In our response, we strongly agreed with the proposal to remove the suite of GCSE science qualifications.
Our position is that a common route at GCSE ensures equitable access to studying the sciences. However, we stressed the importance of maintaining the separate disciplinary identity of chemistry (and biology and physics) within this single qualification, and that the new qualification needed to be accessible and support progression into the next stage for learners.
We welcome the decision that has been made by Qualifications Wales to create a new GCSE Science Double Award qualification. Their response recognises the concerns we, and others, expressed about maintaining disciplinary identity. Qualifications Wales have stated their desire to see each discipline retain "visibility and distinctness" in the new GCSE Science qualification.
They have also indicated that the new common GCSE Science qualification is likely to be roughly a double award, with a final decision to be made dependent on more detailed design work including the amount, type and organisation of the content that should be included. The equivalency of this new GCSE science qualification is important – we would not want to see this go below two GCSEs. As the new qualification is developed further, we will continue to engage with Qualifications Wales and other stakeholders, particularly in discussions around the inclusion of content. We hope that our curriculum framework would form a useful basis to discussions of this nature and welcome opportunities for engagement.
Qualifications Wales acknowledge that there were concerns around accessibility of the new proposal, and state their intention to address these during the co-design process of the new GCSE qualification. We will continue to offer input, where appropriate, on this matter.
The consultation also asked for feedback on proposals for a set of small science qualifications that could be taken in addition to the proposed new GCSE Science qualification. Qualifications Wales have taken the decision to continue to consult on these proposals as part of work to reshape the wider 14–16 qualification offer, acknowledging that the consultation could have provided greater clarity on the offer.
We welcome this decision. In our response we expressed serious concerns that there is a risk that such a system could inadvertently re-create the inequalities currently associated with multiple GCSE routes, for example if:
- It becomes an essential requirement of progression onto level 3 study in sciences to complete one or more of the additional qualifications.
- Schools limit access to the qualifications based on attainment level.
- Access to the qualifications is not equal due to school type or location, therefore creating a "postcode lottery" for access.
However, if the small set of qualifications can be designed and implemented in such a way that mitigates the problems outlined above, with the necessary support from the system, then we are not opposed to the principle of the proposals.
Earlier this year we published guidance and support for chemistry curriculum planning in Curriculum for Wales; these resources are available in Welsh and English. On 16 November, we are holding a Welsh language session to explore these resources. Please keep an eye on our events page for information about this and other upcoming events.
A single route through the sciences at GCSE
We believe that a common route ensures equitable access to studying the sciences for two main reasons – progression and choice.
Having multiple qualification pathways leads to inequitable progression opportunities. Some qualifications may not appropriately prepare students for chemistry A-level, or other Level 3 qualifications and specific prior knowledge can’t be assumed when there are multiple qualification pathways at level 2. Schools and colleges may need to adapt their teaching to cover all possibilities or require specific qualifications at Level 2 to study Level 3 qualifications.
Multiple routes at GCSE mean that students must make decisions that could narrow down future options for work and study at the age of 14. Some schools will decide which qualifications are offered, and to which students. Our research has identified examples of factors used to allocate students to combined or separate sciences including, a science assessment or exam (46%), the set a student is in for science (42%) and student decision (37%). This creates the illusion of choice; although multiple routes exist, not all routes are open to all students which leads to inequitable access. Although this data is from England, we expect the same would apply in Wales.
Inequitable access also arises because students studying separate sciences are more likely to come from socially advantaged backgrounds. Research by the Sutton Trust found that 20% of higher attaining students eligible for pupil premium attended schools that do not offer triple science compared with only 12% for higher attaining students from more advantaged backgrounds.
Perception of qualification "difficulty" may also limit student confidence and expectation of what can be achieved, and consequently their options for progression.
However, we stress the importance of maintaining the separate disciplinary identity of chemistry (and biology and physics) within a single qualification. Chemistry has a distinct way of understanding the material world; this understanding should be developed in learners through a coherent and deep understanding of chemistry’s core fundamental principles. From a strong disciplinary foundation, connections can be made to the other sciences, and beyond, enabling students to appreciate both the interconnectedness of chemistry and the multidisciplinary nature of many issues and advances.
Being able to explicitly recognise scientific disciplines at school level is essential for learners to make informed choices about further study and careers – they need to know whether they find the subject interesting, useful and enjoyable. Post-16 qualifications, university degrees and learned societies in the sciences continue to be identified through the names of core scientific disciplines. Even where degrees in the sciences are broader (eg Natural Sciences or Integrated Science), these are generally taught as a collection of specified subjects with specialisation over time.
Our research has shown that students are more likely to be able to differentiate between the disciplines within triple sciences, rather than combined science. Four factors were suggested to explain why disciplinary identity was clearer within triple science. These are the separate timetabling of the disciplines, use of individual exercise books, separate teachers for each of the three science disciplines, and the use of specific job roles e.g. "chemistry teacher" as opposed to "science teacher". In a system with a single route through the sciences, it is necessary to ensure that disciplinary identity is reinforced through things such as timetabling and ensuring that teachers have appropriate subject expertise for the classes they are teaching.
The new qualification must be accessible, and support progression to the next stage. Progression can be supported if the content choice is informed by the foundational knowledge and skills of chemistry; due regard should be given to ensuring content is included at a level that is accessible. Our report The elements of a successful chemistry curriculum gives an overview of what we see as the core of an ideal chemistry curriculum and how a "Big Questions" approach can support the progression of knowledge.
Further thinking on a common route can be found in a paper produced in collaboration with the Association for Science Education, Institute of Physics, Royal Society of Biology and Royal Society, then collaborating under the name SCORE.