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  • Judith Skiming

When it comes to GCSE Science, let’s not make the Best the enemy of the Good.

It’s 2019, and shamefully, there still remains a shortage of young people who are leaving school sufficiently qualified in STEM subjects.

Many employers in the UK are frustrated by the fact that they are unable to recruit workers who have relevant scientific and technological skills. So the question must be asked - why are we still failing to inspire more students to choose to study STEM related subjects at university or to choose STEM related apprenticeships and careers? It is certainly not due to lack of exposure to science education during their teenage years. Since 1989 it has been compulsory for all pupils in state schools to study all three sciences; Biology, Chemistry and Physics, to GCSE level. Some pupils choose to study these as separate subjects. But for those who don’t take that option, they are forced to take Combined Science GCSE. Combined Science is worth two GCSEs and this is what the majority of 14-16 year olds currently undertake. Whichever of these two paths are chosen, it’s still the case that all pupils must study all three sciences to GCSE level in some form or other.

But could it be that forcing all students to study all three sciences at Key Stage 4 is actually part of the problem of students leaving education without good qualifications in STEM? In the attempt to expose all students to all three disciplines for the whole of their secondary school career, are we actually preventing students engaging with any science teaching at all? In our pursuit of giving children the best education, are we at risk of jeopardising improving their schooling experience at all? I believe this might be the case.

In light of the new more rigorous and demanding GCSE science curriculum, now might be the time to change our approach to secondary science education at Key stage 4 (14-16 years) and stop forcing all pupils to study the combination of all three sciences to GCSE level.

Instead, I propose that the next Labour government should make only one science GCSE compulsory. Students would however continue to study all three science at Key Stage 3 (11-14 years). This would mean a pupil could take either Biology or Chemistry or Physics GCSE or any combination of them. This would have several immediate benefits for the quality of science teaching and learning, as follows.

Firstly, students will be more engaged in the lessons since they have actually made the positive psychological step of choosing to be there. Empirically, students openly resent the fact that they are forced to study all three sciences at GCSE. This can easily lead to apathy towards the subject or disruptive behaviour, all of which has a negative impact on the perception of science lessons by their peers. This problem of lack of engagement is only going to get worse with the new Science GCSE courses. These have been in place since 2016 and only recently have gone through their full two year course content. These new Science GCSE qualifications are much more challenging, more content driven and much less accessible for lower ability students. There is potential for many pupils to become increasingly dispirited and possibly turn off science for good.

Secondly, this change would result in smaller science classes which would mean more opportunity for individual attention. Given the increased emphasis on practical skills in the new GCSEs, smaller class sizes would enable more hands-on experience and participation in practical work for students. This would create a learning environment where pupils are more likely to engage with the subject and thrive. It stands to reason that more students would then go on to study science at A level and beyond.

The knock-on benefits for teachers of smaller classes filled with happier students are obvious. Teacher morale is low in the state sector. There is a retention and recruitment crisis in teaching, particularly in the secondary sciences. So this change could reduce workload and stress for most current science teachers. It would also mean fewer qualified science teachers were needed, removing some of the current recruitment pressure. It would also probably mean fewer science teachers having to teach outside their own specialty at GCSE, again improving teacher morale and driving up standards.

In an ideal world all students would study all three sciences to GCSE. However I believe we have to be realistic about what is going on in secondary schools and give an element of choice back to the students. Essentially what I am arguing for is quality not quantity. We should encourage those students who are interested in science to excel and create supportive learning environments filled with like-minded peers. If students study less science and choose instead more creative or performing arts type subjects, then what is wrong with that? Surely we want young people who are happy and interested in the world around them, whatever lens they choose to view it through, whether that be through the arts or science?

Some science knowledge and understanding obviously is vital in today’s modern world and this is why at least one science GCSE should remain compulsory. One of the new stand-alone science GCSEs will provide a sufficient level of knowledge and exposure to the scientific method to enable a future adult to participate in reasoned and mature debate on everyday scientific issues.

As we campaign full stretch for an early General Election to rid ourselves of this horrific Tory government, I want to see a Labour government consider this approach to Key Stage 4 science teaching as part of their National Education Service strategy. To me this ‘less is more’ approach could go some way to resolving the problems of science teacher recruitment, teacher retention and improve the school experience in science lessons for students in state secondary schools. When coupled with Labour’s policy on implementing a National Education Service, this emphasis on quality rather than quantity in science teaching could encourage more students to choose and enjoy STEM associated learning and careers.

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