Page last updated at 09:16 GMT, Thursday, 25 February 2010

Science and maths exams 'need shake-up'

By Angela Harrison
Education and family reporter, BBC News

science lesson
The report calls for more maths in science A-levels

Science and maths exams should be more demanding and more experts should be involved in teaching the subjects, an independent report has said.

The Science and Learning Expert Group says improving science and maths has been a high priority in recent years.

But it calls for more demanding GCSEs and A-levels, regulation of private exam boards and greater use of flexible pay to attract specialist teachers.

The government says many of the issues raised are being addressed.

Exams 'inadequate'

It set up the expert group as one of five which would provide advice on the UK's Science and Society Strategy.

An excellent education depends on excellent teaching, a strong curriculum and assessment that is fit for purpose
Sir Mark Walport, chairman of the Science and Learning Expert Group

Science and Learning Expert Group chairman Sir Mark Walport said: "Many of us have good cause to be grateful to a single inspiring teacher whom we encountered during our school education.

"Our overarching recommendation is that specialist teachers and their subjects need to come to the fore in the teaching of science and mathematics in schools and colleges."

The report also calls for more maths content in GCSE and A-level science courses - especially in chemistry and physics A-levels.

The authors suggest exams are dictating what is taught in schools and that the exams themselves are seen as "inadequate" in testing the depth of students' knowledge and their understanding of key concepts.

The trend for multiple-choice questions was criticised, with the authors saying there should be "greater emphasis on accurate use of the English language".

The report said assessment should follow the curriculum rather than define it and that expert groups should be set up for each subject area to advise on the curriculum for five to 19-year-olds and on GCSEs and A-levels.

The science and maths community want a greater say in the development of qualifications and assessment, it adds.

'Right track'

Sir Mark said: "An excellent education depends on excellent teaching, a strong curriculum and assessment that is fit for purpose."

We believe that by involving those with real experience and understanding of teaching, a more holistic and effective science and mathematics education system will result
Professor John Pethica, Royal Society vice-president

The group calls for regulation of private exam boards which offer GCSEs and A-levels, saying this would "prevent competition between them leading to lower standards".

The fear is that schools might opt for exam boards they consider to be offering easier qualifications.

Schools Minister Iain Wright said the report suggested the government was "on the right track" and that many of the issues raised were being addressed.

These included the need for greater maths content in GCSE science, the need to continue recruiting and supporting specialist teachers and the need for science A-levels to be more challenging, he added.

'Valuable contribution'

Royal Society vice-president Professor John Pethica said he was "delighted" by the recommendation that expert groups should advise on the development of the curriculum and qualifications.

"We believe that by involving those with real experience and understanding of teaching, a more holistic and effective science and mathematics education system will result," he said.

Sylvia McNamara, from the QCDA, the body responsible for the development of the curriculum and qualifications in England, said the report made a "valuable contribution" to the debate around the critical role of science and maths.

"This summer A-level students will sit the new style exams, which demand a more broader understanding and will better prepare young people for higher education and employment," she said.

"Input from teachers and lecturers, awarding bodies, subject specialists and the royal societies all played a vital role in the recent revisions to maths and science GCSEs, as well as the new Science Diploma for 2011."

A spokeswoman for Ofqual, England's exams watchdog said it worked to maintain standards.

"Ofqual carries out rigorous monitoring of the awarding bodies throughout the awarding process to ensure that standards are maintained year-on-year, across awarding bodies and across subjects," she said.

"Where we find problems or cause for concern over standards we have and will take action.

"While Ofqual accepts that teachers who become examiners have a wealth of experience and it is right that they should be able to share this experience with others for the educational good of pupils and students, we agree that there are limits to what can be allowed."

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