Ed Walsh: Ofqual approval of draft GCSE Science specs

A second bite of the cherry

It’s now pretty common knowledge that none of the draft GCSE science specifications have been approved by Ofqual and that all the AOs are having to take on board feedback, redevelop their proposals and prepare to submit again. I should say straight away that most of the issues seem to relate to assessment rather than content, which shouldn’t be a surprise given the detailed and exhaustive set of subject criteria that the DfE have issued. If you’ve started teaching the new courses already, you’re on pretty safe ground.

So what might be going back in the melting pot? Well, this is speculation on my part – and therefore should carry a sizeable health warning – but I’ll tell you what I’m going to be watching.

Ofqual are insisting upon the inclusion in exam papers of synoptic questions. It’s difficult to have such items in courses with modular assessment (which the current specs have, of course, it’s just that they’re all shunted up to the end) so we’ve not seen questions like this for quite a long time. They tend not to be popular as it’s not easy to train students to answer them and examiners will have to resist the temptation to offer scaffolding, guiding students towards the various ideas to draw upon. When the revised SAMs (sample assessment materials) are released, look for the synoptic questions and see what they’re like. Expect students to have to make links between different topics themselves and without prompting.

Then there are the stipulated practicals. One of the questions circulating in a number of areas is, of course, whether schools will actually get students to do them but another is the emphasis being placed upon the development of particular skills when they are being used. I suspect Ofqual know very well that a range of organisations are watching developments with gimlet eyes and will make a song and dance if it appears that the practice in schools is for practical science to be increasingly marginalised or if it ends up with some rather uninspiring recipe following. Practical work needs to be ‘hands on’ but it should also be ‘minds on’. Watch to see how these activities are being re-worked. Expect a clear focus upon the explicit development of enquiry skills.

We also know that the questions with requiring maths skills are going to be important. I suspect any hint of the mathematical challenge not being writ large will not go down well. Ofqual are well aware that once the specs are approved it’s not easy to then change things, without wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Incidentally, one of the features not visible in the draft specs were the grade descriptors. These are down to Ofqual and they’re not forthcoming so far in providing them. If the practice follows that at A level with the new specs there it may be some time before they do appear, possibly not until after the specifications are approved. This was one of the points emerging at a recent Science Learning Network event at which the exam boards presented draft specifications. If you get chance to go to one of these – do take it, by the way. It’s a great way of finding out about the changes, seeing how the boards are reacting and comparing offers. There seems to be a lot of shopping around and I can see why. The end of this particular story hasn’t been written yet.


Ed Walsh

Other Articles

Exploring the rich world of the Maya, Aztec and Inca in KS3 History

Laura Aitken-Burt explores the fascinating societies of the Maya, Aztec and Inca and how you can integrate teaching this exciting topic into your KS3 teaching. Read More

The Sociological Imagination: Promise or Problem?

Dr Sarah Cant explores why there has never been a more important time to study sociology and how you can integrate contemporary studies into your A level teaching. Read More

Practical approaches to teaching KS3 Shakespeare

By Hannah Appleton Reframing or reimagining how we tackle Shakespeare in schools begins with our perception of it being boring, irrelevant or too difficult, especially if we teach in schools with high numbers of SEND, EAL or FSM. It is, however, precisely those complexities and layers Shakespearean texts provide, which… Read More