Government communication failure threatens resolution to science standards problem

30 June 2009

The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) asserts today that a failure of communication between Number 10 Downing Street and the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) has led to a meaningless government statement on declining standards in science examinations.

The statement by Number 10 glosses over issues, despite ministers and civil servants in other government departments having expressed concerns about erosion of the demands being placed on pupils, particularly the brighter ones, who are not being stretched.

Dr Richard Pike, chief executive of the RSC, said this morning: "The response from Number 10 to a petition launched by the Royal Society of Chemistry last year, which promoted the need for more rigorous grading of school examinations, will disappoint thousands of scientists, and highlights a fundamental rift across government over education policy.

"The wording of the response refers principally to future plans for science education, more widely, and makes no mention, or acceptance, of the particular crisis of confidence in examinations reflected both within and outside of government over school education, which has led to wide criticism and the establishment of a number of high-level reviews and task forces."

Following the RSC's publicity over declining standards, Ed Balls, Secretary of State DCSF, wrote a letter to Ian McCartney, former chairman of the Labour Party, which he forwarded to Dr Pike, clarifying the outcome of the subsequent Ofqual report issued earlier this year. 

In the letter, dated 22  April 2009, Mr Balls writes that the regulatory body Ofqual had 'identified a number of concerns with the assessment and grading of new science GCSEs'.

The letter continues by saying that actions to be taken included 'improving the quality of questions to stretch and challenge all students, work to improve the quality of objective tests, and tighter marking criteria to ensure that only the answers deserving of marks are credited'.

Dr Pike said that, extraordinarily, the Number 10 statement says that the new GCSEs provide "a much better balance".

"So concerned are the 'users' of education over standards, that even the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has set up its own expert group to address the problem, and other industrial and political bodies have done the same."

He added:" This also comes at a time when there is evidence of Key Stage (formerly SATs) exams covering a disproportionately small proportion of the curriculum (the easiest), markers being told to accept scientifically incorrect answers, a 'good pass' in one particular GCSE chemistry paper being achieved with a mark of 18%, and record-breaking numbers of students receiving high marks at GSCE and A level. 

Issues of quality assurance extend into the university sector, where large proportions of students obtain firsts or upper second class degrees, whether they attend the best or worst campuses in the country.

Nearly six thousand scientists and others interested signed the electronic petition. 

Dr Pike said: "This goes to show how out of touch the government appears to be over the popular desire for a change in the way education is delivered. It also strains credibility that such comments should be disseminated on what is, perhaps, the most important sector of public spending for the future of this country. 

"Conversely, ministers and civil servants who share our concerns have been extremely supportive, and may well be perplexed by this contradiction.

"The way ahead is greater transparency, more honesty and constructive debate over the future of education, and the future of youngsters and businesses we are all trying to serve."

Related Link

10 Downing Street

Downing Street petition demands reversal of catastrophic decline in school science exam standards

27 November 2008

The RSC takes its evidence of sliding standards to the Prime Minister

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