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 Thursday, 9 January, 2003, 14:44 GMT
New science lessons for young citizens
Professor John Holman: Science you can use
A new science curriculum is to be introduced in England's secondary schools, putting the emphasis on "science for citizens".

The new issues-based core curriculum, to be tried out in 50 schools from this autumn, will focus on such things as pollution, cloning and genes.

The experts behind it recommend that it should lead to a single science GCSE, alongside which most students would opt for a second vocational or academic qualification, depending on their intended paths after the age of 16.

The Department for Education denies that this would mean the end of separate chemistry, physics and biology GCSEs - taken by about 10% of students, in more academically-orientated schools.

The change is an acknowledgement that many teenagers are turned off by more factual study.


In a scathing report last summer, the Commons science and technology committee said the existing approach to testing was preventing good science from being taught in schools.

"Current GCSE courses are overloaded with factual content, contain little contemporary science and have stultifying assessment arrangements," the committee's report said.

"Coursework is boring and pointless. Teachers and students are frustrated by the lack of flexibility.

"Students lose any enthusiasm that they once had for science."

New modules

Changes were prefigured in the government's green paper on the future of 14 to 19 education, published a year ago.

A final version, following consultation, is expected to be published later this month.

It is expected to draw on a new course called Science for the 21st Century which has been developed by experts John Holman and Robin Millar at the University of York and Andrew Hunt at the Nuffield Curriculum Centre.

The modules in the pilot course are:

  • Air quality
  • You and your genes
  • The Earth in the Universe
  • Food matters
  • Radiation and life
  • Material choices
  • Keeping healthy
  • Radioactive materials
  • Life on Earth
Professor John Holman, head of York's science curriculum centre, is a science teacher and former head of Watford Grammar School for Boys - despite its name, an all-ability comprehensive.

He said the new courses would still be fact-based.

"You can't be scientific without knowing about science - there are certain principles you have to know," he said.

"But we think we should identify a relatively small number of really important scientific principles that people should know and concentrate on understanding them clearly."

These included such things as the gene theory of inheritance.

"The kind of things people will need to understand if they are going to make sense of the kind of science they meet in the rest of their lives.

Use of data

"I don't think we are going away from facts entirely. We do think though it's important people understand more about how science works, how they use data, how you can look critically at sets of data - how society makes decisions on how to use them."

What happened to qualifications was a matter for the QCA and ministers, Professor Holman said.

The recommendation for the pilot courses being run from September is that there should be a single science course.

Additional GCSEs would be in general science, topping up the basic knowledge for those intending to take the subject to As and A-level and beyond - and applied science, concerned with its use in the workplace, for example in catering or hairdressing.

'No change'

Some youngsters might do just the single science course, if they wanted to take additional GCSEs in, say, a modern language or music, he said.

In time there might be a "triple science" option with even more detail - equivalent to the existing level of study involved in the separate chemistry, physics and biology GCSEs, which are taken by only about a tenth of the number of students who take the present double award.

But a spokesperson for the Department for Education and Skills denied that the existing, separate GCSE qualifications would be scrapped.

"Science will remain a compulsory part of the curriculum, double science will remain part of the curriculum and the single subjects of physics, chemistry and biology will also stay.

"There is no question that we are moving away from traditional science skills but we do intend to make the subject relevant to 21st Century.

"It is essential that we build a society in which the impact of science is understood and appreciated by young people. This means keeping up to date with latest developments in the field and teaching the subject in a creative and rigorous way."

A spokesman for the Royal Society of Chemistry said he thought some individuals in the chemistry community might mourn the passing of it as a separate subject.

"But we don't stand on our dignity - we don't believe that 'chemistry' has to bear that signature as long as chemical sciences are represented."

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See also:

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