Chemistry chief stamps on exam eggshells

21 August 2008

The increasing interest in science is excellent news, but on the issue of standards, for the future prosperity of this country, we must put an end to the annual cycle of bland, politically correct statements, says Richard Pike, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

The reality is that national science testing has become dominated by what is easy to teach, and what is easy to mark, although the best schools and teachers deliver lessons in the classroom well above this level, Dr Pike added.

This is because less than half of science teachers in secondary schools have a degree in a mathematically-based science (chemistry, physics or mathematics).

Massive investment is needed to increase the number of well-qualified science teachers entering this sector, as well as billions of pounds to upgrade school laboratories to reinforce the practical and observational foundations of the subject.

With the welcome surge of interest this year for separate sciences - entries for chemistry GCSE have increased almost 30% from last year - that investment is essential to sustain this interest and the UK's scientific excellence.

The extensive continuing professional development (CPD) programmes for existing teachers - supported by government, industry and professional bodies - are valuable, but are no substitute for this.

The deficiencies in GCSEs are part of a bigger picture where the questions set are based increasingly on candidates being able to recall facts or express opinions, while the analytical or mathematical component has been reduced to little more than multiplying or dividing two numbers, often with guidance in the current step-wise format of examinations today.

For the younger age-group, science SATs have degenerated into a test of general knowledge and the ability to read and write, while at university the trend is a wholly unjustified inflation in grades, so that it is now unusual not to get a first or upper-second class degree.

Perversely, there is general agreement that much of the curriculum material throughout science education is good, but so long as the numerous awarding bodies and over a hundred universities find themselves competing in a market-driven sector, the risk of 'dumbing down' in the testing or assessment process itself remains high - although the best rise above this and promote excellence as their selling point.

There have been many wake-up calls, from independent observers, and policy-makers must now act quickly. The RSC's recent 5-Decade Exam Challenge showed that even a bright group of over a thousand students scored an average of just 35% on a chemistry paper based solely on mathematically-oriented questions drawn from recent GCSE exams. The figure fell to 15% for comparable questions from O-Levels set in the 1960s.

As low as a tenth of marks in modern chemistry papers for 16 year-olds have a mathematical component. A 'good' GCSE in science (Grade C), which can be achieved with a mark of 40%, could up to last year be obtained with no manipulation of numbers at all.

These and other students, who will be the decision-makers of tomorrow, are being stifled by an educational system that encourages 'teaching to the test', and places limited demands on real problem-solving. This is leading to the proliferation of alternative, more rigorous exams for schools - not all recognised by government - and a revival in universities setting their own entrance exams.

Elsewhere, we continue to slip down global tables of comparability, such as the PISA ranking, and unlike our athletic counterparts lose out in international competitions to countries that see science for what it should be: intellectually rigorous, analytical, observational, evidence-based and creative.

For those countries it is inconceivable that 16 year-olds can talk extensively about the ethical and social aspects of energy supply, without actually knowing what energy is, or being able to undertake a single calculation on this topic.

Unless we stop the excessive self-congratulation and decision-makers continue to be in denial, this country will be storing up an enormous skills problem for the future. It is now time for national agreement on the assessment structure of education that meets the needs of the country, rather than giving individuals and groups an illusory 'feel-good factor'.

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