Ken Gadd, science adviser on the Science Diploma Development Partnership (SDDP), gives us an insight into how the advanced Science Diploma is shaping up

The revision came about in response to criticisms of the advanced Science Diploma, in the main by SCORE, the science community representing education, last February. In particular, SCORE said that the principal learning (PL) component at the advanced level, which accounts for 50 per cent of the qualification, could not meet the needs of employers and universities, and suggested that two advanced diplomas might be a way forward (see Educ. Chem., 2009, 46 ( 3), 66).  

Work resumes

Since February there have been nine focus groups which, together with feedback from the first consultation, has informed the latest version of the LOLS. This sets out the vision and topics we think should go into the principal learning, the compulsory core for all learners. The SDDP established a review network of people who worked with us to write the revised LOLS and we had a group of subject specialists who advised us on the content. We are currently producing detailed examples of progression routes. 

The LOLS will lead to LOL criteria, which is written by the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA) and on which the awarding bodies must base their specifications. When the criteria have been approved by the regulatory body, Ofqual, we will produce an 'awarding body toolkit'. This will take the statements in the criteria, marry them up to the LOLS and provide more examples of the vision and ideas behind the LOLS. During the process there will be opportunities for the awarding bodies to meet with a member of the SDDP team and a representative from QCDA to discuss the content and assessment of their specifications, and assess whether these can achieve the aims of the LOLS. 

Finally, we will meet with the awarding bodies and go through their specifications and check everything against the criteria. 

At this stage we will also make recommend-ations to QCDA on what we think the support programme for teachers should contain. The Science Diploma will not succeed unless appropriate cpd is delivered. 


Group of teenage students in a science class with teacher

Source: Shutterstock

More and better practical work is one of the main aims of the diploma

A need for the advanced diploma

The Science Diploma got off to a difficult start because many perceived it as a threat to A-levels, which it is not. But there is a need for another qualification at level 3 because there is sufficient criticism of the A-level as not being suitable for all learners.  

Apart from the introduction of applications-led courses, such as Salters-Horners' physics and Salters' chemistry, which are mainstream courses, there has been little change in the content of science A-levels over the past 20 years. The more recently introduced Applied Advanced A-levels were developed from the preceding vocational qualifications, ie GNVQs and AVCEs. There was little time, however, for effective development, and in my opinion these specifications have significant weaknesses. The underpinning knowledge is not well specified, and the assessment is excessive and difficult for teachers to manage. The same cannot be said of the Science Diploma.  

In terms of the knowledge required for the principal learning in the advanced Science Diploma, this doesn't look very different to what's in the subject criteria for A-level science subjects. What will be different, however, is the way the material will be presented and used. The principal learning will be equivalent to one and a half A-levels.  

We are proposing that the principal learning covers the AS and A2 practical requirements of biology, chemistry and physics. This is consistent with the vision of the Science Diploma as a hands-on, skills-led, enquiry-based, multidisciplinary qualification underpinned by scientific and mathematical knowledge. We want students to do more and better quality practical work than they currently do at A-level. 

We have decided to include as many of the AS science subject criteria as possible in the principal learning, providing they do not distort the vision of the diploma. By including this level of detail in the criteria, we will ensure that the knowledge required will be clear, will be covered and will be assessed.  

We are currently considering which qualifications might be in the additional and specialist learning (ASL) catalogue - the options from which students will tailor the course to meet their needs and interests. Students might choose to do, for example, an A-level in chemistry or indeed any other A-level in their ASL. They might also take AS maths or other subjects, such as French or business studies.  


QCDA has a definite agenda for the Science Diploma, ie of applied purpose, so every unit has to add up to a student being able to do something with what they have learned. The assessment will have to reflect this. Assessment is expected to include ca 70 per cent internal assessment, though this will not be based on a portfolio of evidence which is gathered over time. Instead each topic of typically 60 or 90 guided learning hours will be assessed on one comprehensive piece of work. QCDA calls this 'controlled assessment'. Students may well need to draw on work they did while studying the unit, but it is a free standing unit of assessment.  

The assessment units will be timed activities with various levels of control: the awarding bodies will provide the task; or the teacher can decide what to do but will understand the assessment principles of the awarding body so that there will be some consistency across the centres; or the teacher can come up with a valid way of assessing the unit which is approved by the awarding body. It is unlikely that awarding bodies will be able to use old material for assessing the advanced Science Diploma because it won't be appropriate. 

The advanced Science Diploma is a level 3 qualification and it is certainly not for those students who are not capable of doing A-levels or advanced study. There is an odd notion that if something is applied it is easy. That's simply not true. Most applied courses do, however, allow youngsters to get on the assessment ladder quickly - they start by doing routine work and are not beset by having to understand some of the difficult concepts first. To progress further, however, students will need to understand the concepts and be able to apply them in the context of a working environment. 

Diploma appeal

This diploma should appeal to students who want a practical, hands-on engagement with science, and who want to learn science in authentic contexts. This is not to say that some A-levels don't use this approach, but the specifications, unlike those in the Science Diploma, do not drive it.  

The advanced Science Diploma will allow those students who aren't sure of what they want to specialise in to continue to study all three sciences until their preferences become clear - at which time they could take on board both an extended project, and also tailor their ASL to match their aspirations. For those students who know what they want to do, eg become a chemist, they will have gained much insight into what goes on in the world of science and recognise they will be part of a team made up of a range of specialists. 

A final point

The Science Diploma won't meet the needs of all students - there will be some who prefer a more abstract and conceptual approach, for which the current A-levels would be a better choice. However, I think we should be distinguishing students by the way they like to learn, rather than by whether they are going on to higher education or employment. The notion that a different core of scientific and mathematical skills and knowledge is needed if a student is going into employment as opposed to HE is difficult to justify.