Page last updated at 14:04 GMT, Wednesday, 3 June 2009 15:04 UK

Dilemma over science entitlement

Pupils in England are entitled to be taught separate science GCSEs but schools are not obliged to offer them. So how does that work?

By Gary Eason
Education editor, BBC News website

science lesson
Schools are faced with two parallel approaches to science teaching

Official figures show that only 46% of England's comprehensives entered at least one pupil last year for the separate science GCSEs - chemistry, physics and biology.

Since then an "entitlement" has come into effect, the gist of which is that any pupil reaching the expected attainment level in science at the age of 14 could have teaching in the separate sciences at GCSE.

But a circle needs to be squared, because schools are not obliged to offer the subjects separately.

They may, if their governors decide, instead offer the new core and additional science GCSEs - a totally different approach introduced by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

Commitment

It had seemed clear-cut.

A strategy document, Science and innovation investment framework 2004-2014: next steps, was published as part of the 2006 Budget.

It set out the Westminster government's ambitions to improve "Stem" skills (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

"To meet these ambitions, the government announces a package of measures to improve the skills of science teachers, the quality of science lessons and increase progression to A-level sciences, including new commitments to ...

• an entitlement from 2008 for all pupils achieving at least level 6 at Key Stage 3 to study three separate science GCSEs, to increase progression to, and attainment at, A-level science."

A report by the inspectorate, Ofsted, called Success in science, explained why this was seen as important.

It said, "evidence from the DCSF and qualitative evidence from Ofsted suggest that those who study three separate sciences are more likely to choose to study science at A-level and degree level."

Expectation

The promise of an entitlement to the separate sciences - often referred to collectively as "triple science" - was repeated several times.

In March 2007 the then higher education minister, Bill Rammell, announced a forum to boost the attractiveness of science to young people.

He said: "From September 2008, students who achieve above average Key Stage 3 results will be able to take three separate sciences at GCSE."

The mention of "above average" results is itself confusing, as the expectation was only Level 6 of the national curriculum - the level pupils are expected to attain by the age of 14.

In talking about the revised secondary school curriculum in July 2007, the DCSF said in a news release that some of the key changes and retained elements included:

"Science: Will remain a core compulsory subject in the curriculum and all pupils who reach the required level will have entitlement to study triple separate sciences (physics, chemistry and biology) at GCSE by September 2008."

Commenting on the GCSE results that August, Schools Minister Jim Knight said: "More students are choosing single sciences at GCSE yet again and achievement in the single sciences is outstripping other subjects...."

Either ... or ...

But the reality of the pledge became clear in the 2006 Education and Inspections Act, which was given effect by what is called a statutory instrument - a ministerial order - in 2007.

This entitled a pupil to study either the new science and additional science qualifications, or the three separate sciences - as their school's governing body chose.

It was summed up in plain English in a DCSF pamphlet, Nurturing Tomorrow's Scientists.

That said all state schools must offer all pupils the opportunity to study the new core and additional science GCSEs or all three science subjects, physics, chemistry and biology.

In the same pamphlet the promise to pupils was that, from September 2008, there would be "a new non-statutory entitlement to triple science teaching at GCSE for those who reach at least Level 6 in science at Key Stage 3".

The government's Triple Science Support Programme website also says there is "a non-statutory entitlement to enable all young people with Key Stage 3 science attainment of Level 6 and above that would benefit, to study triple science GCSEs from September 2008 in all schools."

Incidentally this adds a different caveat: all those "that would benefit" - without saying who would be the judge of that - but it does say "in all schools".

Options

In a lecture in February this year, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he wanted to double the number of pupils in state schools taking triple science to 100,000 a year, by 2014.

He said: "We are today setting a national ambition that this country will educate the next generation of world class scientists; and that to do so we will work towards all pupils having access to single subject science teaching - with a guarantee that 90% of all state schools will offer this within the next five years."

The phrase "work towards all pupils having access" is an odd one from a government that had already given them an entitlement to that.

Prof John Holman
You need to be in a position where every pupil in every maintained school who is interested in doing triple science is able to do it
Prof John Holman
Director, National Science Learning Centre

The policy director at the Association of School and College Leaders, Malcolm Trobe, said it illustrated the difference between ministerial orders and ministerial wishes - albeit prime ministerial wishes.

He is sceptical about the idea that schools should collaborate to offer triple science.

"That would be nearly impossible to achieve because of the complexity of sending a youngster to another institution merely to pick up one subject," he said.

He thought many more schools would now be offering triple science - it is just that the results will not be apparent until 2010.

Whether pupils would choose to pursue them was another matter.

"I was a head until last summer: we offered triple science, and out of 210 pupils in Year 9 about 32 opted to do them."

Many youngsters, unless they were already determined to be doctors or vets, still wanted to keep their options open at the age of 14, he said.

The government's national Stem director and director of the National Science Learning Centre, Prof John Holman, says it is important for pupils to have a choice.

"You need to be in a position where every pupil in every maintained school who is interested in doing triple science is able to do it."

This meant doing it within their own school - not having to travel.

"You could in theory have an arrangement where they go off site to do it but in my view to be realistic it needs to be on site.

"You make triple science an option against other options such as German or art or music and add that to their basic entitlement," he said.

This worked because there was a lot of common content between the different courses, said Prof Holman, a former chemistry teacher and head teacher.

So the core course might be 10% of the timetable. Most pupils would take core and additional science, making up 20% of their time.

Those who opted to add triple science would devote another 10% to it, making 30% in total.

Prof Holman did not agree that no-one would design such parallel systems if they were starting with a blank piece of paper.

"I think it's the only way, because it offers pupils so much choice," he said.

"And it's extremely popular with parents."



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