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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.


New Award To Raise University Aspirations Of All Pupils

New award to raise university aspirations of all pupils


Press notice
Press notice date: 15 March 2012
Updated: 15 March 2012

Schools Minister Nick Gibb today announced a new national award scheme to recognise the top achievers in every secondary school in England – and those showing great potential.

He said that the “Dux” – Latin for leader or champion – would help raise the aspirations of all pupils, including those from less affluent backgrounds, to go to university, including our top higher education institutions. A similar scheme, also called Dux, already exists in schools in Scotland.

The award, open to all maintained secondary schools, will see teachers selecting a Year 9 pupil as their Dux. They will be rewarded with a visit to one of the 20 current Russell Group universities.

The Russell Group represents leading UK universities which are committed to maintaining high-quality research, outstanding teaching and education, and excellent links with business and the public sector.

Schools Minister Nick Gibb said:

This is an opportunity for schools to celebrate success, and to develop and reward high performing pupils.

Teachers may decide to choose pupils who might not be at the top of the class but who have outstanding potential to become high achievers. These could include children whose families may traditionally not have gone to higher education. They may wrongly assume that university is something ‘other people’do.

Visiting any of these great educational institutions, and seeing first-hand the possibilities that exist there, will open pupils’ eyes to an exciting world in which they can not only take part, but thrive.

Nick Gibb added:

Our world-class universities are for all those with good qualifications and real promise – not just the few. They already do a great deal to increase access to higher education and run extensive outreach programmes offering a wide range of opportunities for school pupils.

This is about ensuring that schools are playing their part in promoting excellence and in supporting pupils, including from disadvantaged backgrounds, to aim for prestigious universities.

I am delighted that so many leading universities are committed to the programme.

Dr Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group, said:

Russell Group universities already pump millions into a range of schemes to attract young people from non-traditional backgrounds. Many of our universities run successful summer schools and work with local schools – including those where there is little history of pupils progressing to research-intensive universities.

Too few pupils from some state schools get the right grades in the right subjects to apply to leading universities but there is also evidence that even with good grades state school students are much less likely to apply to top universities than those at equivalent independent schools.  So we hope this scheme will help raise the aspirations not only of Dux winners but all other bright teenagers at their schools and make sure they are thinking about their options at a younger age.

We are delighted to be offering bright prospective students the opportunity to come and meet our students and lecturers and have taster sessions. All of our universities look forward to welcoming the winners and their teachers and helping to build long term working relationships so that all young people – whatever their background or school type – know that a Russell Group university could be within their grasp.

We’re ready to offer all top achievers – whether or not they win the Dux – the chance of a place: we need their teachers or advisors to persuade them to apply. Wherever you’re from, with the right grades, attitude and potential, you have a good chance of getting into a Russell Group university. So if there are pupils out there who don’t manage to win but are still interested we would urge them to find out about general open days and other activities for school pupils’ on university websites.

Similar awards already exist in a number of other countries, including Scotland, Australia, New Zealand and the US.

Case study

At Imperial College London, Dux prize winners will be given the chance to take part in three activities around the future of energy. They will work with current students and researchers on carbon capture and storage solutions, explore fuel cell technology that could power high-performance low-emission cars, and experiment with new solar cell technology that could make solar energy cheap and accessible for all. Prize winners will then come together to discuss how the science, technology and engineering activities they have been working with can help deal with climate change and energy sustainability.

West Kirby Student Named UK’s Top Young Scientist

West Kirby student named UK’s top young scientist

BBC |March 17, 2012

Kirtana VallabhaneniMs Vallabhaneni said she was “so happy” with the win

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

West Kirby Grammar School’s Kirtana Vallabhaneni beat 360 other entrants to be awarded the prize at The Big Bang Fair at Birmingham’s NEC on Friday.

The 17-year-old was part of University of Liverpool’s research project aimed at identifying the harmful cells that cause pancreatic cancer.

She said she hoped her win could help “instil the same kind of passion I have for science in other young people”.

The judging panel for the national award, open to 11 to 18-year-olds who completed a science, technology, engineering or maths project, included renowned space scientist Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, Nobel Prize winning biochemist Sir Tim Hunt, and the Science Museum’s inventor in residence Mark Champkins.

Dr Aderin-Pocock said she was “delighted”with Ms Vallabhaneni’s work.

“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,” she said.

“It’s these talented individuals who will inspire others to think about science and engineering in a new and exciting light.”

Ms Vallabhaneni, who was part of the project team working to isolate cells in the pancreas that can be targeted with chemotherapy, said she was “so happy” with the win.

“Everything that I’ve worked for over the last year has come together,” she said.

“The fact four finalists were female shows that there are strong opportunities for women in science and it proves they don’t have to follow convention and stereotypes.

“I’m so passionate about what I do and I hope that with this success, I can instil the same kind of passion I have for science in other young people.

“If I can do it, they definitely can.”

Cambridge Protest Planned For Suspended Student

Cambridge protest planned for suspended student

BBC |March 16, 2012

Owen HollandStudents and staff at Cambridge University are to demonstrate against the suspension of a student for his part in a protest last November.

Owen Holland was suspended from the university for two-and-a-half years for reading out a poem during a speech by Universities Minister David Willetts.

The university’s disciplinary authority took the decision after a six-hour hearing on Wednesday.

Supporters of Mr Holland described the sentence as disproportionate.

The protest, against plans to raise student fees, cut short a planned speech by Mr Willetts in one of the university’s lecture halls.

Mr Holland read out a poem which was repeated back by other protesters.

Eventually Mr Willetts left without delivering the speech.

When Mr Holland was first charged with impeding the minister’s freedom of speech, more than 60 other staff and students wrote to the university authorities admitting their role in the protest and demanding that they be be charged with the same offence.

‘Singled out

Cambridge University Students Union has called for the sentence to be quashed.

Liam Burns, President of the National Union of Students, said:“When no laws are broken there is no reason for such a disproportionate punishment.

“It is clear that this decision has unfairly singled out an individual to make an example of.”

Mr Holland has 28 days to appeal.

Salima Mawji, an expert in education law, suggested a legal challenge to the suspension could be made on the grounds that the authorities appeared to have ignored admissions to alleged disciplinary offences by other students.

Ms Mawji asked: “Why was Mr Holland the only member of the student body to be singled out and punished despite open admissions by other students?”

The protest outside the University of Cambridge Old Schools building is due to start at 13:00 GMT on Friday and is expected to include students, staff and lecturers.

Headteachers Admit Illegally Excluding Pupils

Headteachers admit illegally excluding pupils

The Guardian World News |by Jeevan Vasagar


The government should conduct research to identify the full extent of unlawful exclusions, a report says. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

Headteachers have admitted illegally excluding pupils from school, including one “extreme” case in which children in their final GCSE year were sent home at Christmas and told not to return until their exams.

A report by England’s children’s commissioner found “clear evidence” of illegal exclusions. These included cases where heads coerced children into changing schools or informally excluded them until a meeting had taken place with their parents.

The government should conduct research to identify the full extent of unlawful exclusions, and recommend measures to prevent a“small proportion” of schools continuing to act in this way, the report says.

David Wolfe, a barrister specialising in education law, told the inquiry that in some cases, academies were attempting to avoid scrutiny of their exclusions by appeal panels, and refusing to hear appeals from parents.

Wolfe said some academies were refusing to comply with official guidance on exclusions. He also claimed some were refusing to admit children with statements.

The report quotes Wolfe as saying that this is the case with a substantial number of schools and is “symptomatic of a pattern of behaviour, rather than being limited to a few bad apples”.

Maggie Atkinson, the children’s commissioner for England, said:“For the first time schools are on record saying they had illegally excluded pupils. Due to the informal nature of such exclusions it is difficult to know how widespread this practice is but it is worth further examination.

“Our report recognises that exclusion may in rare cases be a necessary last resort. It should happen only if a child is a danger to his or herself or others, or when learning is so disrupted that only exclusion is possible. But all exclusions must be within the law.”

The post of children’s commissioner was established as an independent champion for young people in England under the Children’s Act 2004, the legislation brought in after the Victoria Climbié inquiry.

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