Proposed science exams "plumbed new depths" says RSC chief exec

21 July 2010

The proposed new science GCSEs submitted recently by examining boards, but later rejected by the regulator Ofqual, plumbed new depths in 'dumbing down' these important subjects, according to Richard Pike, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

In scrutinising draft examination papers in chemistry, marked 'subject to accreditation' and prepared by Edexcel, Dr Pike said that of a total 27 parts to the various questions, only one required candidates to write a chemical equation (for 3 marks out of 50), while the toughest calculation involved merely adding 1 to 100 (for 1 mark).

In this specimen Higher Tier paper for the most able 16 year-olds in state education in England, planned to be first examined in 2013, the most highly rewarded questions (6 marks each) required solely narrative answers. One required candidates to discuss the pros and cons of using biofuels instead of petrol for cars, while the other addressed the use and disposal of polymers.

These two topics, extraordinarily representing almost a quarter of the marks, are amongst the worst taught in secondary schools, with a lack of any quantification, and text books used by teachers and pupils perpetuating misleading or erroneous information.

A revision book for the OCR examining board makes no mention of the concept of 'full life-cycle analysis' for biofuels, which would have identified the very large quantities of carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere (100-200 tonnes per hectare) in clearing land in some tropical areas to establish biofuel farms. Nor is there mention of the very low yield of fuel from such crops (currently, at best 4 tonnes per hectare annually). The same book also does not explain, industrially, where the feedstock for polymers comes from.

A further concern is that a 300-page A-Level book on environmental studies, endorsed by the AQA examining board, which should be chemistry- based, contains not a single substantive calculation. In covering a wide range of topics so superficially, it claims that oil-based drilling mud is used (solely) to 'lubricate the drill pipes' in oil exploration, whereas the principal purposes are to balance the pressure of the oil in the reservoir to avoid a 'blowout', and to carry rock debris upwards to the drilling rig as the hole is drilled.

Dr Pike said: "A number of questions could be answered merely from reading a national newspaper every day, as the scientific content was minimal and general knowledge would have been sufficient.

"Alarmingly, Ofqual had warned the examining boards in both 2008 and 2009 of the low intellectual demand of the papers actually taken by pupils at that time, and had insisted that they be toughened up. This outcome represents an almost cavalier approach by the examining boards to make their papers ever easier, as they seek market share and give secondary schools the route to climb national league tables. 

"There is an Augean stable of bureaucrats and educational consultants, and ineffective quangos, to be cleared out urgently. A new relationship must be established with universities and industry, which have been left out of the curriculum development and assessment process for decades. This is not a broken system that has to be fixed; it is a corrupted edifice that must be razed to the ground and rebuilt."

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