How much science do they teach in schools?

The BBC struggled this morning with the Royal Chemistry Society’s Report claiming that modern science students at 16 do not have anything like the mathematical and scientific grounding their parents and grandparents had if they studied the O level syllabus. They accepted the evidence that the brightest modern students achieved very low marks when faced with 1960s style questions, but opined that 1960s students would probably have fared equally badly if faced with a modern paper. They did express one truth – children are taught differently and taught different things these days.

The issue is, which is the better system? This year in the Wokingham Schools debating competition I set one debate topic on green issues. One floor speaker told us that she had been taught general global warming theory in at least four subjects at the same time – Chemistry, Biology, Physics and Geography. She felt she had been taught it in one or two other subjects as well just for good measure. She argued that this had taken up time which could have been much better used in teaching her the basics of Chemistry, Biology and Geography. Global warming could have been handled successfully in one subject syllabus. Interestingly, although all the pupils had been offered large helpings of global warming theory, some expressed a scientific scepticism about some of its claims and the evidence base, showing that you cannot prevent bright pupils from asking critical questions, the most important foundation of scientific advance.

I look forward to receiving my copy of the Society’s Report. Of course many modern pupils work hard and many achieve good results. That is not the issue. The issue is, are we stretching them and educating them in the best way? Isn’t there more need for them to understand more of the basics of science, rather than so much emphasis on the social, environmental and economic context of science?


  1. Paul
    November 27, 2008

    The BBC is partly correct, but for the wrong motives.

    Science is split. Some schools, mostly private or better state schools, do three sciences as I (and probably you) did at school. These are, still, Physics, Chemistry and Biology and bear some resemblance to what I learnt. They are however, much easier questions with lower content. A 1960s student would only find them hard in the sense that they might think they were trick questions. A bit like if you were faced with 2+2 on an A-Level maths paper ; you would think, is this Base 3 or something, it can't mean what it says.

    Your speaker is probably referring to 21st Century Science. For more details, see Wellington Grey or David Perks's articles, but basically this is anti-science. It does contain a lot of 'trendy' Global Warming stuff and similar lefty propaganda, but not much science and is designed so pupils can talk about Science. So while a 21stC Science pupil can talk about the political and environmental effects of nuclear power, they have little or no idea how it actually works.

    This course is useless for A-Levels and Degrees, which will doubtless be simplified so that children with 21stC qualifications can take them. The Government is trying to avoid the hard stuff (waffle is easier than Physics => better exam results) and it is also cheaper, as you don't need Science specialists, science rooms, equipment etc.

    It is true that a 1960s pupil, you or I as well, would be unable to do very well on this paper. This is because it is not what I would call Science, but more a variant on Social Studies. It is useless.

    However, you could have a stab at the questions through general intelligence ; if you are au fait with the latest propaganda views it's not difficult. A 2008 pupil would view a 1960s Science paper as if it was written in Greek.

    The Government say something like a pupil has a right to access to the 3 sciences as an alternative. This is not quite the same as having the right to lessons in it ; it appears to mean they can take the exam if they want to…..

    1. Andrew Forbes
      November 27, 2008

      Quite agree;
      I've been helping a friend's son with A/O level physics:
      (a) it's no more difficult than the O level I took a year younger in 1983. It's only a fractionally broader syllabus. The only tough part, as you say, is realising it's not a trick question, and that a lower 6th former really is being asked a question that simple.
      (b) it's split into modules so the poor dears don't have to remember it all at the same time.
      Modern science pupils are therefore at least behind their parents' educations.

      1. a-tracy
        November 27, 2008

        If this is all as easy as you say Andrew why did your friends son require your extra assistance? Does s/he know you think they can't cope or remember anything?

        1. Andrew Forbes
          November 27, 2008

          He'd been a naughty boy and bunked off a lot of lessons. He picked it up quite quickly once he'd turned his mind to it. But then, as I say, it's scarcely a stretching exam. They're allowed to take all the formulae in with them anyway.

          If that's Physics A/O level, then I shudder to think how basic a general science GCSE could be.

        2. Paul
          November 27, 2008

          Children aren't any more or less intelligent, overall. They just know a lot less. Prior to the AS/A2 Physics, Andrew's friend's son will have done 10 years of watered down non-science in Primary and Secondary education.

          To his friend's son, it is just as hard as those of us who are older found our A-Levels. He's not stupid, just badly educated, primarily through lousy courses.

          Courses have to be watered down. Our useless government wants lots more people to take A-Levels, probably 3-5 times as many, as part of the more people at university plan.

          This is fine, except you then have to accept that either (i) you make them easier to pass or (ii) a lot of pupils are going to fail. You aren't going to massively change the 'native intelligence' of the children as a group, and advanced science and mathematics is difficult.

  2. Stuart Fairney
    November 27, 2008

    The modern vs older education debate runs the risk of making those of us born in the 1960's look very old indeed if we aren't careful. But at the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, as an experiment, me and a friend of mine enrolled ourselves for a GCSE exam each a couple of years ago. He took German, me history. His prepapration was spending eight weeks working in Germany and mine spending a bit too much time watching the history channel. Neither of us had any prior knowledge of our subjects from school. Our respective B and A grades shocked us to put it mildly!

    1. a-tracy
      November 27, 2008

      Stuart, please don't take this the wrong way I normally enjoy reading your posts, but are you honestly saying that comparing your built up knowledge of over 40 years and swatting subject matter for a GCSE is comparable to a 16 year old childs knowledge through the gcse lessons? You will have developed memories, skills and knowledge that they haven't had the years to build at the point they're tested.

      Your german speaking friend is more surprising I admit, did he speak, read or write no german at all before spending eight weeks there? He hasn't any German relatives or even heard the language before these eight weeks and still got a B – that's amazing!

      1. Stuart Fairney
        November 27, 2008

        A fair point well made.

        Although I do think of my friend as rather less amazing than me! and thanks again, it's now (shockingly) 44 years! My friend has no sense of humour so perhaps that helped with the German somewhat, and I sometimes find his tank parked on my lawn in his quest for 'lebensraum' which must also assist…. It's that or a beach towel!

      2. Donitz
        December 4, 2008

        Yep, although I say it myself it was amazing for, I am Sparticus, I mean that friend.

        I read a book called German in 3 months supplied with tape. I spoke to the locals when I had the chance.

        I did not take any languages at O level back in 86.

        There is no escapping the fact that the GCSE was a doddle!!!

        I also think that the year I took it, Summer 1998, there was still no such thing as an A* at GCSE as rampant grade inflation was still not in full force.

        1. Stuart Fairney
          December 5, 2008

          I'm not sure he would get an English GCSE however, because it is of course Spartacus not Sparticus. Then again with grade inflation…

  3. Acorn
    November 27, 2008

    "They did express one truth – children are taught differently and taught different things these days."

    I am not aware that Ohm's Law; Boyle's Law and the Theorem's of Pythagoras etc, have changed that much. What has changed is the ability of the teachers. Having seen at first hand, a group of NQTs – newly qualified teachers – struggle to work out a percentage from SAT results; you get the feeling that the teachers are about one page ahead of the pupils, in the text book.

  4. Alcuin
    November 27, 2008

    I hope some neutral body with impeccable credentials gets to the bottom of this issue. I am inclined to believe that today's education is inferior, particularly in areas requiring critical thinking. This is backed up by the increasing proportion of university places in Science taken by Independent schools, and by the fact that Industry has to give some of its recruits some pretty basic remedial training.

    I was fortunate in having independent schooling. My father worked in the City and could afford it. However, I took a technical route and as an Engineer could never afford to put my children through public schooling. So our prospects as a country in an increasingly technological world in which we depend more than any other on trade is looking pretty bleak, now that Finance has collapsed. Michael Gove's deregulation and voucher plans were never more necessary.

    On the subject of testing, my Maths teacher (who in 15 years had never had a failure at A level) said that a well set exam paper should aim for as wide a range of results as possible, to seek out the best and the worst. I really don't think you can do that with tick boxes. Evolution, the engine of Nature, which over 4 billion years got us to where we are, works by penalising failure, usually fatally. "All shall have prizes", no matter how well intentioned, can only lead to the failure of cultures that embrace it.

    Like your blog, John. It is straight talking, erudite and civilised.

    1. DBC Reed
      November 28, 2008

      Social Darwinism: that is one thing that's not on the modern syllabus .Thank goodness.The dinosaurs did n't gradually disappear because they were ill-adapted.They were wiped out by a mass extinction.Likewise the beautiful ammonites all died out en masse because they floated near the surface:the disgusting bottom-feeding Nautilus survived.Mass extinctions would rather tend to support revolution more than conservatism if you were to extend the analogies to the social sphere.
      What can prevent the failure of cultures? They used to believe in Eugenics,all the best most erudite civilised people,Shaw, H.G Wells…

  5. Natalie
    November 27, 2008

    I have no doubt that the science syllabus is no harder than when I took my GCSEs in 2001. Then, half of it was multiple choice, and the half was marked based on the "key words" that you had to include in an answer, regardless of whether what you had written made perfect sense or not. I found the entire syllabus dead boring, because we were only ever taught to the test.

    What I always found particularly shocking is that you only needed something like 25% to get a C in many of those higher-tier GCSEs. The GCSEs that I sat did not stretch the brightest at all, but my school never had the resources to teach us anything extra.

    1. adam
      November 27, 2008

      Natalie, It was like that in higher tier maths, but no others. (?)

  6. Simon_c
    November 27, 2008

    Without getting into the pros and cons of global warming, or even how good or bad Science education is, I do want to make one point on teaching one item across multiple subjects.

    I actually think it's a good idea to do cross subject items. Topics are seldom based only in one subject. At my daughters infant school the cover the fire or London from many perspectives. History, design, fire safety, geography etc.

    I'm sure a subject as complex as Global Warming can cover lots of areas. Maths, Geography, Social Science, Biology, Scientific theory etc etc, if it's done right. Of course, it can equally be covered in multiple subjects at different times totally incorrectly. It would depend how good the communication between different departments at the school in question was.

    1. mikestallard
      November 27, 2008

      Yes, in theory.
      In practice this so often turns into a lot of nosey parkers, after a lot of unnecessary meetings, insisting on coming into your lessons with a clip board which is then presented, with acid comments, to the Head.
      What is one of the most pleasant memories of teaching which I have is when you notice that another teacher has already taught, say, the apostrophe or how to spell "necessary" or "Might have/of" so you do not have to.
      The first was becoming far too common when I retired/ the second is still a great pleasure now I am just coaching A levels.

  7. Neil Craig
    November 27, 2008

    I heard this or possibly a BBC Scotland version. They chose a soundbite from some female politician who said we should improve science teaching by having lots of new fun university courses on "climate change, life sciences & renewable energy".

    The first is not science at all but politics. The 2nd is science including such really useful stuff as GM research but can also be a grab bag term for tree hugging propaganda & I suspect was being used that way. The third is useless multi billion £ pork barreling to provide income for otherwise unemployable eco-fascists.

    British education being murdered to promote political correctness propaganda.

    Also see this "News" piece from the BBC frightening us about how Arctic ice thinned last year & deliberately censoring the real news that it has thickened this so much this year that virtually all the thining of the last 20 years has disappeared.

    This report in this form simply could not have been produced if the BBC were in any way acting as honest reporters rather than eco-fascist propagandists.

  8. Paul
    November 27, 2008

    If you look at Wellington Grey's long debate he quotes a question. It shows a graph of energy reserves available over time (diminishing obviously) and asks the question 'How does this show that we must develop more renewable energy' (para.)

    Now, irrespective of whether this is the right policy or not, this isn't science, it is environmental propaganda.

    This is because you could conclude from the graph that we could find more oil and/or coal and/or gas, or that we must reduce energy usage, build lots of nuclear power stations or simply that we will run out in 2037 or something.

    It doesn't show that we MUST do anything, and this is why it is not science. It's a means for pushing a particular viewpoint. It's about having preset opinions that 'must' be right.

  9. Brian Tomkinson
    November 27, 2008

    How much of this is a result of the lack of well qualified maths and science teachers? A proper understanding of these subjects can only be obtained by proper teaching of the basics of each of the sciences and mathematics. The basic sciences Physics, Chemistry and Biology should be taught as separate subjects not under the general term science. The topics to which you referred are nothing to do with the actual understanding of the science subjects. I don't know what real scientific content is included but suspect there is very little. Expressions such as "the science on this is clear" are regularly trotted out by third rate politicians such as Hilary Benn and typify why we have taken this disastrous route to teaching those subjects in which this country has had such a proud history.

  10. Paul
    November 27, 2008

    Oddly, one of my other interests is Polar Exploration History. One thing that is never ever mentioned in the environmental caterwauling (can't think why) is that this has happened before.

    Roundabout 1816/17 large chunks of the Arctic ice belt melted. No-one knows why – but it wasn't global warming, obviously. The whaler Scoresby discovered that this meant you could go about 2 degrees further north than previously without battling through ice. This lead to the rush for the NW passage and North Pole that started with Ross in 1818.

    In practice, for no known reason a belt of ice about 150 miles thick just vanished.

    One thing any student of polar exploration knows is that you can't tell anything by comparing just a couple of years ; you have to look at progressions over long periods of time. The various expeditions in the 1800s discovered massively varying amounts of ice year on year. This meant some expeditions were trapped, being lured in on a very warm season, and locked in when the weather turned.

  11. Paul
    November 27, 2008

    Finally, (sorry), in response to Neil, anyone who thinks that climate change, renewable energy etc. is 'fun' in schools is a complete idiot. The subjects are pretty dull anyway, and they are invariably preached not taught.

    What children actually want to do is do experiments with wires, electricity, light, sound, heat (Physics) mix things up (Chemistry) and cut things up (Biology) but at present there is hardly any of this.

    1. mikestallard
      November 27, 2008

      Oh yes! Been into a failing Comprehensive recently? Perhaps the one, in the Telegraph this morning where a boy filmed another pretending to spank a female teacher's bottom during a lesson, or remember the one where the teacher(man) had his trouser pulled down for a "prank" in front of his class?
      I was a Governor until we were put into special measures. I watched, helpless, as I watched, through a window two boys fighting during a "science" lesson.
      And you want them to handle Sulphuric Acid, scalpels and gas taps?

      PS I know a man, who has an excellent track record and who is currently looking round for a job, who would be outstanding in that school. I wrote to the Head, not expecting very much, actually.
      And that is exactly what I have so far got – not even a reply. (I copied it to the Deputy Head Fleet for good measure too and delivered it by hand, so I know it arrived).

      1. Paul
        December 1, 2008

        Yes, I have 🙂 You are entirely correct though, in many comps, let alone failing ones, it would be a nightmare.

    2. Neil Craig
      November 27, 2008

      Yes I remember when I was in school our physics teacher showed us what happens when you fill a can, with a small hole in the top, with hydrogen & light the escaping jet on the top. I very much doubt if the Health & Safety Executive would let him keep his job now but it certainly retained my interest.

      For those who haven't seen it at some point the mixture in the can reaches the point where for every 2 hydrogen molecules there is 1 oxygen.

  12. Adrian Peirson
    November 27, 2008

    'They' the elites are dumbing down the worlds population.

    Take your pick.

  13. Deborah
    November 27, 2008

    Spot on, John.

  14. James
    November 27, 2008

    My son is looking at wether to do combined or triple science for his GCSEs, so I browsed the textbooks and discussed with his teacher (PHD from Cambridge, teacher in Comprehensive, so hardly dumbed down teacher!).

    The extra bits to make it into Biology, Chemistry and Physics, were just more of the same, further modules. Nothing there to stretch a childs mind, no more experiments, field trips or dissections. Incredibly it might even count against him for application to medical school as they often look at grade average, so 2 A's at double science would count for more than 2 B's and a A at triple science.

    I agree that a lot of social studies has made it into "science" courses, indeed as a Lecturer at Medical School I was surprised at how much is happening in the medical course.

    Debate without real understanding of the subject might as well be a discussion in the pub. Much of the discussion of global warming by both sides is just this. If the conclusion is decided in advance and only supporting evidence is considered, then it is not science it is rhetoric.

  15. tim t
    November 28, 2008

    John, would you support selection at 13 – into a diverse range of schools. eg academic, science and tech, skilled trades, arts/languages, etc.

    Reply: Selection by streaming, setting and special schools is all part of a healthy educational system. I believe in allowing choice and experiment.

  16. DBC Reed
    November 28, 2008

    You are forgetting that there are elements of market forces and customer choice in this set-up.Students are deserting hard science subjects in droves and the exam boards, being straightforward money-making concerns, are trying to peddle courses that are more fun .Meanwhile certain universities have seen whole departments teaching science subjects close down for want of students.You can't beat the market seems to be the message ( when it supports my point of view!)
    Maths, a particular bugbear, would, if not protected by State compulsion, shrink to a smaller more reasonable part of the curriculum.I used to help my son when a teenager with his tedious maths homework: real-life practical problems(not) .Like you have to stick some notices up on a wall ;for some reason they have to be next to each other with no gaps in between so the notices can share drawing-pins in common. Work out a formula for establishing
    the exact number of drawing-pins.Then draw a graph (or was that for another favourite where a girl with a beautiful Asian name,a nod to political correctness, throws her trainer up in the air over a thousand times and records how often it lands sole-side up.Various instances of insane behaviour ensue.)

  17. Chris H
    November 28, 2008

    We are a scientific family; myself with a 1970's HNC in Medical Lab sciences; husband an engineer; and a son partway through a physics degree. We aren't wealthy people but we chose the private school route and, judging from the way science has been handled in the state school sector, I'm glad we did. Our son has had his brain positively stretched at his school by efficient teachers, gaining A grades in physics, maths and electronics. The work was not easy;lots of stout homework and projects; but he says that being "stretched" was an advantage when moving onto university, because of the step up in workload and standards.
    So many pathetic excuses are being made for the "new ways" of teaching science. I'm appalled. I know that not every child is a science "natural", but when we hear that many of them actually think that the Sun goes round the Earth, it makes me weep. This is 2008, not the Middle Ages!

    For heavens sake, children who want to do science should be given the best opportunities to study them separately at GCSE level, rather than stuffing them all together. The UK has superb universities just waiting to take in bright young people who have the potential to become great researchers, inventors, developers or whatever you wish. But they won't get them when the curriculum is watered down to tripe. Universities are already having to teach extra maths to get science students up to scratch, before proceeding…..the UK is killing science; WHY?

    1. DBC Reed
      November 29, 2008

      You can get quite a long way thinking the Sun goes round the Earth,whilst still practising logical scientific deduction.Take Sherlock Holmes for instance as complained about bitterly by Watson in "A Study in Scarlet".
      " His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge…My surprise reached a climax,however when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System.That any civilised human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it."

  18. HJ
    November 28, 2008

    When visiting a school a couple of years ago, I looked at the current A level physics text books (I took a physics/electronics degree and gained a grade A at A level 30 years ago). What surprised me most was the almost complete lack of mathematical content compared to when I did A level.

    When I asked the teacher why this was, she said that it was because physics was considered either desirable or necessary for many degree courses, but that many students didn't have the mathematical ability – the specific example she gave was medicine. So the syllabus has been changed to suit those students who won't really be using physics at university, to the detriment of those that will, e.g. scientists and engineers.

    Physics without mathematical content is a nonsense.

  19. a-tracy
    November 28, 2008

    I agree that children should be able to study a GCSE in Physics, or Chemistry or Biology or two of them or indeed all three separately if talented in science, however, this isn't right for all children and I don't agree that they should all have to study all three sciences separately for GCSE when they only have nine subjects and 25 hours at school per week.

    Some may only want to take Biology at GCSE and use their extra lesson for other subjects that suit their plans for the future. Some could choose Physics and Chemistry and drop Biology, it is a shame this can't be accommodated and they have to take the double award.

    HJ my son was very disappointed that the Physics A level didn't involve more maths too.

  20. HJ
    November 29, 2008


    In most state schools now, you can only take the single or double science awards – you can't do the three sciences separately.

    This was only of the principal reasons why I didn't send my daughter to one of the comprehensives in John Redwood's constituency and instead pay for her to go to an independent school (something I really can't afford). It's a disgrace that they take my taxes and can't provide a decent scientific education.

  21. adam
    November 30, 2008

    Just reading the bbc report, one of the facts is that 94% of students earned a C grade up from 91%.

    I think i have found the source of the manipulation.

    Surely the purpose of grades is to provide a comparison with other students.

    At most only 50% should recieve C or above, ideally more like 30% in my opinion.

    There is no purpose to grading if the boundries are not distributed properly.

    Technically then it is correct to say exam results are improving, which people equate with improving standards, but under New Labour making that small leap would be foolish.

  22. Michael Martin-Smith
    December 1, 2008

    It is well known that the biggest growth in science education in the USA took place during and soon after Project Apollo; as a result of which most US wealth not built on a debt bubble has been generated by science based industry.

    Japan, China and India recognise the importance of science in the 21st century and are now engaged in a new version of the Apollo space race- with permanent exploration, development and, in time, settlement , of the New Frontier.

    We have neglected these developments in favour of funny money and trashy celebrity. Until we value science, exploration and build a meaningful human space programme of our own, we will decline further, and, according to the principles of Darwin, will deserve to do so!

    Historians will not wonder how we could afford it, but rather how on Earth we ever thought we could afford NOT to .

    Humankind will , in coming generations, create a cosmic Diaspora or become extinct. Our grandchildren and their descendants deserve a future.

  23. mikestallard
    December 1, 2008

    A further thought:

    Scientific thought was the fruit of the Enlightenment of the 18th century and that is a one off: you cannot demystify religious superstition twice!
    Today, thanks to Einstein, science itself seems to becoming a lot more mystical and indeed so do a lot of people too. Bending light, black holes, string theory, several new dimensions! Whatever next! Socially, hippies led to New Age and now we have materialism as our creed. Religion (go to any Church/Mosque and look in UK at the moment) seems to be on its last legs.
    Could that be why science has died out too? It has had its day. James Watt, George Stephenson, self improving amateurs would not, I think, have survived the Comprehensive system. In the Private sector,, of course, they would have been either Media People, Celebs or Lawyers!

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