The importance of the curriculum – thank you Amanda Spielman

Last week the new Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman spoke at the ASCL conference.  She was setting out her stall as one of the most influential leaders in the world of education, and she told the conference of school leaders “Vitally important though a school’s examination results are, we must not allow curricula to be driven just by SATs, GCSEs and A levels. It is the substance of education that ultimately creates and changes life chances, not grade stickers from exams.

She also told her audience “I am determined to make sure that the curriculum receives the proper focus it deserves.

It’s hard to point the finger of blame at school leaders who, anxious to avoid being labelled coasting schools, have done everything they can to boost their progress 8 scores and EBacc results.  Fortunately, the governors at my school had the foresight to put the needs of the individual first when we built our curriculum so we aren’t pushing students through inappropriate exams to boost our school results.

Last week  I attended some CPD with the Institute of Physics discussing how to encourage more girls to follow a STEM career.  Whilst the advice they were giving wasn’t anything that you won’t have heard before it does make you appreciate the effect that teachers and the curriculum have on the long-term life chances of our students, regardless of phase or socioeconomic background.   Much of the language we use in class and the way we run our lessons could potentially have long-term implications for our learners (Stonewall give similar messages about gender neutrality which can influence attitudes from a very early age)

A fortnight ago I was part of a discussion with the 11-19 committee at the ASE talking about combined science vs triple science.  The options path decided at the end of KS3 (year 8 now in many schools) can determine, for better or worse, the life chances of students who may either choose or be guided towards an option that isn’t appropriate for them.  This decision could be made on experience in previous lessons (bringing us back to the message from the IoP) or could this choice could be restricted based on a flawed assessment system at KS3.    Those of you interested in the combined vs triple debate will be interested to read this article on education datalab.

My point is that the curriculum you offer, whether it be at departmental level or at a whole school level, will have long-lasting repercussions for your students and it is important you’ve got it right.  For this reason I commend Amanda Spielman for the tone she has set as she takes up the mantle of Chief Inspector and look forward to seeing the discussion about the curriculum develop as she continues in office.


#ASEchat summary – Planning for the new national curriculum and assessment without levels

A transcript of the chat can be found here.


Although a similar topic was discussed only a few weeks before, the issue of the new national curriculum and what will replace the levels as a progress and accountability measure is still worrying lots of science teachers.

@cleverfiend referred to his recent visit to the DfE and their relative surprise that teachers won’t do much planning for the new curriculum until they know how they will be measured.  Unfortunately whilst assessment shouldn’t lead the curriculum, Ofsted does lead the practice that happens in schools.  @cleverfiend went on to say that his worry is that someone will come up with a model and everyone will adopt it (like with PIVATS/B-Squared small steps documents used in special needs education) and the NAHT is working on a possible model with schools.

@Viciascience asked why we need levels and there seems to be two answers. To inform what happens in the lessons and to provide accountability.  Some teachers are asked to report in sublevels (some to 1/10 of a level) for school tracking data. @NeedhamL56 wondered if SOLO taxonomy could be used (as it has advantages over Bloom’s) and this point was reiterated by several other teachers as the discussion progressed.

@Cleverfiend mentioned the issue of time to prepare and many teachers agreed that we don’t have much time to prepare, especially if waiting for more information on assessment (chat participants pointed out that the new GCSE grade descriptors haven’t been published yet so no one knows what constitutes grades 1 to 9).

Some teachers admitted not having really got a good grasp of levels, and parents find the language of levels totally confusing.  Reference was made to the old national strategy materials and how useful some of the resources could possibly be in terms of structuring a new curriculum.

There was also a worry that many schools are waiting for publishers to do the work for them, and that most of their work would consist of just adopting a new text book.  Several chatters including @hrogerson and @HThompson1982 pointed out that a scheme of work should be adapted for each setting.

@Cleverfiend asked if we should wait for GCSE and plan backwards (especially if reporting requirements are to be loosened at the end of KS3). This prompted lots of discussion with teachers talking up the merits of a five year curriculum plan, and a continual scheme of work rather than a discrete KS3 and KS4.  There was a lot of consensus that this could be the best way to approach planning a new curriculum although ideas for assessment were a little more divergent.

@Geol_2008 pointed out that we would still need a mechanism for reporting progress to parents.  There was suggestion of a curriculum map or gaps in knowledge being highlighted in reports.  @Cleverfiend reported on some Primary school training at the weekend from @nicolabeverley1 and the idea of continuing themes running across the key stage.

Curriculum development is still in a very early stage with the final versions of the national curriculum only just having been released to the public.  Many teachers said they will wait for more information before moving forward with new schemes.

What can the ASE do to support members in developing a world class science curriculum that meets the aims and requirements of the new national curriculum?  I’d be interested to hear your comments (and I’ll pass them on to the ASE)

What you thought should follow a two year key stage 3 Science curriculum

I posted a request for feedback asking people what they thought should follow a two year KS3 course (in my case Wikid Science).

Thank you those people who took the time to respond – I’ve posted a brief summary of the responses below.

  • Only 14% of respondents took three years to complete KS3
  • 57% of people who responded already followed a two year KS3
  • 64% of respondents thought starting KS4 was the better option to follow a two year KS3
  • Of people who thought a skills year was best, most thought fun experiments and applying science were the most important things to include.
  • Project work and KS3-KS4 bridging units were suggested as important for either KS3 or K4 work.
  • One school talked about doing BTEC in Y9, then Diploma or more GCSE in Y10/11
  • Two schools had negative experiences with a two year KS3, one was reverting to a three year KS3


So what did I decide to do?

I decided to take the best of both models and take the more skills based parts of the BTEC and spend more time on them, enriching students’ experiences through year 9.  We will then complete physics, chemistry and physics KS4 modules through year 10 to 11.  Students will complete more modules than required for Certificate but no where near enough for Diploma.

Key stage 3 in two years–what then?

I followed Wikid Science thinking it would be a three year course but it evolved into a 2 year course because many people are starting GCSE in year 9.  I teach in a special school (which ability wise isn’t that far removed from the lower ability end of a mainstream comprehensive) and I’m now in a position where we have year 9 to fill – either with accredited courses or something else.

I’m torn between stretching the BTEC level 1 course over three years (with suitable enrichment and development activities) or writing a skills-based course for year 9 to revisit the skills/content which didn’t get the time they deserved in a two year course. 

With a fluid population my instinct is to keep the BTEC as short as possible (possibly easier to manage coursework since our students have to do everything at school and with support) and go for a skills based year – but I’d be interested to hear what others have to say 🙂

I’d be grateful if you could complete the brief questionnaire here – it’s anonymous and won’t take more than a few seconds of your time.



Science teaching in England–an overview

crisp1The 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
Age 0 – 5 5 – 7 7 – 11 11 – 14 14 – 16

GCSE Exams

16 – 18

A-level Exams


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.