The intention of this post is to give an introduction to the state of science education in England. I am interested in how science education works in other countries and was hoping that this could be the first in a series of blog posts comparing science education around the world.
(Since devolution of power to regional assemblies Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have slightly different arrangements).
School education in England is divided into 6 phases – starting with Early Years and Foundation stage (0 – 5 years) and finishing with key stage 5 (16 – 19 years). A summary of the main phases can be found here. Science starts off with play based investigations and builds into more open ended projects/topics in the primary phase. Secondary education builds on this and leads to GCSE qualifications at age 16 then A-levels (needed for university) at 18.
||Early Years and Foundation stage
||Key stage 1
||Key stage 2
||Key stage 3
||Key stage 4
||Key stage 5
||0 – 5
||5 – 7
||7 – 11
||11 – 14
||14 – 16
|16 – 18
In 1988 we saw the introduction of the National Curriculum. This gave the minimum curriculum entitlement that every child should receive. With the prescriptive National Curriculum came a set of assessment criteria divided into ‘National Curriculum levels’ detailing progression in scientific enquiry, biology, chemistry and physics. This would be used until the end of key stage 3 when examination criteria would be used instead.
The National Curriculum for primary education can be found here and secondary education here (these links seem to change on a regular basis)
The publication of a scheme of work by the QCA (who created the curriculum) and the introduction of high-stakes testing at the end of each key stage polarised the curriculum and put increasing pressure on teachers to be getting good results. The original curriculum was very content heavy and teachers struggled to cover all the material. The National Curriculum has been slimmed down several times, and the levels tinkered with repeatedly but the function of the curriculum remains the same. The latest revision of the curriculum at key stage 3 (11-14) was intended to remove lots of the mandatory content and move to a more skills based approach, with teachers having more flexibility to teach what they want (together with the abolition of statutory testing). This mirrors a similar approach taken with the key stage 4 curriculum previously (but in this case the examination boards chose most of the examinable content rather than it being specified in the curriculum so there is still little freedom for the science teacher).
More and more secondary schools are choosing to condense key stage 3 into 2 years, and spend an extra year doing examination course (since the exam results are one of the measures used to compile school league tables and judge the effectiveness of schools). The GCSE exam (taught from 14 – 16) is in the process of being made more rigorous, and course that are perceived to be easy (like the modular multiple choice course) have been discontinued. There is little content at this level that cannot be taught by any competent science teacher and so many teachers teach across all disciplines of science until A-level where the increased subject depth needs more extensive subject knowledge.
The exact content and style of the science GCSE depends on the examination board the school has chosen to accredit the qualification (there are several to choose between). With much of the content being selected by the exam boards there can be significant variation between them and schools tend to select courses that suit the skills and ethos of the department. We are also seeing a shift towards vocational science qualifications for students unlikely to follow science past compulsory education.
Other issues that affect the quality of science education include deteriorating behaviour (which can limit practical work in lessons), large class sizes, staff absence, number of students with special educational needs, shortage of specialist physics teachers not to mention the constant change and interference from politicians into the teaching in our schools.
I would be interested to hear how our system compares with other countries, and answer any questions about the way science is taught in England.