Making sense of new rules

Science education continues to change at an increasing pace with significant reforms occurring across the UK. For senior leaders and teachers it is a real challenge understanding the curriculum changes occurring across our four nations.

In England, there are changes from primary to post-16, as well as with Initial Teacher Training. There’s a new curriculum at primary level, reforms at Key Stage 3, revised science GCSEs starting in 2016 and reformed science A-levels in 2015 – it is a tight schedule for our hard‑working teachers that has the potential to create confusion and to affect students. There are new assessment arrangements for A-level practical work, with the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) stating that these will be reported separately and graded ‘pass’ or ‘fail’. This remains an area of concern for ASE members as it could be seen to strike at the very heart of science pedagogy. Practical work is not a separate component; it is an intrinsic part of working scientifically. Given the accountability pressures in schools, we worry that this development could reduce the experience of practical work for students, particularly if the separate mark for this element is viewed as less important than the A-level grade, a real worry.

Northern Ireland
The Northern Ireland curriculum is less prescriptive than the National Curriculum in England, with a greater emphasis on the development of skills. There is increasing divergence with England on qualifications policy; for example, GCSE and A-Levels will still be able to be assessed in a modular way. In Northern Ireland, the Council for the Curriculum Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) has responsibility for advising Government on all aspects of the statutory curriculum and its assessment. In addition, CCEA is the main awarding organisation for GCSE and A-Level qualifications, as well as the qualifications regulator. CCEA specifications are being revised on a different timeline to those in England – A/AS Levels 2016 (first teaching) and GCSEs 2017 (first teaching).

In Scotland, the current key issue for secondary teachers is the introduction of the new Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) courses at examination level. The first presentation of National 5 (the replacement for Standard Grade, which is sat by 16 year olds and broadly benchmarked to upper level GCSE) took place in May with the results from the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) reported in August. These pupils were due to progress to the new CfE Higher courses this session but last year, under pressure from unions and others, the Scottish Education Secretary (Mike Russell) has allowed schools to continue with the existing Higher courses if they felt it to be in the best interests of their pupils. 

In Wales, new GCSE and A levels science qualifications are currently being developed, to replace existing qualifications. Teaching of the new qualifications will begin from September 2016. The qualifications will shortly be de‑coupled from those currently also used in England, so that only qualifications specifically approved for use in Wales will be used in Welsh schools and colleges from September 2016. Consultation on the new qualifications will be held later in Autumn 2014 and Spring 2015. Qualifications are currently regulated by the Welsh Government; however a new independent body called Qualifications Wales will soon to be given full responsibility for regulation.

Primary lessons
Back to some of the key curriculum changes occurring at primary and secondary (Key Stage 3) in England from September 2014. At primary level, the key change is the greater emphasis on working scientifically, which is defined as what children do to answer scientific questions about the world around them. This includes observation over time, pattern seeking, classifying and grouping, and researching using other sources, as well as comparative and fair testing. Working scientifically now underpins all subject content with clear progression between key stages, and is no longer taught as a separate strand. Other changes include an increased focus on outdoor learning, an earlier requirement to identify and classify a variety of living things and an end to the requirement to cover physics at Key Stage 1, as electricity, light and sound, and forces moves into Key Stage 2. There’s new content with the additions of seasonal change (Year 1), fossils (Year 3), human digestive system (Year 4), levers and mechanisms (Year 5) and evolution (Year 6).

Secondary curriculum
As with primary, the Secondary Key Stage 3 curriculum should also be underpinned by working scientifically, and not taught separately. There are greater demands on mathematics and literacy in science and new content at this level, including skeletal and muscular systems, properties of ceramics, polymers and composites, efficacy of recycling and the use of ultra-sound. Some content has been moved down from Key Stage 4, such as gas exchange in plants, cellular respiration, movement of substances in cells, genetics, resistance as the ratio of potential difference to current, and the use of the ray model to explain imaging in mirrors, the pinhole camera, light refraction, how convex lens focus and the human eye.

Final Advice
Schools will need to plan for progression and to provide opportunities for students to undertake the ‘most appropriate’ type of science enquiry including fieldwork techniques and sampling. On the subject of curriculum content, we are aware that not everything has changed. What is critical is that our pupils have the opportunity to develop an appreciation and an enthusiasm for science and be inspired to increase their understanding of scientific ideas.
In a new curriculum, a list of the topics to be taught will never do justice to the necessity for science education to be more than an education for future scientists and engineers. Science education must also aim to help pupils avoid being poorly informed by the debates put forward by the media. A good science education teaches young people to think for themselves and to reach their own explanations and conclusions.
Members of the ASE’s 11-19 and Primary committees, including teachers, researchers and professional development experts will continue to provide opportunities for members to support each other on the reforms and to engage with Ofqual, awarding organisations, government and others across our four nations.

Further information