For the first time in more than a decade the science curriculum in schools is being debated. The consensus which was cemented by the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1988 has been called into question by a new report Beyond 2000: Science Education for the Future, produced by leading science educators and funded by the Nuffield Foundation.
For once a report of this kind begins with a celebration. Since Kenneth Baker - supported by the educationalists - made science a compulsory part of the curriculum from the ages of five to 16, the subject has flourished in schools, particularly with the younger age groups. It is entrenched as a core part of the curriculum and 80 per cent of 16-year-olds take a double science GCSE which includes aspects of biology, chemistry and physics. Single science GCSE, still incorporating all three disciplines but generally taken by the less able, pushes the proportion gaining a science qualification up to 90 per cent. The days when girls opted for biology, physics was dominated by boys and many pupils dropped science subjects completely at 14 are now history. So why are Prof Robin Miller of York University, and Dr Jonathan Osborne of Kings College London, the editors of Beyond 2000..., now arguing for another look at how science is taught and assessed in schools?
The problem to be solved now, the report suggests, is one which existed in 1988. The numbers taking sciences at A-level and at university have not risen in spite of the increased amount of time spent teaching science in schools. "The uptake of science post-16 remains static," Professor Miller says. "Students need to learn about the big ideas of science. We also want them to appreciate the strengths and limitations of the scientific approach to inquiry and recognise the major contribution science makes to our culture."At a time when scientific stories, from cloning to space exploration to the problems of global warming, constantly make front page news, this might not appear a controversial ambition, or one which would necessarily be difficult to achieve. But Science 2000 suggests that it does need a radical rethink of what and how children are taught in primary and secondary schools. One of the problems, says Stuart Naylor of Manchester Metropolitan University, is that secondary schools have become much more exam oriented since the introduction of league tables. Even in primary schools, he says, it is possible to find young children reciting the parts of the body by rote ready for their Standard Attainment Tests. Mechanical regurgitation for tests, he suggests, means that the excitement and relevance of science is missing. "Teachers feel that being creative in science is counter- productive," he says. The exploratory element of the existing curriculum, he added, which does not have an attainment target, is being neglected for that reason in spite of the enthusiasm of pupils and the high quality of the work being produced. The report clearly shows problems with the current science curriculum, but many of these are being addressed through extra curricula activities, such as school science clubs, says Eileen Stanley, manager of the `young people's programme' at the British Association. …