Stuart Billington is a Head of Physics
Teachers are not aware of opportunities to contribute nationally and positively to science education policies, curricula and assessments. Having spent three years trying to impact on this debate and having talked to various people, I’m left with the dejected opinion that this is deliberate.
Education really does seem to be such a political cherry that government doesn’t seem to want to involve anyone beyond there own encampment. Indeed, Daniel Sandford-Smith (the IoP’s Education Manager for Schools and Colleges, at the time) remarked to me in an email a couple of years ago that he was surprised that I was of the opinion that teachers’ views should have any input into the curriculum at all! Add to this the time-constraints on teachers during term-time (and their running for the hills in holiday time) and the ever-dimishing set of specialist teachers in the physical sciences and you’re left with a bleak outlook indeed.
Some of us (and PTNC has hosted many debates over the past few years) are willing to be quite proactive, but we are few and dispersed across the country. Cohesion is much needed. I could go on with three years’ worth of anecdotal evidence, but I don’t imagine that it would be anything you haven’t already discovered for yourself. However, I can summarise a recent meeting I attended, which gives an unwelcome insight.
Perhaps you have heard of SCORE? They are an umbrella group representing all of the UK’s professional science bodies and they lobby government regarding science education. They seem to have formed in the wake of the introduction of the new science GCSEs three years ago. In July they held a meeting at the Royal Society to release their report on the fitness for purpose of the June 2008 Science and Additional Science examinations (all exam boards, all tiers, all papers). There were just over 50 attendees, of which 7 were practicing teachers. (I myself only received an invitation after word of mouth led me to contact the SCORE manager in a related regard. Some of the other teachers helped with the report — I don’t know how their involvement began.) The rest were an impressive raft of representatives from the SCORE partners and other parties with vested interests (representatives from each of the awarding bodies, the QCA, Ofqual, the DCSF, Gasby, Wellcome, Nuffield, the National Science Centres, the National STEM Centre, ITT provider universities, a couple of industry-based representatives).
The SCORE report was broadly similar in scope and in conclusions to the Ofqual report of a few months earlier. However, the SCORE report ends with a set of recommendations that, if adopted by QCA and the awarding bodies when setting future specifications and examinations, would avoid some of the most severe criticisms levelled at the new GCSEs to date.
The BBC summarised the written report for the public, but there were no press at the meeting and so they missed the bits I found most shocking. A representative from Ofqual was invited to add a summary of the Ofqual report after the SCORE report had been presented and she then remained on the panel during the Q&A hour that followed. During this Q&A, I took the opportunity to publicly thank SCORE (on behalf of teachers) for their proactive work and excellent recommendations and then to ask the Ofqual representative to indicate the likelihood of Ofqual pressing the awarding bodies to act on the recommendations in their future specifications (more a QCA thing — but they didn’t have a representative on the panel) and future examinations (which is Ofqual’s domain). She danced around the question somewhat, but to cut the story short she finally admitted that Ofqual would be doing no such thing. Her reason? Asking the awarding bodies to alter their specifications (that are currently at first draft stage, that won’t be released even for consultation until September 2010 and won’t be examined until 2013) “would place an unfair time constraint on them”. Unfair on them! My impression was that she was greeted by a lot of silence and disbelieving stares from the assembled audience, but perhaps I read too much into that. Really, just who are Ofqual representing here? UK education standards or the awarding bodies’ interests?
There followed some focus groups that will feed into SCORE’s future studies and recommendations (including proposals for how to better include in the GCSE science criteria guidance on mathematics and How Science Works), but I find myself wondering if any of it will actually lead anywhere if this is the opinion of the national bodies responsible for implementing the recommended changes..
I left the meeting with some optimism — clearly the UK’s professional science bodies were concerned and involved — but also disappointment that these very same bodies were being ignored and that teacher’s weren’t even aware of the process occurring, let alone being properly involved. Can you imagine an NHS that was run without ever properly consulting any doctors on policy decisions? I guess that this touches on your own reflections in your Guardian blog.
The last three years have stripped me of my naive idealism and let me feeling that the appearance of good education is more valuable to the UK government than actual good education (look at the SATs — withdrawn because of an administrative cock-up or because the graph had plateaued and it was no longer evidence for rising standards?).
While I have indeed replied to the QCA’s questionnaires (plural), I do not expect for one moment that it will achieve anything. As such, I am now spending my time wondering if we teachers need to write our own spec, SoW and exams and present it fait accompli to practicing teachers to use in their daily teaching and internal assessments (similar to what QCA did at KS2 and KS3 a decade ago). If it included as a subset the bulk of the science criteria and at least one awarding body’s spec it could be used while still allowing pupils to gain their GCSEs. The comparison to the government offering might then cause sufficient embarrassment in the press to cause substantial change.
(That said, I did notice a Conservative pledge last week to allow state schools to teach the IGCSE. Obviously, copious amounts of salt are required with this, but at least our predicament has made it to the top table, albeit briefly.)
I find it all to easy to become despondent when considering these issues and it is a regular battle to remain focussed on positive enterprise instead! As such, I found your recent comments and website very encouraging. Thanks once more.