Page last updated at 01:31 GMT, Friday, 6 November 2009

'Fine exam boards' that dumb down

chemistry class
GCSEs replaced O-levels and CSEs

Exam boards that breach the expected standards in science and "dumb down" the subject should face hefty fines or even bans, a leading scientist says.

Chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, Dr Richard Pike, claims entire exam papers contain no maths in them and some questions no science.

Dr Pike said a new, more independent regulator with more clout was needed to prevent standards from "dumbing down".

Exam standards watchdog Ofqual said it was taking steps to improve science.

Dr Pike said: "The science community has identified entire science papers with no underlying maths, and science questions with no science.

"This is a blatant breach of expected standards."

A million pound surcharge would focus the mind of any examining board chief executive
Dr Richard Pike
Royal Society

He described one Key Stage 3 Sats paper from 2008 which asked a question that was more a test of literacy than science.

It asked where the energy for "a solar-powered mole scarer" comes from.

Dr Pike said: "For all the science needed, this could have been instead a toothbrush or a nail clipper!"

He accused exam boards of running a "race to the bottom" as they attempted to make their wares more attractive to schools and pupils.

He added that even attempts to make topics more relevant had been largely abandoned as boards focused on "simplicity and multiple choice questions".

He said: "In any other endeavour, this would be unacceptable. Break the rules in Formula 1, and you get banned. Contravene competition law, and you get fined.

"A million pound surcharge would focus the mind of any examining board chief executive and overnight would do more than years of 'discussion between stakeholders'."

'Immediate action'

Ofqual said it had made clear earlier this year that work needed to be done to improve GCSE science.

A spokesman said: "Specific problems identified included the lack of challenge and demand in some question papers, the quality of work at grades A and C in some exams, and the high weighting given to objective tests in some specifications.

"As a result the GCSE science criteria has been the subject of a consultation over the summer and will be fully revised. The awarding bodies will then develop new specifications, taking into account Ofqual's report.

"In the meantime Ofqual required immediate action from the awarding bodies to improve the situation in the short term."

But one examination board, OCR, pointed out that Sats papers are drawn up by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority not exam boards.

A spokesman also claimed the leading science board OCR is a charity and a department of the University of Cambridge with a strong educational mission.

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