Ed Walsh on Secondary Science Education: Predictions for 2015

Crystal ball gazing for the New Year

No prizes for spotting that trying to predict the key developments in science education for 2015 is a fraught and hazardous business.  Getting it mostly right is little comfort – it’s2015 the one you get wrong that will haunt you.  I’m hoping there’s a way of this piece being magically spirited out of existence if it proves to be inaccurate.  In fact it’s really only the sherry and mince pie fuelled euphoria of a Cornish Christmas that has supported the courage to pen this piece.  Anyway, caveats stated, what do we think that 2015 will bring? Unleash the predictions…

The new A levels will be approved, deployed and teaching commenced. This will be relatively straightforward, not least because the content of the courses is, in many cases, not wildly different.  The increased mathematical challenge will be a key focus and will have a noticeable impact on teaching and exam preparation, especially on Chemistry at AS and Biology at A level.  Awarding organisations are well aware of this and will provide supporting teaching materials.  The changed arrangements for recognising practical skills will settle into place; teachers will still include a range of practical activities, not least because understanding of these is examinable and an increased awareness of the style of assessment items will help to focus teaching.  Furthermore, the arrangements for monitoring visits will be announced.

Early in 2015 the assessment objectives for the new Science GCSEs will be announced and this will clarify the role of practical work.  We shouldn’t be surprised if the model follows that of A level, but without the site visits.  It will be into the Autumn term that the first of the new specifications gets signed off but schools wanting to start teaching will get a good indication of the content in advance (in fact the published details from the DfE already shows a lot).  Early scrutiny of these will indicate that for separate sciences the changes are less significant than for combined science.

The arrangements for the exams for the new GCSEs will be announced.  The ‘nine exams for triple science’ will be ended, though this may become a case of being careful what one wishes for.  Fewer exams may look less daunting on the exam timetable but the reality may well be that candidates spend as many hours being examined but in fewer though longer papers, and therefore with less specificity as to what is examined in each.

Separate science will struggle to hold its ‘market share’.  This is primarily because of changes elsewhere in the curriculum – beefed up English and Maths GCSEs, starting this year, will squeeze time and schools will find it harder to fit in everything they need to, especially for students capable of getting Ebacc grades in those subjects.

The dust will settle on the ‘assessing progress without levels’ debate.  Well, partly.  Progress indicators will be recalibrated to work from the new 2016 KS2 test scores to the new GCSE grades, but the shapes of the graphs and tables will not be unfamiliar.  Schools will get used to tracking progress through KS3 by reverse engineering from what students need to be good at in their GCSEs (so details of the new specifications will help) – and there will be a range of commercial products to help, some better than others.

The unknown is, of course, the Spring General Election.  You haven’t got to go too far to find someone who doubts that the current changes will take effect “because a new lot will come in and change it all again”.  I’m not convinced.  By that stage not only will the changes at KS1, 2 & 3 have been in place for several months and those at A level signed off but also GCSE reform will be in the hands of Ofqual who, I suspect, will snarl unappealingly at anyone who tries to interfere in what will have become a procedural matter.  It could, of course, be changed again but think on this.  In 2010 one of the most radical and reforming regimes got stuck into education, with a mission to bring about huge change.  It’s taken five years for that agenda to work its way through, so even if we end up with a different agenda at the Department of Education from May 11th pursued as energetically as this one, it’ll still give the incoming GCSE specs five years, which is what the previous two suites (2006 & 2011) have each had.

Is this music to your ears or a crashing cacophony?  Actually I think we know quite a lot of what 2015 has in store in science education.  I think the people most likely to be disappointed are those who want to argue that there’s no point planning anything.  If this year is going to be about anything it’ll be about quality planning.

Happy New Year (or, as we say to the west of the Tamar, Bledhen Nowydh Da!)

Ed Walsh


Ed is Series Editor for Collins Key Stage 3 Science and a Science Consultant for Cornwall Learning 

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