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

27 November 2008

Armed with the first hard evidence of a catastrophic slippage in school science examinations standards, the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) has launched a Downing Street e-petition calling for urgent intervention to halt the slide.

And tomorrow morning a devastating RSC report demolishing the myth of record-breaking science education performance will land on the desks of all Members of Parliament.

The RSC report, also being supplied to industrialists and educationalists, raises major concerns over the disappearance from schools science examinations of vital problem-solving, critical thinking and mathematical manipulation.

Dr Richard Pike, chief executive of the RSC said: "The target of our campaign is a failed education system, not the youngsters it's supposed to serve."

The petition reads:

"We, the undersigned, petition the Prime Minister to reverse the demonstrable decline in school science examination standards that is destroying our competitiveness. Science examination standards at UK schools have eroded so severely that the testing of problem-solving, critical thinking and the application of mathematics has almost disappeared. 

Even bright students with enthusiastic teachers are being compelled to "learn to the test", answering undemanding questions to satisfy the needs of league tables and national targets.  The RSC has powerful evidence of the decline in standards, adding to the revelation that students are able to receive a "good pass" with a mark of 20%.

This system is failing an entire generation which will be unequipped to address key issues facing society, whether as specialist scientists or members of a wider scientific community. The record-breaking results in school examination passes are illusory, with these deficiencies having to be remedied at enormous expense by universities and employers. This is compounded by key sections of the education community being in denial.

Unless addressed, we will see a continuing decline in our international competitiveness, reduced prosperity for ourselves, and limited career prospects for our children.

Urgent action is required before it is too late."

The RSC report summarises the outcome of a national competition it created and ran a few months ago called the Five-Decade Challenge, the results of which demonstrated that those participating averaged just 25% of available marks.

In the competition over 1,300 of the country's brightest 16-year-olds took an on-line two-hour test, which was dominated largely by numerically-based questions selected from 50 years of O-Level and GCSE to create a mock examination paper.

Richard Pike added: "We know that enthusiastic teachers are being compelled to 'teach to the test' to meet the demands of school league tables which, in contrast to the competition, draws mainly on the recalling of facts, with no reference to logic or mathematics.

"That means the brightest pupils are not being stretched, or trained in mathematical techniques, because they can get a grade A* without doing a single calculation. Conversely, the majority get at least a 'good pass' (grade C) by showing merely a superficial knowledge on a wide range of issues, but no understanding of the fundamentals. A mark of 20% was sufficient in one of this summer's GCSE science examinations."

He added: "I have discovered that around half of independent schools have now abandoned GCSEs in mathematics and science subjects for these very reasons. 

"Instead, they are doing the completely different, and more rigorous, International GCSEs, which are still in demand in Commonwealth countries. These are not recognised by the UK government. There is a supreme irony in this.

"Although the winner of the RSC competition got 94%, the fact that many highly intelligent youngsters were unfamiliar with solving these types of questions, obtaining on average 35% correct from recent papers from the 2000s and just 15% from the 1960s, points to a systemic failure and misplaced priorities in the educational system, rather than shortcomings in individual teachers or students.

"We are at a stage where there has to be revolutionary change; otherwise, this country will continue to slide down the slippery slope to mediocrity." 

He added: "We are witnessing an illusory Great Leap Forward in education, where achieving contrived targets has become the end in itself. The proof lies in the enormous expense to provide remedial mathematics and even remedial science classes at university, and the lack of skills of graduates highlighted by employers."

The report has also gone to peers, senior civil servants, FTSE 350 chief executives, schools, universities, and the wider, scientific, educational and media communities.

Downloadable Files

The Five Decade Challenge Report
A wake-up call for UK science education?
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Related Links

Link icon Number 10 E-petition
Electronic petition on the 10 Downing Street website to demand that the government reverse the decline in standards of school science examinations.

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