Independent report on pre-19 science and mathematics education in the UK recommends changes to curriculum and assessment regimes

Equations on a blackboard

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In February, the Science and Learning Expert Group, chaired by Sir Mark Walport, published its report on the state of pre-19 science and mathematics education in the UK. The report finds there is room for improvement, notably in the curriculum and its assessment. But do the recommendations go far enough?

The mathematics content within the science specifications; opportunities for more in-depth study within the subject; and the potential harmful impact of modular assessment were all cited in Walport's report as 'areas for improvement' if pre-19 science education in the UK is to prepare young people with the skills and knowledge they need to meet the challenges facing society in the 21st century.

The report

The Science and Learning Expert Group, one of five expert groups set up by the Government to take forward the UK's science strategy, was asked to consider pre-19 science and mathematics education to find out what was working well and what areas needed improvement.  

The group, which was made up of representatives from schools, colleges, HE, the professional bodies, and industry, consulted widely via an online questionnaire and a series of meetings with senior stakeholders from the science community.  

The report, Science and mathematics secondary education for the 21st century, puts forward recommendations in five key areas, including the content and assessment of science and maths at GCSE and at A-level. According to the report, the assessment process is inadequate in testing students' depth of subject knowledge and understanding of key concepts. To address the concerns, the group recommends:  

  • HE and the other stakeholders should be given greater ownership of, and accountability for, the design and development of qualifications and assessment. This should be done through greater engagement with the regulatory body Ofqual and the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA);  
  • the mathematics content of the 14-19 curriculum should be 'boosted' for physics and chemistry A-levels, with the double maths qualification at GCSE currently being piloted cited as one way forward; 
  • the style of exams should be re-balanced towards in-depth problem-solving and a deeper understanding of concepts;  
  • the GCSE and A-level awarding bodies should be regulated to prevent competition between them and the consequential lowering of examination standards, and the practice of awarding bodies endorsing textbooks should be stopped. The awarding bodies should also recruit and train a sufficient number of examiners to improve the quality of exam questions across the range of science and mathematics specifications; 
  • modular exams should be restricted to a single period during the Summer term to avoid disrupting teaching at other times of the year and unnecessary re-sits. Schools should also be given guidance to teach some or all of the A-levels in a linear fashion, with all examinations taken at the end of the two-year courses; and A-levels should include synoptic questions at the end of the courses;  
  • there should be scope for in-depth study in science and mathematics by, for example, providing greater flexibility in the curriculum to explore some elements of the course and encouraging schools to use the A-level extended project to support science education, with the proviso that HE should consider this as part of a students' portfolio in support of their entry onto a course. 

But do the Walport proposals go far enough?  

Could do better? 

Following on the heels of this report, an enquiry into the future of English qualifications and assessment, led by Sir Richard Sykes and commissioned by the shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families last year, was published in March. The two reports share similar concerns, but the recommendations in the Sykes report are more radical.  

Andrew Hunt, who has been involved in the design and development of science curricula for the past 40 years, told Education in Chemistry, 'The Sykes report makes clear, for example, that QCDA and Ofqual as currently constituted, are part of the problem because of their lack of expertise and closeness to interventionist politicians. This means that they persist in having a detrimental effect on the burgeoning assessment system. Sykes' recommendations would lead to the demise of QCDA and a restriction in the role of Ofqual which would, in future, regulate awarding bodies but not individual qualifications. This ties in with my experience that the exam boards that preceded the awarding bodies were better at developing good science specifications in the days when they were not heavily regulated and forced to work to externally imposed and impractical timetables'.  

According to Hunt, the pressure on schools to offer separate sciences and, soon, double maths, has a cost in terms of narrowing the curriculum and a consequential imbalance that is too often ignored. This is a weakness of the Walport report, he said, which refers to science and maths but ignores the wider curriculum context in which they are studied.  

It is important that future scientists study humanities, languages and the arts as well as science and maths up to the age of 16. Strengthening the science curriculum and assessment regimes should not compromise other aspects of the students' education.