Page last updated at 00:00 GMT, Friday, 5 December 2008

Minister checks on science exams

By Gary Eason
BBC News website education editor

Lord Drayson
Lord Drayson himself studied science A-levels and has a PhD

A government minister has said he is calling in copies of GCSE and A-level science exam papers to satisfy himself they are not being "dumbed down".

Science Minister Lord Drayson said it was vital that the brightest and best pupils were stretched by education.

He made the remarks as the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council announced a 250m investment in 44 new centres to train 2,000 PhD students.

They will work on pressing issues such as climate change and energy supply.

The idea is to build up networks of expertise that can meet what are perceived to be some of the biggest challenges facing the country.

No dumbing down on my watch
Lord Drayson
Lord Drayson, who chairs a government committee on science and innovation, said: "Science is fundamental to this country.

"As we go into this global downturn the importance of maintaining our investment in science has never been greater."

Some 17 of the new centres will provide industrial training.

The minister - who has a PhD in robotics - said the way his own training had included business applications had changed his life.

It had opened his eyes from being "a techie" to someone who had gone straight out of university and become an entrepreneur.

He hoped others going through the new centres would be similarly inspired to start their own companies.


Asked about the quality of school science, Lord Drayson said: "In coming into this job one of the things I asked my private office to do was to get me a set of last year's GCSE papers. They are also in the process of getting last year's A-level papers."

wind farm
Wind energy will be the focus of one of the training centres

He had also "dusted down" the A-level and O-level papers that he took in the 1970s.

He said it was important to "make absolutely sure that the educational process to develop the brightest and the best... provides them with what they need too.

"As a science minister I'm determined to make sure that happens."

He added: "No dumbing down on my watch."

A spokesman for the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills said Lord Drayson was fulfilling his wide-ranging remit to take an interest in all things to do with science.

Nevertheless, what happens in schools is the responsibility of the separate Department for Children, Schools and Families.

Part of what prompted his intervention was the Royal Society of Chemistry's recent claim that standards in science exams had been eroded and that the system was failing a generation.

In an online petition to Downing Street, the society says record-breaking exam results are "illusory".

Its chief executive, Dr Richard Pike, said: "We are very pleased with Lord Drayson's promise of action yesterday to ensure no dumbing down in science exam standards, and his support of the need to stretch our brightest and best.

"Should he make good on his word and compare the current exams with those of his own education, he will surely concur with the RSC's own evidence and the 4,800 signatories of our petition to the Prime Minister."

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