One of the games I used to play with my children was suggesting the (imaginary) movie prequel. As they got older, and better, we had to give points and you got more for being less obvious. ‘Prince Kong’ wouldn’t do well, for example but ‘Reservoir Puppies’ was better and ‘Humming in the Shower’ or ‘Canadian Doodling’ more so. Then, however, as so often happens, real life took over and the Star Wars franchise turned it into a source of both income and internet controversy.
GCSE Science has a prequel, of course, and it’s KS3. Having been in the Cinderella zone for a few years, there’s now a greater interest in designing and running science as a five year course. With the new GCSE specifications it’s challenging to get students from a low starting point to a high level of performance in two or even three years. This is a longer term campaign and it starts in Year 7.
This brings challenges though and some key questions to consider. Does it mean that we start teaching GCSE content to students as soon as they arrive in secondary school? Some schools are using GCSE grades to track progress throughout but the content might need more of a ramp. How do we develop students’ capacity for scientific enquiry? Do we run stipulated practicals in KS3 and repeat them in KS4 to stand a better chance of getting them familiar with the ideas?
For my money a good KS3 course will do three things. Firstly, it’ll lay the foundations for key ideas. Concepts such as the particulate model of matter, the gene theory of inheritance and the model of energy stores and transfers are new to students at secondary and need introducing at a lower level than as used at GCSE. One of the important lessons we learned from National Strategies’ work was to set up key ideas so that they can be revisited. Students often need more than one bite of the cherry. These ideas should be selected on the basis of their role as cornerstones at GCSE but ‘de-tuned’ so that they are more accessible and support revisiting at a higher level. Setting up appropriate prequels can help here. Knowing which to include needs careful selection but many schools are interested in the AQA KS3 Syllabus, which has ten key ideas, all of which run through to GCSE.
Secondly it’ll get students exploring and thinking about how we investigate ideas and also how enquiry is useful in exploring applications. They’ll need that for the required practicals. Thirdly it’ll get students using the kind of command words that are in common use at GCSE – they’ll be challenged, for example, to compare, analyse and evaluate as well as know and describe.
We’ve recently been re-working the Collins KS3 materials to support the AQA KS3 Syllabus. One of the activities we’ve included is an experiment in which students plan the variables in an experiment in which a toy car is rolled down a ramp. This is a real crossover from KS2 (in which they will have run fair tests and explored gravity) to GCSE (in which they need to justify the repetition of readings and use ideas such as correlation).
Students can’t suddenly jump from primary science to GCSE level work. Watching good teachers at work, what I sometimes see are lessons in which the class are supposedly making an early start on GCSE material, but the teacher has identified gaps in knowledge and responded by revisiting those ideas at a lower level. National curriculum levels might have gone but the idea of levels of understanding is still as applicable. Secondary science needs to be a gradual incline, not a desperate scrabble up a muddy bank.