Improving Education

Is science education up to scratch? Universities have complained that the A-Level curriculum doesn't prepare students for a degree, so exam boards are taking a stand to...
18 June 2012

Interview with 

Colin Black, OCR

Chris -   It's exam time and across the country tens of thousands of young people are sitting public exams that will determine their future, including whether they go on to University.

But, Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, wrote recently to the examinations regulator saying:

"I am increasingly concerned that current A levels - though they have much to commend them - fall short of commanding the level of confidence we would want to see. Leading university academics tell me that A levels do not prepare students well enough for the demands of an undergraduate degree, and I am troubled by reports from learned bodies such as the Institute of Physics..."

As a result, the government want the exam boards, who develop A level exams, to fundamentally change the way they operate.

Joining us to explain what this might mean is Colin Black from the Cambridge-based exam board OCR, who set about 25% of the papers sat by learners in England.  Colin, welcome to the Naked Scientists.

Colin -   Thanks, Chris.

Chris -   First of all, what does the government actually want you to do differently?

Colin -   The major change the government is looking for is for us to work - when we're developing the A-levels - actually with people who work at universities.  So rather than developing them with our experts and third party experts that we would talk with, and also the various professional organisations, they've asked us to open the door, and actually start speaking to people in higher education.

Chris -   What do you think has provoked Michael Gove to say and I'll quote again, "A-levels fall short of commanding the level of confidence we want to see," and university academics are telling us that A-levels do not prepare students well enough for the demands of their undergraduate degrees.

Colin -   Well, I don't think that statement has really come as a surprise to us.  Ourselves and also our parent organisation, Cambridge assessment, have been undertaking some research over the last 18 months or so.  We've been talking to people from HE, we've been talking with professional organisations, and there's a general sense that there's a gap between the A-level student, as they enter higher education, and some of the skills are required.  It isn't necessarily about the full content of the subject areas.  It may be a bit more about being able to explain things in more depth and things around experimentations, not just of taking the facts as is, and the ability for critical thinking, those sorts of areas.  And that's what we've been getting back from higher education.  So, it comes as no surprise that Michael Gove has taken all this onboard and come out with the statements that he has recently.

Chris -   Is this a problem confined just to science or is this more comprehensive than that because I can see it being more of a problem for science because science is moving a lot more rapidly at the say, history is?

Colin -   Yeah, you could see difficulties in a syllabus which lasts 5 years, keeping up with some of the new changes and the various knowledge that comes in to the body of science.  But to be honest with you, I think some of this is around the way that the A-levels have been assessed. So therefore, you could apply some of these problems across the whole of the A-level syllabus.

Chris -   So, what are boards like yours - OCR - doing about it?  How are you responding to this call to action and what are you going to try and do?

Colin -   Well, as I previously mentioned, we've already setup some really strong links with higher education; OCR, of course, is part of the University of Cambridge.  So what we'll be looking to do is, across all the subject areas, we'll be setting up forums, we'll be setting up discussion groups to see exactly what we want coming out of A-levels.  From there, we will setup development panels which we will use, and which will include university lecturers, which we'll use about to start developing not just the content, but also the way that we might look to assess going forwards.

Chris -   So, the whole emphasis being on more, giving people the big picture of their subject rather than looking at it in bite-size chunks because I think a major criticism that's often raised to me by students I talk with is that they're taught in bite-size chunks.  You learn this module of the subject and you learn it really very well, and you work very hard and you get a good mark in it, but then you forget that move on to the next module and at no time does anyone really expect you to link up all of those different little bits of intensive learning to see this big picture that's so important in science.

Colin -   Yeah, I think you're right there actually.  The way things are going now are moving away from modularisation which is the bite-size chunk way of learning, and to what's called linearisation at GCSE, I think that'll be exactly the same A-level.  And as you say, it's about linking all these things together rather than being an expert over a short period of time, just on one specific area.

Chris -   Now, when you and I first met Colin - and we declare an interest here because you approached me a couple of years ago and asked me to come and speak at an inset day that you were running for teachers - now I sat down at the lunch time recess with a lot of teachers and I asked them what they felt the biggest impediments to teaching hard science subjects was.  They were saying to me that actually, for the most part, the last time for many of them that they were in a university environment learning like an academic at a university may have been in some cases 20 years ago.  And they're trying to turn kids into the right sorts of people who will flourish in that environment, but they felt ill-equipped because it was so long since they've been in it.  I think that's probably a reasonable thing isn't it?  So the whole idea of trying to bring educators at high level closer to school educators together, I think that's probably really, really fundamental to actually making this get better.

Colin -   Yes.  One of the things we can specifically do, we can start sort of doing now rather than waiting for this sort of A-level development, is the professional development activities that we've been looking to be able to do for the last couple of years, but we're looking to expand on.  And that's actually bringing a lot of new concepts within science and trying to explain that, and going into much more depth with that, and put more events on for teachers because as you say, with the full time teaching that they happen to do, sometimes it's difficult for them to keep up with the sort of current knowledge and all these various changes and lots of them going on.

Chris -   And one of those things is something that you've actually asked us to help you with.  You're running an event in London, you're trying it with physics first, but I presume you're going to try and expand this to other science subjects, so we're trying with physics first.  This is to bring a whole bunch of top tier scientists together in one day and whole load of teachers, and give the teachers the opportunity to hear what is cutting edge in the science world according to those academics and then interact with them.  And then that will hopefully mean they take that message back to the classroom and they can - I suppose - make their lessons more relevant to what those academics' expectations will be.

Colin -   Absolutely.  We've pooled together a number of experts in their fields.  We've looked at various subject areas within the A-level, so we've linked all this together to the A-level specification and we pulled in people who are able to talk around cosmology and particle physics, and then we're talking about their specific areas of expertise throughout the day.  There'll be opportunities for the A-level teachers, those delivering their qualifications, to interact both with themselves, but also with higher education experts.  And as you say, it's about reinvigorating some of the passion some of the teachers had when they first went off to do their first degrees or whatever engaged them with science in the first place, physics in this particular instance, and trying to get that into them, trying to get that spark that they can then deliver back to the students.

Chris -   And if people want to come to this, where is it on and when?  How do they go about finding out more?

Colin -   Okay.  It's running on Thursday, the 28th of June so it's in a couple of weeks' time.  We're running it at the Royal College of Pathologists in London. 



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