Geraldine Hackett, Education Correspondent
PUPILS at GCSE are to be allowed to abandon learning traditional “hard” science, including the meaning of the periodic table, in favour of “soft” science such as the benefits of genetic engineering and healthy eating.
The statutory requirement for pupils to learn a science subject will be watered down under a new curriculum introduced next year. There will be no compulsion to master the periodic table — the basis of chemistry — nor basic scientific laws that have informed the work of all the great scientists such as Newton and Einstein.
The changes, which the government believes will make science more “relevant” to the 21st century, have been attacked by scientists as a “dumbing down” of the subject.
In June the government had to announce financial incentives to tackle a shortage of science teachers. Academics have estimated that a fifth of science lessons are taught by teachers who are not adequately qualified.
Most children now study for the double-award science GCSE, which embraces elements of biology, chemistry and physics. This GCSE will be scrapped and ministers have agreed that from next year all 14-year-olds will be required to learn about the general benefits and risks of contemporary scientific developments, in a new science GCSE. A harder science GCSE will also be introduced as an optional course
One expert involved in devising the new system believes it will halve the number of state school pupils studying “hard” science. Independent schools and more talented pupils in the state sector are likely to shun the new papers in favour of the GCSEs in the individual science disciplines of physics, chemistry and biology. These will continue to require pupils to achieve an understanding of scientific principles.
The new exams were devised after proposals by academics at King’s College London, who told ministers that science lessons were often “dull and boring” and required pupils to recall too many facts.
Their report said: “Contemporary analyses of the labour market suggest that our future society will need a larger number of individuals with a broader understanding of science both for their work and to enable them to participate as citizens in a democratic society.”
However, Professor Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, warned that reducing the “hard” science taught in schools would create problems. “I can understand the government’s mot- ives,” he said. “There is a crisis of public confidence in science which is reducing the progress of policy on such issues as nuclear energy and stem cell research. But sixth-formers are already arriving at university without the depth of knowledge required.”
Others endorse the new approach. Results at North Chadderton upper school in Oldham — one of 80 schools piloting the new “softer” GCSE, named Twentyfirst Century Science — have improved. Martyn Overy, the head of science, said: “The proportion getting higher grades in science went up from 60% to 75%. The course kept their interest, had more project work and was more relevant.”
As part of their course, the pupils studied what kind of food they needed to keep fit and healthy. Critics say it is only marginally more demanding than following the advice of Nigella Lawson, the television chef, who promotes the benefits of eating proper meals instead of snacking from the fridge.
Some science teachers are sceptical. Mo Afzal, head of science at the independent Warwick school, said: “These changes will widen the gap between independent and state schools. Even the GCSE that is designed for those going on to A-level science is not as comprehensive as the test it replaces.”
John Holman, director of the National Science Learning Centre at York University, who advised the government on the content of the new system, said: “The new exam is not dumbing down. The study of how science works is more of a challenge than rote learning.”
Additional reporting: Tom Baird