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New Curriculum Question Time – Your questions answered

6 November 2013

Curriculum Question Time was a special ASE event. The event consisted of a panel of experts including Brian Cartwright HMI (Ofsted), Professor Paul Black (King’s College London), Annette Smith (ASE), Dr Peter Canning (Pearson), Dr Colin Osborne (Royal Society of Chemistry) and Ann Fullick (Biology science writer), chaired by Dr Chris Harrison (ASE Chair-elect). This event was held at the STEM Education Centre London (formerly SLC London ) on the 5 November 2013. The discussion was led by a series of key questions from participants and the discussion highlights are below.

Twitter Hashtag #ASENCQT used throughout the event - View storify 

Follow @theASE and @StemEdLondon

Is the new National Curriculum an improvement? How?

The new National Curriculum (NC) intentions are good.  It is a rationalisation and extension of the old but is not largely different. In the assessment work the new curriculum attempts to balance skills and knowledge.  With respect to Primary New Curriculum the intent was not to be prescriptive year on year, but that at the end of year 6 students encounter all the content.

Too much name dropping in the Primary NC?

Dr Colin Osborne commented that the NC was offering starting points to support primary colleagues who (understandably) might not be familiar with all the scientists’ names. This risks becoming prescriptive but on the other hand risks not offering directional support. Teachers should note however that if it is non-statutory then it cannot appear in assessment.

“There is a real need for teachers to have the opportunity to explore and discuss NC with colleagues and experts.”

How will the New National Curriculum work for the whole child? And leave space for all the other subjects?

There needs to be a balance across science. Annette Smith highlighted the continuing rhetoric between biology, chemistry and physics as separate subjects, but how this does not relate to the real world cross-pathways.  There is a risk that some sciences, i.e. earth science, might fall through the gaps. 

Are we too precious about science? The Double and Triple Award.

Brian Cartwright commented that in Key Stage 4 if the standard is to take up three slots then this may overpower other important subjects like languages. Students need to know that you don’t need triple science to continue to A-Level.  Professor Paul Black stated that we need to protect the double award being downgraded, whereas triple science needs to be seen as a good but non-essential extra and not the only successful route onto A-Level.

“There needs to be a balance between the triple and double award. 

Currently the double award risks hot housing students to recall and comprehension but without a good degree of enquiry. Combined science should be seen as a good grounding and not as a blockade for students taking further subjects.  Foremost in the response to this question is the real need to offer science for both scientists and for future science citizens.

How will the National Curriculum develop future researchers in a world of increasing technological complexity?

“Teach enquiry not just knowledge that might become out of date.

To develop successful future scientists there needs to be a system that recognises skills in assessment. Qualifications and skills should never be separated out; qualifications should represent skills. Professor Paul Black commented that a more explicit level of demand is required in GCSE assessment criteria including mathematical requirements. In this way skills learned are real world applicable. Dr Colin Osborne noted that materials need to firstly enthuse and interest, so that students are encouraged to go on to the next steps and become the researchers of the future, not hot housed for the sake of an A*.

Assessment denotes a success in the qualification, not success in the subject. Projects are often thought about in terms of how they will suit the exam, but what about how it will develop the student? A useful real world science skill (and life skill) is the ability to accept, analyse and move on from failure.

“Exams aren’t everything, education is more than a test.”

How do you prepare future scientists for non-static areas? How do you prepare for change?

Some of the top challenges:

  • Nanotechnology
  • Chemistry for primary
  • Genetics for secondary
  • Enquiry topics

In Higher Education, lecturers know that students with the same A grade are not equipped in the same way. It is more about how they were taught the subject. Teacher assessment works and is trusted in countries that are heavily invested in teacher skills. Teachers’ summative assessment of their students is passed onto the next teacher. This has nothing to do with the National Curriculum and everything to do with investment in teachers and teachers’ skills. Teachers can always leave scope for the knowledge that doesn’t stand still e.g. new reproductive technologies. Reproduction won’t change but the technology around it will.

What is the impact of no science coursework in the new National Curriculum?

There might be a big impact on practical work not being included in the grade. There is a marked difference between the chemist who can read the textbook and the chemist who can do the chemistry. Annette Smith commented that although practical assessment is difficult, this does not mean that we should not be doing it. However the panel conceded that there is no magic bullet and there may never be a perfect accountability measure.

Coursework has been seen by many teachers as hoop jumping, but also the lack of it might mean that good practical science has less priority for leadership teams and teachers may do less of it as a result. However practical skills are important and are transferable life skills.

“Assessment tool is a very blunt instrument”

Ofsted are not able to find out the level of real science undertaken at schools in the limited 2 day inspection period. One suggestion was to use lab books like in higher education to show the workings of practicals undertaken. 

“The key is maintaining curiosity.” 

The panel and audience participants thought that the best way to teach is to maintain curiosity; teaching that allows for the development of ‘soft skills’ such as independent research and team work. These things are hard to test but do happen in other subjects under controlled observational assessments e.g. drama.  Constraints will exist until a broader perspective of assessment is taken.

Why do some schools have no students continuing to do science at A-Level? 

 “As long as the teaching is valid, students will do better anyway.”

 “We are teachers of science not of syllabuses.”

A suggestion was made that the number of students continuing to study science should become a performance indicator. Closing comments were made about maintaining curiosity and interest in students. Why do some schools have no students continuing to do science at A-Level?  Just because students have the grades does not mean they have the interest to continue science learning. 

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