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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 October 2006, 15:23 GMT 16:23 UK
Q&A: Science GCSE controversy
Icebergs in Greenland
Global warming will be one of the subjects of debate
Leading educationalists have criticised a new science GCSE curriculum for being more "fit for the pub" than the school room. Its supporters think getting students to talk about topical scientific issues is a good way to draw more of them to the sciences.

What is the new science GCSE?

The new qualifications come under the banner of 21st Century science.

Students are encouraged to discuss scientific issues in the news such as GM crops, mobile phone technology and global warming.

Coursework accounts for at least 25% of the final grade.

Alongside this course, pupils will also be expected to study an Additional Science GCSE - either "general", with a more factual basis, or "applied", with a more practical focus.

Courses for the new GCSE started this September and exams will be sat in 2008.

Pilot schemes for the course were run in 80 schools from September 2003.

So why has 21st Century science been introduced?

The basic aim is to make science more relevant to more pupils, especially those who do not have a natural enthusiasm for science.

Professor Andrew Hunt, of the Nuffield Curriculum Centre, said it was designed to make sure everybody was offered an education that was worthwhile for their future adult lives.

He said that, for too long, education had been geared towards people who wanted to go on to study the subject at university.

The government, which has long been grappling with how to draw more students to the sciences, believes this could reverse a decline in science student numbers.

What do the critics say?

Critics fear the new GCSE is another step along the road of "dumbing down" science.

They have expressed concern that pupils who do not study chemistry, physics and biology separately will not get into good universities.

They are also concerned that separate sciences will increasingly become the reserve of independent and grammar schools, and will no longer be taught in state schools.

But in many ways, their concerns come too late.

Double science GCSE, which combines chemistry, physics and biology, was introduced in the early 1990s and is now the norm for many pupils.

Figures from the Department for Education and Skills show less than a quarter of state schools in England taught the three sciences separately in 2004/05.

Furthermore, pupils who take up 21st Century science are unlikely to be those who plan to take science at A-level and then university.

What sparked this latest debate?

The current concern over 21st Century science follows the publication of a critical essay by David Perks, head of physics at a south London school, published by the Institute of Ideas think tank.

He describes the changes as a "dumbing down" of the subject and wants a return to the teaching of separate science subjects.

High profile educationalists were then asked to write articles in response.

The debate however, is not new. Since it was first piloted in 2003, the new GCSE has drawn criticism from purists.

What does the future hold?

The Royal Society, the national academy of science, warns the next five years are critical if the UK is to avoid losing the next generation of scientists.

The Confederation for British Industry (CBI) also worries that the UK's economy and global position could suffer without a new wave of scientific experts.

Under-subscribed science degrees at universities could be forced to follow the lead of Reading University's physics department which announced it was to close earlier this month.

The government though said it proposes to establish co-operation between schools, colleges and universities by 2008 so every child who wishes to, can study the three separate sciences.

Critics attack new science GCSE
11 Oct 06 |  Education

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