A levels – an oasis of tranquillity or the eye of the storm?
A level reform is a fascinating contrast to the way that things are done at earlier key stages. It’s awfully tempting for statutory agencies and government departments to want to organise things. I’m not saying they shouldn’t do, but rather that they feel quite entitled to determine content at earlier stages.
There’s a strong case for a school curriculum to reflect the values of society. The ideas and skills included in it are the things we cherish and want to pass on to the next generation. They are a consensus of what learned people regard to be of value in understanding the world. It’s not unusual at the moment for people leading primary science CPD to have to justify why evolution should have been introduced into the Programme of Study at KS2; the argument isn’t about whether it should be at that stage but whether it should be taught. One of the lines sometimes used is that teachers shouldn’t have to teach things if they themselves don’t believe in them (I don’t know how they deal with comparative religion). Apart from matters such as evolution being something that scientists accept on the basis of fitting the evidence rather than see as a matter of belief, this underlines the role of the National Curriculum being a set of ideas and processes that society, overall, holds dear. It can be argued that a democratically elected government with a popular mandate, is well placed to arbitrate if not originate on what this should include. As teachers we represent enlightened society, just as doctors represent medical practice and judges represent justice.
The situation at A level is different though. Here it is argued that as HEIs have a major interest in the background of undergraduates, they should have a key input. Rather than the DfE determine content, this should be guided by seats of learning. Awarding Organisations have had to canvas the views of universities and develop courses accordingly. Interestingly, content wasn’t seen as an issue, so it’s not changing much. Indeed, apparently one of the views expressed was to ease off on the amount of content a little, so that teachers could ‘drill down’ more. Maths, however, was another matter. There was a widespread view that standards were too low here, so this is a key area of change. There will be quotas allocated to the percentage of marks going to questions with a mathematical challenge of at least GCSE Grade C (10% in Biology, 20% in Chemistry and 40% in Physics). I recently put the question to A level course developers as to which of the courses they thought would be most affected by this: the response was “Chemistry at AS and Biology at A level.” Watch out for some mole calculations then in Year 12.
The other big development is in the assessment of practical skills. If you think the ending of the practical exam means that these don’t matter anymore, think again. 15% of the marks in the exams will go on questions based on the experiments specified (enough to cross a grade boundary or two), students will be assessed on the development of their practical competencies and every so often someone will come knocking, asking to talk to your students and find out if they’re getting opportunities to investigate ideas. Doesn’t sound like a back burner to me.
Ed is Series Editor for Collins Key Stage 3 Science and a Science Consultant for Cornwall Learning