GCSE science is a model of success: reform with caution, warn experts
3 September 2013
England’s secondary schools deliver a world class science education, and proposals to reform the system which should build on that success could derail it instead. This is the message from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) in a new paper published on its website today which seeks to debunk the myth that England does not perform well in this core subject.
Data from the most recent Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), shows that England strikes an important balance between high achievement and positive pupil attitudes when it comes to science, which many of the highest performing countries do not. It is critical, therefore, that in designing the criteria for the new GCSEs that we do not rush to dismantle what is good.
Authors Dr Newman Burdett and Harriet Weaving, both experts from NFER’s Centre for International Comparisons, argue that instead, reform should be carefully considered in light of our system’s strengths, using an evidence-based approach.
Evidence from TIMSS shows we are good at:
- Engagement – just 28 per cent of students ‘wish they did not have to study science compared to nearly half (48 per cent) of students in Korea and 42 per cent in Taiwan, and 34 per cent in Japan.
- Enjoyment – 74 per cent of students think they are given interesting things to do in science lessons; compared to 31 per cent in Japan, 30 per cent in Korea and 35 per cent in Taiwan.
- Delivery – 76 per cent of students find their science teacher interesting; compared to 52 per cent in Japan, 53 per cent in Korea, and 54 per cent in Taiwan.
- Content – 85 per cent of students agree they learn many interesting things in their science lessons; compared to 57 per cent in Japan, 70 per cent in Korea and 72 per cent in Taiwan.
Coupled with relatively high achievement in science and our students’ strength in using that knowledge, this evidence shows England is actually achieving a ‘rare hat-trick’ with its science education: achievement, skills and engagement. However, the planned changes to science GCSE largely overlook this evidence in a bid to make the qualification ‘more challenging’, and thereby risk dampening many young people’s enjoyment of the subject - a crucial ingredient in achievement.
Dr Newman Burdett said: ‘The problem with making a specification more challenging is not to make it just a ‘slog’ that will deter both the brightest and those struggling; it is to make the material engaging, to make students think, make them rise to that challenge. It is hard to do this but the data suggests that England can do it successfully – we need to learn from that.’
Key messages to the sector:
- Science education is big business – we cannot parochially and unjustifiably disparage our science education without damaging this.
- England’s science teachers are world class and if we want to match the few Pacific Rim countries where the top performance outstrips the UK then we need to build on this
- We cannot emulate Korea, Japan or Taiwan because the disengagement of students and teachers would be disastrous in the UK context - they need to be studying what England and Singapore are doing to engage science students.
The full paper, Science Education – have we overlooked what we are good at?, can be found at /p3aa.
Note to editors
Science Education – have we overlooked what we are good at?, is the latest in the series of policy papers NFER Thinks, What the evidence tells us. It is authored by two experts from NFER’s Centre for International Comparisons: research manager Harriet Weaving and the Centre’s head, Dr Newman Burdett.Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is a worldwide research project which takes place every four years. It provides data about trends in mathematics and science achievement over time. NFER was the National Research Centre for TIMSS in England and Northern Ireland for the 2011 study. NFER was also part of the international consortium responsible for test development for TIMSS.
NFER is the UK’s largest independent provider of research, assessment and information services for education, training and children’s services. www.nfer.ac.uk