Save our Sciences

It is shaping up to be the new Education Secretary vs the new exam regulator Ofqual as Nicky Morgan comes out on the side of common sense in the practical science debate.

Yesterday, she publicly backed the call by many – including myself – for practical science experiments to be retained as part of GCSE and A level exams in England.

Mrs Morgan, who is shaping up to be a bit of a fan of the Sciences, rebuked Ofqual in a speech at the Politeia thinktank in London, for its plans to drop the practical element of studying the sciences, and said that dropping practical lab work from both A level and GCSE results would harm the next generation of scientists.

And in a shot across Ofqual’s bows, she warned that we must ‘never let the assessment tail wag the dog of what is taught in school’.

Her comments come just a few days before Ofqual’s consultation period on its planned changes to GCSE sciences ends on February 4. Ofqual wants to scrap controlled practical assessments at GCSE in favour of an additional written element to exams giving pupils the chance to show that they understand the practical side of various experiments.

As a chemist myself, I have been deeply concerned about these plans to reform practical science at GCSE and A level. It would be a travesty to rob future generations of the joy of experimenting in the classroom and the chance to really engage with science.

Not only that but the scientists and industry figures have warned that our skills shortage will become even direr if we deny children the chance to explore science practically and warn that we risk losing out on the creative, scientific brains of the future.

As the Guardian reports today, Mrs Morgan’s criticism will be the first major test of Ofqual’s independence. It was set up in 2010 as a non-ministerial government department.

She said: ‘I am concerned that a decision to remove practical assessment from science qualifications is in danger of holding back the next generation of scientists.

‘Like many in our scientific community, I fear that such a move could inadvertently downgrade the importance of these practical skills – leaving a generation of chemists, physicists and biologists who leave schools with excellent theoretical knowledge, but unable to perform key practical experiments which form the basis of a future research career.

‘My hope is that Ofqual and the scientific community are able to work together to find a workable solution. One that preserves high quality assessment, but at the same time ensures that what students learn in the classroom is what universities and employers agree will give budding scientists the best preparation to succeed in the future.’ Hear hear.

Ofqual retorted: ‘The development of practical skills is central to science learning, rather than something just to be assessed at the end of a course. Our proposals are designed to invigorate the hands-on learning experience of students and equip them for a future in science.’

However, Glenys Stacey, Ofqual’s chief regulator, has admitted previously that ‘the most difficult decisions, the most finely balanced decisions, we have made here are in the individual sciences’.

Let us hope that common sense prevails not just for the future generation of scientists but for the future generation of teachers. As I have mentioned before, most schools already struggle to attract experienced science teachers because of the knock-on effect of several generations of lower standards in the teaching of sciences. Removing practical science from the curriculum could send this already teetering situation into the abyss!

Bravo to Blunt as he takes on Bryant

Barely was the ink dry on my last blog suggesting it was only a matter of time before the light-hearted banter about public schools dominating the Oscar nominations and suchlike turned nasty, when Chris Bryant MP stepped into the ring!

In an act of staggering hypocrisy, Mr Bryant, the Shadow Culture Secretary, dusted off some 1970s Labour ideals about private education and suggested in the Guardian that independent schools give pupils an unfair advantage in the creative arts.

He cited the successes of old Etonian Eddie Redmayne and Old Harrovian Benedict Cumberbatch, nominated for Oscars, and made the mistake of suggesting that Old Harrovian James Blunt got a leg-up in the music industry because of his schooling.

Bryant said: “I am delighted that Eddie Redmayne won [a Golden Globe for Best Actor], but we can’t just have a culture dominated by Eddie Redmayne and James Blunt and their ilk”.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Blunt has hit back in a scathing open letter to the minister which is currently going viral on the internet.

Why hypocrisy? Because like his colleague The Honourable Tristram Hunt (Old Boy of University College School and Trinity College, Cambridge), the Shadow Education Secretary, he is very much of that very same ‘ilk’ that he so disparagingly mentions. Bryant was educated at a leading independent school – Cheltenham College – and went on to Mansfield College, Oxford, to read English. Should we be told if Mr Bryant received a leg-up into politics because of his elite education? God forbid we should suggest that!

Never mind the hypocrisy of questioning where the likes of Glenda Jackson and Albert Finney went to school, who supposedly succeeded fairly because of the so-called ‘meritocracy’.

Both Glenda and Albert came up through the ranks of the grammar schools – Glenda at West Kirby Grammar School and Albert at Salford Grammar School, the same grammar school system abolished by Labour because they felt it gave an unfair advantage to too few and were too ‘selective’.

As James Blunt so eloquently puts it – Chris Bryant – “you classist gimp”!

Independent Schools Go for Gold at the Oscars

I have been amused to read in the papers this week about the real battle of the forthcoming Oscars: Eton vs Harrow…or should I say Old Etonian Eddie Redmayne vs Old Harrovian Benedict Cumberbatch for the coveted Best Actor award.

Redmayne has, of course, been nominated for his portrayal of the scientist Professor Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything while Cumberbatch has been nominated for his portrayal of World War II codebreaker Alan Turing in The Imitation Game.

And, as it has been pointed out in a number of papers, the men are former pupils of two of the country’s greatest and most famous public schools in the land: Eton and Harrow.

I for one am proud to be part of an independent school system which spots and nurtures such outstanding talent and brings it to such incredible fruition.

Let us not forget also the outstanding Rosamund Pike, former Badminton School pupil, who is up for a Best Actress award for Gone Girl. She is joined by fellow Brits Felicity Jones and Keira Knightley, nominated for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress respectively.

It is a triumph for the British film industry and for our country that all of their artistic talents have been recognised. And yet behind the fun headlines of the Eton vs Harrow stories, there are sure to be some who criticise the ‘system’ which sees so many public school educated men and women excel in the creative arts, both in front of the camera and behind it.

I am thinking back to the last two Olympics when instead of praising the talents of all of our athletes, Lord Moynihan famously bleated in 2012 that it was ‘wholly unacceptable’ that more than 50% of medallists at the Beijing Olympics came from independent schools when only 7% of the population were privately educated. He certainly did his best to somehow take the shine off those independent school educated gold medallists, even intimating that they did not deserve their places on the team. Perhaps he would have liked to have introduced a quota system to ensure what he might see as equality?

More recently the former Education Secretary Michael Gove criticised the scale of ‘the private school dominance of top jobs in Britain’. He said it was ‘remarkable’ how many of the positions of wealth, influence, celebrity and power in Britain were held by former independent school pupils.

Too often the independent school system is somehow held to blame for what can only be lauded as the incredible achievements of thousands of its former pupils, often for political point scoring.

In fact, our independent schools have not only nurtured and brought to fruition the headline-grabbing talents of some of our Oscar nominated actors and actresses and their like but have also been responsible for adding value to thousands of lives and helping them to be the best they possibly can. In return, those boys and girls become men and women, many of whom give back to the wider world with their talents, headline grabbing or not!

I am looking forward to an untarnished British victory next month!

YouTube rather than the test tube if we do not save science now

It is a crucial month for those who love science and want to see that passion passed on to the next generation of schoolchildren as the teaching of practical science in schools is on a knife-edge.

Ofqual is threatening to scrap controlled practical assessments at GCSE in favour of an additional written element to exams giving pupils the chance to show that they understand the practical side of various experiments.

Teachers have until February 4 to make their views known before Ofqual moves forward with its proposals and only an overwhelming ‘no’ is likely to make any difference to their plans.

Only last year I expressed my concern when an Ofsted report warned of a large number of schools where pupils were already spending their potential practical sessions taking notes. Now it seems Ofqual wants to make this a reality.

Most schools already struggle to attract experienced science teachers because of the knock-on effect of several generations of lower standards in the teaching of sciences.

What hope have we got for the future of today’s students and the next generation if children end up only watching practical science – at best performed by their own teacher but unable to take part and experiment themselves – or worse still – overseen by inexperienced science teachers who are incapable to performing the experiments themselves – perhaps showing them a film of how to perform the experiment.

It sounds likes an Orwellian nightmare of the past – but today’s students could end up being taught science by watching it on YouTube. It will literally be a case of YouTube instead of the test tube!

As a chemist, I am deeply concerned about plans to reform practical science at GCSE and A level: like many, my earliest memories were of experimenting in the classroom and the sheer joy of doing so.

Academics and the science industry are at one of this issue – what hope do we have for the creative, scientific brains of the future if we stultify their passion for a subject before it has even been ignited?

It is time to say No to these proposals and to protect the science education of our students and future students.

 

Aside

Christmas holidays have started for our pupils and are about to start for thousands of others across the UK. For many it will be a time of a total relaxation with a few holiday projects to contemplate but for those with mock exams looming early next year, the Christmas holidays can be a time of stress.

This week, I spoke to the Sunday Times about my tips for revision planning, and, hopefully, gave some constructive comment on sensible revision planning.

The crux of my advice concerned planning your revision over a period of months leading up to your examinations in order to take advantage of how your brain actually works.

Your brain needs time to transfer what it has learnt from the short term memory – where it initially holds information – to the long term memory. This can take several months and you are putting yourself at risk if you only rely on studying at the last moment!

In a nutshell, if any student merely relies on last minute cramming only, they are at risk of forgetting everything they have learnt because studies of the brain show that stress can wipe out the short term memory.

My advice to anyone facing exams or coming back to studying after a long period of time – for example adult learners – is first of all to identify what type of learner you are and then tailoring your revision style and approach to suit that style of learning.

Basically, there are three types of learners – auditory, visual and kinesthetic. Auditory learners would rather listen to things being explained than read about them. Visual learners would rather look at a demonstration or read about what they are learning while kinesthetic ( ‘tactile’) learners respond well to practical experiences to help them learn. Most people are able to combine all the types of learning but some respond much better to one type. It is useful to consider which type of learning suits you the most and then to work your revision plan around your own style.

An hour or so of revision at a set time daily works well for most people. There is no need to revise for hours on end if you follow a sensible revision plan. Revising before bed is a particularly good idea, leaving 20 minutes before you go to bed for the information to sink in as you undertake a non-taxing activity.

I suggest a good way to challenging yourself and kick-start the memory process is to write questions as you go along. In this way, you will not fall into the trap of reading through reams of information without really taking anything in which is very common for students when they start to panic about the gargantuan task ahead.

The key to then committing the information you have learnt to the long term memory is setting a regular review of no more than 30 minutes. This review is crucial to helping to create the neurological pathways which help to transfer the information to the long term memory.
If you have written questions for yourself during your revision as suggested, review those questions after a day, a week, a month: if you can’t answer them, go back and review the data again.
As your revision progresses, answer as many past papers in your subject or subjects as you can and use mark schemes to understand mistakes now.
Learn from those mistakes and review any topics which you have misunderstood or which have confused you. Speak to your tutor or teacher about any subject areas which you are still feeling unclear about. It is better to do this now than find out too late that you don’t understand something and become too nervous to admit to it!
Some students find it useful to have a ‘learning buddie’ to talk to about a topic and to question and explore themes together.
As you approach your exams, think about setting yourself a timed exam: timed conditions for exam questions are always useful.
Another useful tip is to imagine you are the examiner – pose the most difficult question you think you may be asked – can you answer it a week later?

Remember, try and stay calm as you approach your exams and make sure you give yourself time to sleep and relax. If you are worried about mock exams, try and remember that these are set to help you as much as to give your teachers and tutors an idea of how you are performing.
Mock exam performances and results can help students and teachers to identify areas which need more work or particular concentration and you can adapt your revision plan accordingly for any summer exams you are facing. Above all, whether you are a student at school or an adult learner, do not be afraid to seek help if you are worried about your studies, your revision plan or forthcoming exams. We want you to do your best and we are here to help!

Really Mrs Morgan?

This week, Education Minister Nicky Morgan warned that schoolchildren who focus exclusively on arts and humanities-style subjects risk restricting their future career path and said she believed that disciplines such as the sciences and maths open more doors for pupils than many subjects traditionally favoured by academic all-rounders.

She said too many young people were still making GCSE and A-level choices at school that held them back for the rest of their life.

Delighted as I am that the new Education Secretary is talking about the importance of young people’s exam choices for their future, I strongly disagree with her – and I say that as a scientist myself.

I do not believe that we should be running down the arts to try and encourage more children to take up the sciences, maths and other STEM subjects. In fact, it is totally irresponsible to do so.

Those who excel in arts subjects and the creative arts should be encouraged to follow their dreams and pursue their chosen subjects. Happiness in their choices is all important to ensure they enjoy the future rigorous study ahead and children must study the subjects they show an aptitude for. Dare I say that children’s future happiness is far more important than a potential pay gap between an arts and a science graduate.

Mrs Morgan warns that large numbers of children without a clear idea about careers have been pushed towards the arts and humanities in the past – rather than sciences – because they are seen as more useful “for all kinds of jobs” when they should have been encouraged to take more practical subjects.

It is a cheap shot to frighten students into picking sciences over the arts when it comes to picking their choices in their teenage years by encouraging insecurities about getting a job.

I do not believe that forcing children down any particular avenue, whatever it is, is productive in the long run. Yes, it is often very difficult as a teenager to see what path lies ahead but this is why the ideal case scenario is a breadth of education from the primary years upwards, including the GCSE years.

There are also, of course, children who do not show a particular aptitude for either arts or the sciences and they should be helped to find their own particular talent or skill. This would not happen if their choices were narrowed too early.

I am worried that Arts subjects seem to have become the whipping boy in the drive to improve academic standards. Art, music and drama are a crucial part of the school curriculum and they should remain so.

The subjects suffered during the introduction and then abandonment of the EBacc marker when they were downgraded and not included as key subjects. This led to a 14% fall in students taking arts GCSEs in just 4 years. Also, the A Level facilitator subjects apparently approved by the Russell Group of universities have now become the basis of the A Level league tables for schools. This means that the creative subjects in particular suffer: subjects like Music, Art and Drama.

Combine this problem with that of children dropping the subjects because of costs and you have a recipe for disaster for the future of the creative arts in the UK.

As for studying the sciences, I believe we have a real problem here and I speak as someone who has a Chemistry degree and has worked in industry.

For the last decade or so, the science curriculum has drifted although we are finally seeing some much-needed focus being brought back in. This means that many children who have grown up during this period have not been inspired by the study of practical science to truly understand what it takes to study the subject. The study of sciences SHOULD be really tough. The sort of student who excels at the sciences, especially in the curriculum’s current form, needs to be a resilient learner who is prepared to try and try again and not be discouraged. This is why traditionally, boys, who tend to have more confidence about getting back up again after failure, have drifted towards the study of the sciences and girls have perhaps been discouraged.

What we need to do to encourage more students – and in particular more girls – to study the sciences is to change the way children are taught about science from the primary years. Learning to fail is a part of developing the skills required to understand and succeed in science. We need to teach students that in the sciences, as with any humanity subject, you may need draft after draft before you get it right.

Another problem is that sciences by their nature have become more and more theoretically based as the elements of practical science have dipped. They are in danger of not being a practical subject any more if this does not change!

The Council for Science and Technology recently flagged up its concerns on this subject.

And finally, just as I believe the arts are crucial to education, let us not forget that science can also benefit everyone. All types of learners can benefit from taking part in a practical science experiment and can enjoy taking part just as all types of learners can enjoy taking part in art or music, irrespective of their talent or otherwise.

A ‘Jet-lag’ Examination Era

In 2015, we will see the start of the real changes we have been promised at both GCSE and A Level to bring the much-heralded ‘rigour’ back into the examination system.

Students who start studying for GCSEs in 2015 will be the first students to face the new number grading system when they sit their exams in 2017 while A level students who start their courses in 2015 will be sitting papers devised to improve academic standards and prove far more testing.

Despite being supportive of the drive to drive standards up, as a Head, I despair of what will surely be chaos in the exam system over the next few months and years because of the utter lack of preparation we are facing.

In just a matter of weeks, schools – including our school – should be talking to Year 11 pupils about their A Level choices and yet, unbelievably, we have a real lack of information about almost all of the accredited syllabuses from the exam boards. Confusion also surrounds another crucial A level factor: what the universities will be looking for from potential candidates. Will they be looking for 3 A levels and an Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) from their strongest candidates or will they be looking for 4 A levels – we simply don’t know and this is simply not good enough.

Staff should be in a position to help their pupils and potential pupils make informed choices about their future and yet they are being kept in the dark by the exam boards and the universities – a double whammy which is causing schools a huge headache.

Inevitably, any new changes to the UK exam system would certainly result in one year of confusion but because these changes are not being phased in with correct times, we could end up with four years of confusion – a nightmarish scenario for pupils and staff.

This is quite simply because the changes at the top of the exam system impact throughout the age groups. The increasing amount of English and Mathematics skills required at GCSE and A level naturally mean that younger children will need to be taught differently and, yet, for some children, this will almost certainly be too late.

Children who are now in Years 7, 8 and 9 – the first three years of secondary school or 11-14 year olds – will suffer here because they have been prepared thus far through their school careers for the existing exam system and its needs not for the new system. They are almost certain to lack some of the skills required for the new exams.

It worries me that we have heard so little from the exam boards on the new A level syllabus – perhaps because they are having problems themselves assimilating the required changes.

 I suspect we will see a worrying ‘jet lag effect’ on the exam system because of these rushed changes. All of this could and should have been avoided by less rush and more preparation. Thousands of children in this country could needlessly have their examination chances damaged or at least seriously hindered by this lack of foresight.