How Can We Improve A’ Level Science Take Up Rates and GCSE Standards?

West Kirby student named UK’s top young scientist

A Merseyside student has been named as the UK Young Scientist of the Year.

On 17th March 2012 it was announced that Kirtana Vallabhaneni, a 17 year old student from West Kirby Grammar School won UK Young Scientist of the Year at The Big Bang Fair at Birmingham’s NEC. She was awarded the prize for the role she played with University of Liverpool’s research project which was aimed at identifying the harmful cells that cause pancreatic cancer. She told the BBC |“she hoped her win could help “instil the same kind of passion I have for science in other young people”. Renowned space scientist Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock who was a member of the judging panel said she was |“delighted” with Ms Vallabhaneni’s work.” She went on to say |”The country’s science and engineering industry has an incredibly bright future ahead of it if Kirtana and her fellow finalists are anything to go by”. It is always highly encouraging to hear of students who are doing well at their studies, empassioned about the subjects they are learning and keen to instil that passion in others. But are students like Kirtana typical of the UK’s science students and is it all good news?

Are GCSE Science Standards Improving?

On the whole the latest official GCSE results would suggest that standards are improving year on year with only Chemistry seeing a small decline in A* to C passes between 2010 and 2011. In addition the year on year increase in the number of students swtiching from Combined Science to the individual Science subjects has been significant with figures published last year showing a 158.1% rise in the take-up of physics, a 160.1% rise in chemistry and an increase in Biology of 165.9 % during the ten years to 2010. These figures are encouraging because we believe that the combining of Sciences at GCSE level does not provide students with the depth of knowledge they need in order to pursue the subjects at a higher level and places them at a disadvantage with their contemporaries who study them separately.

There are however, other trends which would suggest that the Science curriculum and exam structure is not yet fully achieving it’s aim of increasing the levels of students taking up Science for their post 16 studies. For example, it appears that the increase in GCSE students taking separate subjects is not successfully filtering through to A’ Level Sciences. There were approximately 14% more students sitting GCSE Biology in 2011 than the previous year, which would tally with the decade long growth rates quoted above, but the increase in A’ Level Biology students in 2010 was just 4.3%. Given that somewhere in the region of 52% of GCSE students carry on their education to A’ Level we should be seeing a year on year increase of 8-9% to in Biology students.

How Can We Improve A’ Level Science Take Up Rates and GCSE Standards?

In our experience there are two fundamental problems that must be overcome in order to see the results required for the benefit of both students and the wider economy. Firstly, the strategy of entering students for combined Sciences, as stated previously, does not allow the students in question to gain a sufficient breadth of knowledge in the subjects to prepare them for higher level study. Furthermore, there are still currently approximately two to three times the numbers of students being entered for Additional Science and Combined Science than there are for the various separate Sciences after 10 years of progress. We would suggest a re-examining of the Combined Sciences strategy with a view to removing it from the curriculum entirely, thereby allowing all students equal access to the full range of the Science curriculum and creating equal opportunity for higher level Science studies and careers.

There is a second problem with Science teaching in schools today. And that is the lack of practical Science lessons. Online research of 1,300 teachers by the government-funded Science Learning Centres, in 2010, found that 96% faced obstacles to doing practical lessons. Two thirds blamed pressure from the curriculum while 40% blamed the demands of testing and marking. Pupils’ behaviour was cited by 29%, and 25% blamed a lack of equipment. Only one in ten said health and safety fears were an issue. It is our belief that insufficient practical teaching has both impeded students’ ability to gain a full understanding of the topics they are being taught and has caused them to lose a desire to study Science further. This is why we are observing a disparity between the growths of A’ Level and GCSE students in recent years.

The national figures are being borne out by what we are seeing at Kip McGrath Scunthorpe. A recent straw poll of students revealed that the amount of practical Science teaching they received varied widely and there was a distinct lack of consistency in standards between schools. Furthermore, the amount of practical lessons taught decreases at the students get older. This too is backed up by the report: |”While 63% of Key Stage 3 teachers (teaching 11 to 14-year-olds) said they spent 40% of their teaching time on practical work, 43% of Key Stage 4 teachers said the same and just 28% of those teaching over-16s did so.” Furthermore, the number of Secondary school students seeking extra tuition is growing year on year with nearly half of all our Science student intake since we opened having enrolled during 2011.

By contrast a student currently attending our Centre for homeschooling has gained 6 sub-levels in her grades during the past year, a rate of progress that is three times what would be expected if she was in school full-time. She has been taught the Science subjects separately for 80 minutes each week and experienced at least one practical lesson per topic. During this time we have seen her enthusiasm for Science grow too as she learns how interesting and varied the subject can be. It appears therefore, that the lack of practical lessons is a driver for turning students off the subjects and resulting in them not making the move from compulsory Science at GCSE to optional A’ Level.

In summary, we believe that by allowing all students to study Biology, Chemistry and Physics as discrete subjects with regular practical lessons they will be infused with a desire for the Sciences and attain sufficient knowledge to pursue such studies and careers further.

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