The Blog

UK Science Education Needs a New Formula

When writing end of term reports, I often reflect on the purpose of all the testing that students must now endure. Does testing improve performance or hinder it?

When writing end of term reports, I often reflect on the purpose of all the testing that students must now endure. Does testing improve performance or hinder it?

Seeing that the old style O Levels with one final exam was a flawed system of educating and testing for many students (well it was for me), the Government tried to fix the problem by introducing the new GCSEs with heavy elements of course work. But then this was criticised for making life too easy for children, allowing them to retake GCSEs and A Level modules ad nauseam until they finally (big surprise) got the grades universities have requested.

So, by re-introducing the old style O Level, is Mr Gove addressing the important issues?

In his recent interview with The Daily Telegraph, David Willetts - Minister for Universities and Science - also highlights that the problem continues at university level. He acknowledges that university courses which require high level practical skills - such as the sciences and engineering - are often 'delivered too much on paper with insufficient real life experience.' Mr Willetts claimed that there is a gap in graduates' knowledge which causes concern in that the current methods of teachings are too theory-based, focusing primarily on getting students through exams. He concludes that this imbalanced way of learning has a significant, negative effect on British industry as it is leaving graduates ill-equipped for the world of work.

And this highlights a central weakness of all public exam systems. The reality is that all testing inhibits the creative processes of young minds and uses up far too much time at school and university. Instead of schools being required to teach students how to pass GCSEs and A Levels, the time would be better employed teaching students what they need to know and how to use that knowledge, making exams and assessments fit for purpose.

So some courses at school would be content heavy, some more practically or skill-based, but all focused upon encouraging students to think expansively, to understand the relationship between learning and life.

An innovative new development at Moreton Hall links the school's state-of-the-art science facilities, high-tech equipment and university-led teaching in STEM subjects. A further innovation is the involvement of mentors from science-based industry who are advising students on skills acquisition and career development.

The addition of the Science Centre at Moreton allows pupils from the school - and from local state schools - access to science experiments and techniques which are generally only experienced within research centres in university and in industry, and will particularly benefit those gifted and talented pupils with a strong ability in science which needs to be further stretched and challenged. This Science Centre has been made possible through a number of substantial and generous grants including one from the Wolfson Foundation.

In the past, those of us privileged to be educated at the taxpayers' expense knew that we would get a job if we got a degree. But this is manifestly not the case today and the processes of teaching and learning at school and university need an even more radical overhaul than the self-styled "radical" Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove envisages.

It is time for Mr Gove and Mr Willetts to sit down with a blank sheet of paper with schools, universities and professional leaders - and some young people too - to plan a system that measures all kinds of intellectual ability, including the creative, ensuring the acquisition of the essential knowledge and skills that students require in a competitive world market.

We now need a proper review of school assessment, unhindered by the political timescales imposed by general elections, because the 'quick fix' hardly ever works in the long term.

- Jonathan Forster

The article in which Willetts expresses his concerns over the lack of practical based graduate knowledge can be seen here