Secondary Secondary Science

GCSE Science – What future for vocational science?

Vocational science at KS4 has long had a rocky ride – even its title has been questionable.  We went through a period a few years back of openly referring to some qualifications as vocational GCSEs. Then the v-word became seen as negative baggage with connotations of being second rate.  More importantly, it wasn’t accurate; courses that focus on the applications of science aren’t necessarily any more vocational.  (If you want to see a vocational course look at a high attaining group of A level chemists hell bent on becoming doctors.)

Such courses have had a twilight existence of being loved by some and mistrusted by others.  GNVQ Science came and went, as did GCSE double award Applied Science.  Its half brother, GCSE Additional Applied Science, last year found itself cold shouldered by the English Baccalaureate.

Yet there has long been a call in many schools for a course that provides a viable alternative to “academic” GCSEs.  Some students have said that whilst following a course such as BTEC Extended Certificate or OCR Nationals that “it’s the first time they’ve experienced success in science”.

Now there’s rapid reinvention following the DfE’s acceptance of the Wolf Report.  These courses are being modified to comply with the DfE’s seven criteria, including at least 20% of the assessment being external, a degree of synoptic assessment and proven progression to Level 3 courses.  The glittering prize is recognition in the 2014 Performance Tables, though even that comes with conditions – no more than two such courses per student will be allowable.  We should know by the end of January what has been accepted.

Such developments aren’t necessarily wrong of course.  Synoptic assessment discourages a fragmented or atomised view of science and an external exam may well serve to raise the status of the qualification. A tightrope is being walked by the developers – too different to a GCSE questions the rigour and status, too similar questions the function and purpose.

In fact, the impact of the changes may go further than that.  Successfully restructured non-GCSE courses may enable schools to offer a meaningful range of alternative curriculum pathways at KS4; these pathways may have a stronger common core of skills including the processes of enquiry, numeracy, literacy and the conducting of practical investigations.

Is this the point where vocational science emerges from the twilight?  And does the agenda then become clearer for the skills, processes and concepts that need to be developed in KS3 to act as an effective foundation?

Ed Walsh
Science Advisor for Cornwall Learning

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