Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Catalyst for change

Science students

Nationally, the traditional science subjects are struggling to attract students. Crispin Andrews asked several specialist science colleges for their thoughts on how to encourage more students to take up the subject.

As a subject, science just can't win at the moment. In a BBC story in October, scientists attacked the new GCSE curriculum as "dumbed down science", and said it could hinder students from getting into top universities.

However, a few weeks later, a report from the House of Lords urged a broadening of the science curriculum, stating that the decline in GCSE students taking up sciences was partially due to them being thought of as "too difficult".

While the debate continues, schools are left trying to juggle the unenviable task of making science interesting to the masses, while providing enough rigour to prepare tomorrow's generation of physicists and chemists.

For Robert Howard, headteacher at Heanor Gate Science College in Derbyshire, it is important that the science curriculum offers the opportunity for more able students to be fast tracked. "But that doesn't mean we need to move forward in that direction only," he says.

Heanor Gate offers a range of vocational, applied and single science options - including geology, electronics and astronomy.

A recent meeting with an ex-pupil re-assured Robert that there is correlation between engaging teaching at school and success at university.

A preferred method at Heanor Gate is to mix in elements of independent investigative and analytical work with practical elements alongside more traditional 'chalk and talk' science teaching.

"Although at the time this particular youngster wasn't too keen on the onus being put on her to take greater responsibility for her own learning, now she's at university she realises how useful it is to be able to work independently," Robert said.

Mick Moulton, head at Huxlow Science College in Wellingborough, is keen that all students have a pathway that takes them as far as they want to go and in the direction they choose.

Huxlow offers a double generic science module, an environmental science course and, for those who are that way inclined, three separate science GCSEs.

Student swap

Obviously a science college, with additional funding and staffing, finds it easier to offer this sort of curriculum breadth, but Huxlow is trialling an approach at A level that could be adapted by others to increase the range of options open at 14-16.

Courses are offered not just to their own students but those from three other local schools. This enables physics, chemistry and biology classes - not to mention the additional maths, ICT, PE and arts courses run at the other schools - to be of a reasonable size, whereas working in isolation each school would not have sufficient students and staff to run each course themselves.

At Park House School in Berkshire something similar is happening. Twilight GCSE economics, media studies, Spanish, geology and psychology courses already enable students from Park House and its partner schools to take additional options not available to them during the school day.

With the right timetabling and transport systems in place, collaborations of this sort allow geographically close schools to offer a wide range of routes for their students and lessen some of the constrains on their own budgets.

Mick Moulton also stresses the importance of practical work and visual demonstrations in engaging students with a wider variety of learning styles and making the subject more appealing in general.

"Setting up experiments on a regular basis can be a strain on support staff and tends to be more expensive," he says. "But the positive impact it has on students' learning makes it well worthwhile."

Personalised learning

Huxlow has also seen results with a more personalised approach. A target setting system conceived by the science department - now in operation across the school - is having a marked impact on student motivation and standards.

Students entering the school are set on the basis of their key stage 2 SAT results and CAT results. From then on, five times a year, each student is given an aspirational target that helps focus on where he or she is, where to go next and how to get there.

Lessons are focused around these individual learning targets; classrooms and exercise books are full of visual reminders. Five times a year, staff report back to both pupils and parents on how students are doing in relation to their targets.

"The system helps create a culture where students know how to achieve and are not embarrassed to do well," says Mick. "It also allows staff to identify those students not reaching their targets and take measures to address this, very quickly."

Roger Leighton agrees that more than one approach is needed to engage different students. "It depends on what level you want a particular student to get to," says the head of Burscough Priory High in Lancashire.

At Burscough, the most able students take physics, chemistry and biology at GCSE, whilst the rest get a choice from a modular programme that encompasses aspects of all three. According to Roger, the intrinsic practical and enquiry based nature of science acts as a great motivator for many students.

Following the OCR syllabus, GCSE students manipulate data generated from their own work as part of a practical investigation. They also get to grips with a case study - allowing them to conduct their own research into a controversial topical issue. This could be mobile phone or MMR vaccine safety, or whether genetic screening is necessary.

The idea is to show how science relates to the contemporary world but also to help students get used to conducting research and communicating their findings, both of which are vital ingredients of the scientific process and learning styles favoured at further and higher education.

Enjoy and achieve

Making science enjoyable and relevant in key stages 3 and 4 is key to getting pupils to continue with the subject post-16, says Chris Lickiss, headteacher at Ashton Community Science College in Preston.

"You need to develop a wider base from which to draw your future high achieving scientists and you are only going to achieve this by making the subject strike a chord with youngsters lower down the school," he says.

"Give them a diet consisting only of textbooks and abstract formulae and children will hardly be queuing up to continue their studies once they are no longer compulsory."

For instance, a wind turbine linked to a specialist laboratory is the focal point for learning at Ashton. Local primary schools also taking advantage of the facilities to engage their pupils.

Of course, not all schools will have the funding to install such equipment but there are other ways of engaging children. At Ashton, year 9 students are in the process of mentoring year 6s within the college's family of primaries, whilst key stage 3 students get the benefit of working with undergraduates from the nearby University of Lancaster.

"Science can be fun, creative and is about real people, not just mad professors," says Chris. "It is about opening minds and doors into further education and employment, not just producing the next generation of research scientists."

However it is possible to do both, says Robert Howard. He stresses that only by taking a wide variety of approaches - applied, enquiry based, vocational, practical and theoretical - can the maximum number of young people be encouraged to develop their understanding of and interest in science.

Crispin Andrews is a freelance writer specialising in education and sport. He also teaches PE.

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