers, but the research arouses less interest internationally than it used to.

Letters, page 28