Applied Science – Cinderella or Ugly Sister?

When you think about non-GCSE Key Stage 4 science courses, how do you regard the BTEC and Cambridge National Applied Science courses? Important provision for a key group of students or a back door way of getting C grades?

Not so many years ago the increase in uptake in these courses was, in some schools, nothing short of meteoric. This in itself didn’t, of course, necessarily mean that anything was amiss. However there were suspicions in some quarters that some students who might have otherwise got a grade C in GCSE Science were being guided towards these courses to turn the possibility into a probability and boost the school’s performance through equivalences. Again, not necessarily a problem. These courses, taught well, serve students well. A couple of years ago I was at a seminar at which one of the other people attending indicated his disagreement with equivalences on the basis that “you can’t equate apples with pears”. No, but you can recognise them both as portions of fruit. No student ever left school with a certificate saying nothing more than they had achieved the equivalent of 2 GCSEs at Grade C in science.

Let’s be clear. Science GCSEs are not a universal qualification; they don’t work for all students in all schools. Certainly not now, with a strong focus on literacy and numeracy and with linear assessment in the offing. With a bit of imagination and resourcefulness they can be made to work for quite a lot of students but there are some who’ll do better on a different kind of course. At one school I visited in South London a couple of years ago a student on a BTEC Applied Science course said that he really liked it “because it’s the first time ever in science that I’ve felt that I was succeeding.”

On the other hand, there’s a pitfall in trying to address the challenge of trying to meet everyone’s learning needs simply by means of providing a varied choice of courses. Sometimes it’s not the wrong course, but the wrong implementation of the course. There’s a risk that the Head of Science becomes like the Wizard of Oz, pulling levers and pressing buttons like mad, switching students from one curriculum pathway to another and trying to achieve the perfect mix, when the effort would have been better placed in making sure that the lesson design and delivery were good. A couple of years ago I asked my wife (an Assistant Head and not a scientist) to proof read a draft of a publication I was working on that included a diagram to show the range of curriculum pathways possible in science at KS4. “Why do you have to make it so complicated?” she asked, “In English, students do GCSE English and the teacher is expected to modify the teaching to make it work for those students.”

Well, the dust is now settling on the revised arrangements for these Applied Science courses. There’s been a bit of a set to and things have been changed. The new courses have some external assessment and they have some synoptic assessment. The latter will help to avoid courses become too fragmented and the former will probably raise the status of the courses in the eyes of the students, apart from anyone else. Furthermore, for students for whom Applied Science is their only non-GCSE course (assuming they do both Level 2 courses) it can still be counted as an equivalent. However for me the clincher comes from, of all places, the DfE’s response to the Wolf Report on vocational education. Having indicated that students shouldn’t be lured into taking courses that lacked rigour or status and that schools shouldn’t be able to rack up Brownie points by getting lots of people to do such courses it asserted that “We want schools and colleges to be free to choose whatever qualifications they identify as most appropriate for particular students and will enable them to progress, whether they are recognised in the performance tables or not.”

These courses have had their wheel nuts tightened and they’re good to go. For some students they’re the right thing.

Ed Walsh


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