Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) launches consultation into the GCSE science criteria which could lead to a radical overhaul of specifications

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Criteria under scrutiny

The current GCSE science criteria, on which the 2006 specifications (syllabuses) are based, are due to expire at the end of August 2012. For new specifications to be developed by the awarding bodies for first teaching in September 2011, the criteria will need to be in place this November. As part of what is a routine process for QCA, which takes place for all GCSEs every five years, the current consultation, aimed at teachers and professionals across the science education spectrum, will end in September and will establish what changes are to be made to the criteria. 

Defining criteria

GCSE subject criteria set out the aims and learning outcomes - ie the knowledge, understanding, skills, assessment objectives, and grade descriptors - for each subject. For GCSE science, and under scrutiny in this consultation, are criteria for core science, additional science, additional applied science, physics, chemistry and biology. While the whole content is specified in the core science criteria, that for the three separate sciences and the additional science and additional applied science must build on the requirements for core science but only ca 60 per cent of the content is covered by the criteria, the remainder being left to the awarding bodies to provide some choice for teachers and their students. The awarding bodies develop the full specifications from the criteria, which are accredited by QCA before going into schools and colleges. 

The criteria are intended to ensure consistent and comparable standards in the same subject across the different awarding bodies and help higher education institutions and employers to know what is studied and assessed at this level. 

The consultation asks whether each element of the criteria - aims and learning outcomes; content; assessment schemes and objectives, and their weightings - is fit for purpose. Other questions cover whether the criteria encompass the overarching aims of the National Curriculum for science at Key Stage 4, and whether they present barriers to any learners.  

Assessment push

The consultation has been brought into sharper focus by the recent report published by the qualifications and examinations regulator, Ofqual than a routine check-up might have suggested. The report found that there was too much variability between the standards of different GCSE science papers as well as some evidence that there had been a lowering of standards in the sciences over the past five years.  

Few science teachers and those interested in science education would argue that the quality of assessment at this level needs a serious rethink and made to be fit for purpose. But respondents will need to ask themselves whether the fault lies within the criteria or other factors are responsible, including for example, the specifications, or the quality and type of questions used in the examinations. 

Specifically, the assessment of How science works (HSW) came under criticism in the Ofqual report. But as Professor John Holman, director of the National Science Learning Centre in York, told Education in Chemistry, 'The quality of assessment in How science works is more to do with the quality of the questions set rather than the criteria. Faults in the former do not necessarily mean that the criteria are wrong'. He added, 'We need to improve the quality of questions that are set at GCSE, but it is not easy to set questions on HSW for candidates working at the D/E grades because at this level the amount of reading and contextual material has to be kept to a minimum. This is a Challenge, but it is not an impossible one'.

The overuse of multiple-choice questions is also a problem, he suggested, especially when setting suitable questions to assess HSW. 'Assessment criteria', said Holman, 'need to be flexible and should allow a number of approaches to assessing scientific skills. I would be very concerned if the assessment of skills were locked into only one approach in the new criteria'.  

Implications of content change

Any changes to the content and structure in the criteria will need to be considered carefully because they will have significant implications for teachers in terms of time and resource. The 2004 GCSE criteria and subsequent 2006 specifications were developed over several years prior to QCA's routine review. The 2004 criteria took on the recommendations of an independent report on National Curriculum science, Beyond 2000, which found the curriculum to be aimed only at the 10 per cent of students who were likely to study science post-16, leaving the majority bored and unmotivated. There followed research into what it meant to be scientifically literate in the modern world, and the findings together with the results of a pilot study of the new Twenty-first century science specification, which brought in HSW, were fed into the 2004 criteria.  

As a consequence of the major changes made to the 2004 criteria teachers will have invested much time developing their teaching for the current courses, as well as money to buy relevant resources. It seems only right the 2004 criteria should be evaluated thoroughly before any changes are made. With the UK in a period of economic stringency, a time when schools will have less money to spend on more, it will be important to consider the implications of any change carefully.  

Holman warns that any changes to the content and structure of the criteria could put at risk the good work that has been achieved. 'Core science', he explained, 'was designed to be a course in scientific literacy and a preparation for those students who as citizens need to understand some science but who won't take science further. If the criteria are changed and too much extra content is put back into core science this will make life hard for teachers and their students'. Holman is also passionate about preserving the place of HSW in the curriculum and argues that the way forward is not to bring in more traditional content at the expense of HSW but to improve the way this is assessed.  

Other issues covered by this consultation include whether practical work should be in core science, and whether more relevant mathematics should be introduced into the criteria. Many, including the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), are concerned that the mathematics content of GCSE science has been steadily declining. But should the criteria address this critical issue or should Ofqual be pressing the awarding bodies to put it right by setting the right questions?  

The consultation can be found at the QCA website.