Secondary science teaching is still very much in the grip of the Govian revolution. Even though Michael Gove has been out of the education brief for over three years, his shadow still looms large. The ramifications of his reforms are still being felt throughout secondary schools and in some cases the reforms are yet still to be fully realised.
As a teacher one of the most frustrating things about the reforms was the fact that Science A levels were changed before the science GCSEs. This is contrary to any coherent notion of academic progression, and made the already-difficult jump from GCSE to A level even greater for the cohort of students most affected. The new A level courses were started in 2015 and the first cohort sat the reformed exams last summer in 2017. The students sitting these exams had obviously done the ‘old’ style GCSEs. This is true of all my current sixth form pupils who will be expected to sit the new A levels without the benefit of having studied the reformed GCSEs. How much better would it have been to have staged the changes in line with the children’s advancement through school? And once this problem had become widely known, surely subsequent Education Secretaries could have paused the roll-out to allow schools to adapt.
Reformed GCSEs were started in September 2016 and will be examined for the first time in summer 2018. These have much more content and require a lot more application of knowledge and analytical skills than the ‘old’ style GCSEs. Certainly they will help to bridge the gap between GCSE and A level, so that A level science will be less of a culture shock. However they do not cater much for lower ability students. There is now very little difference between the content covered in the higher paper (Grades 9-4) and the Foundation paper (5-1). This is likely to demotivate and frustrate the lower ability students, who will inevitably ‘switch off’ in science lessons. The bias towards catering for very academic students whilst effectively ignoring the needs of the remainder is short sighted and does not recognise the importance of basic scientific understanding and knowledge for all of society.
Despite the slightly chaotic implementation some aspects of the reforms can be seen as positive. The A level chemistry course now has a big emphasis on practical skills. Having fully embraced the need to increase the amount of practical work that my students carry out over the two year course I have seen the benefits of these changes. Improved understanding through practical experience, increased engagement and motivation in lessons and the development of other transferable skills such as teamwork and organisation. Practical skills are assessed continuously throughout the two year course by teacher assessment. Competent students will receive a ‘Pass’ for the practical endorsement on their exam certificate. In addition 15% of exam marks are based on practical skills and scenarios.
The increased and improved focus on practical skills is not without its challenges, mind. As well as the A Levels, the new science GCSEs also have an increased emphasis on practical work. This poses more of a problem with bigger class sizes and a shortage of equipment and funds. It is ironic that during an era of cuts, schools are expected to run more expensive science lessons using more resources and requiring more specialised technician time. If government, rightly, wants teachers to undertake lessons with a more practical element and with more specialisation, it needs to start funding schools sufficiently and stop implicitly expecting corners to be cut. A good start would be to take a leaf out of Labour’s 2017 manifesto and move towards a unified service, free at the point of use that is dedicated to properly equipping the next generation with the skills and ability to cope with the changes in world of work.
Specifically government should introduce any reforms they propose in a logical fashion, should commit to a fair funding formula for 16-18 year olds and should learn the lessons of their unnecessary mistakes from the last seven years.
So by 2020 there will be the first cohort of students who have studied both reformed science GCSEs and A levels. These students will have experienced the full consequences of the Gove reforms and had the benefit of a more challenging and practical science curriculum at both GCSE and A level. This has to be good for universities, future employers and STEM industries. However, some of our potentially best students have been put off from taking A level sciences because of the abolition of the educational maintenance allowance. If we couple that with the mistaken reforms to the transition between GCSE and A level, then we can see that we now have a cohort of students who will feel the failures of this government for years to come.Â Had the reforms to Key stage 4 & 5 been implemented in a less chaotic way, many of these negative outcomes could have been avoided. Also, there would not have been three years’ worth of students who were expected to tackle the demands of the new A level course without having studied the reformed GCSE. The impact on the prospects for these students will be felt for years to come, with hundreds of thousands of students having missed out on the full benefits of an improved science curriculum, purely because of the chaotic and ideological way in which this government is implementing its changes.