The word 'excellent' covers a lot of ground. One of the things it means is that learners should be learning the right stuff: the curriculum, at all levels from primary to undergraduate and including technical courses, should cover meaningful content. Naturally, as a professional body, we have an eye on laying good foundations for progression into degrees, apprenticeships or technical qualifications, and ultimately careers in the chemical sciences. But we shouldn't forget that the majority of young people will make choices other than chemistry. Their learning should contribute to them becoming a scientifically literate citizen, able to apply ideas of and about science to their personal decision making and to their engagement with science-related issues.
Our education policy programme covers both proactive work – developing ideas for future directions in curriculum – and reactive work in responding to ongoing landscape developments.
Considering the curriculum
Starting with the proactive work: we have a significant ongoing project to develop a vision for what the chemistry curriculum should look like. Without advocating for immediate curriculum reform in any jurisdiction, we want our proposals to provide guidance to governments and other agencies at the appropriate time.
Our ideas for secondary and post-16 education are well-developed; this is an appropriate point to give a shout-out to all our community members who have participated in our various working groups, pooling the expertise of teachers, curriculum design specialists, assessment specialists, representatives from further and higher education, and from industry. We sense-checked our ideas with wider groups of educators over the past year or two – to positive feedback, I’m pleased to say – and we’ll be sharing a proposed curriculum framework more publically very soon. (Members, check your January edition of Voice for a preview!) We’ll be seeking feedback from members of our community to help us plot out the next steps for communication and further development of this work.
Alongside this, we have convened a primary curriculum advisory group jointly with the Institute of Physics and Royal Society of Biology, to help us think about what a science curriculum framework could look like at ages 5–11. At the other end, we are beginning a project to discuss curriculum at undergraduate level.
Technical education is – quite rightly – receiving a lot of attention these days; for example, we are awaiting the outcomes of the UK Government’s consultation on improving higher technical education. While our post-16 curriculum framework is intended to also be relevant for technical qualifications, there is more we need to understand about the wider landscape of applied chemistry and laboratory science qualifications and how they support progression. This year, we’ll be laying some groundwork for policy recommendations in this area, including making use of our better understanding of workforce skills needs.
Responding to reforms
Education being a devolved matter, there tends to be plenty going on across the UK and Ireland in terms of reforms and issues arising that we want to engage with. 2020 will be no different, and these are some of the developments we are keeping our eye on.
Sticking with technical education, the introduction of T-levels will be a major change in the England education system. These Level 3 programmes aim to prepare students aged 16–19 for a range of occupations. A Science T-level, including the option to specialise in laboratory science, will launch in September 2021. We have kept our finger on the pulse of the development of the Science T-level throughout, and are now providing input to the qualification specification, which is being developed by NCFE.
Other areas are also seeing qualification reforms. In the Republic of Ireland, a new specification for Leaving Certificate Chemistry is in development; we are expecting a consultation on a draft chemistry syllabus soon. The Welsh Government has just published a new curriculum and guidance for 3–16 education, which will be implemented from 2022 onwards and will be a huge change. The published curriculum provides only an outline of learning requirements, with schools required to design their own curricula and ongoing assessment arrangements. While we naturally hope to influence future directions for GCSEs – which will be redeveloped to fit the aims of the new curriculum – there are also opportunities for our curriculum framework to be a source of support and inspiration to teachers.
Finally, we will monitor with interest the Scottish Government’s planned review of the Senior Phase of Curriculum for Excellence, which was commissioned in response to an influential parliamentary inquiry last year. The RSC's views were represented in a submission from the Learned Societies' Group on Scottish STEM education. We are particularly worried about a disproportionate reduction of uptake of chemistry and other STEM subjects in the senior phase, which we suspect is linked to a narrowing of the secondary curriculum at S4 and beyond. Also of concern is the prevalence of multi-course teaching – where two or more distinct courses are taught simultaneously in one class.