A-level reforms need real input from science experts

The right people are not in the room in reform talks. WahTee

The government is undertaking an ambitious programme to reform qualifications in schools, with significant changes being made to GCSEs and A-levels over the next few years. This, in theory, is a positive and long overdue step. But, in practice, the government’s approach may not deliver the improvements promised.

SCORE – a collaboration between the Association for Science Education, the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Society of Biology – has been monitoring the reform process. The government’s aim to ensure that all students are awarded qualifications that equip them to progress to both higher education and employment is a good one but there is grave concern about the way these reforms are being carried out.

Last week, it was announced that the GCSE reform for subjects other than English and maths would be delayed. Instead of bringing in the new qualifications in 2015, the government has decided to hold off for a year. This was the right decision, as it will allow further time to ensure that the new qualifications are developed properly.

Qualifications regulator Ofqual has also been asked to carry out a review of A-level content, and decide which subjects are in need of major change. An independent chairman, Mark Smith from Lancaster University, was appointed to oversee this work, which was carried out in conjunction with awarding organisations. Those subjects deemed to require major change will become the responsibility of a new organisation, the A-level Content Advisory Body, established by the Russell Group of universities. Those only requiring minor change will be redeveloped by awarding organisations ready for first teaching in September 2015.

SCORE is very worried about the way in which A-level reform is being conducted. Greater involvement from universities when qualifications are devised should be supported, but there are better ways to do it. The learned societies within SCORE represent the three core sciences in schools – biology, chemistry and physics – and are ideally placed to play a leading role in any qualifications reform. They are independent and are able to bring together all of those who should play a part in developing new qualifications, including universities and employers.

These organisations wrote to Smith in June, outlining these concerns. They offered to work with Ofqual and the Russell Group to address shortfalls in the qualifications in their subjects, but this offer was not taken up.

Now a report from Smith published by Ofqual last week claims that learned societies were part of an extensive consultation on the subject. This is not the case. SCORE has not been involved in any meaningful way in discussions around the content of the science A-levels.

The report from Smith outlines the recommendations for changes needed to A-level subject content. However, it does not address what we consider to be the main issue with A-levels, which is the way that awarding organisations translate their specifications – which outline required subject content – into examinations.

This is a problem because if the exams taken by students do not cover the full range of content, and do not include questions that test the content in an appropriate way, there will be a knock-on effect on how subjects are taught in schools. For example, in 2012, SCORE published research that showed that the mathematics content within A-levels in the sciences was not examined properly. Smith acknowledged these problems in his report, but the issue was considered to be outside the scope of his review.

Another problem is that the sciences have been deemed to require minor change, while mathematics requires major change, meaning that the opportunity to ensure coherence between these closely allied subjects has been lost.

A-levels need to be high quality qualifications that equip students with the knowledge and skills they need after school so the reforms need to take in a full range of views, including the organisations that represent science in this country.