In a previous post I finished by pondering on the ideology behind the Scottish and English education systems:
“England seems to be more right wing – devolved responsibilty for LEA’s and schools. Whereas Scotland seems more left wing – more centralised decision making from council HQ and the Executive.”
I think I’m now about to contradict myself. It occured to me the other night that there is significant difference in the approaches of the two countries to science education. In England, all pupils must study all three sciences until the end of key stage 4 (approx. 16 years old). When I was there, they could do this in three ways: single, double or triple award. In this way they all studied all three sciences but were awarded one, two or three GCSEs depending how much time they had spent studying it. The science curriculum has changed this year down south, so I’m not sure exactly how it works now, but I’m sure it still involves all pupils studying all three sciences until the end of key stage 4.
So, how does it work in Scotland? Well, in my experience so far, most schools teach all three sciences for the first two years (S1 & 2). From there the pupils choose their standard grades/int.1, which must include at least one science. In my current school this is slightly different as pupils are starting their standard grades/int.1 in S2, which means they study all three sciences for one year instead of two. I’ve also heard that in Scottish state schools it can often be difficult for pupils to take all three sciences at standard grade/int.1 due to timetable constraints.
The Scottish system is actually very similar to my own experience as a pupil. My year was the last in Northern Ireland to choose the sciences as seperate subjects, and although we could choose all three if we wanted to, I didn’t – mainly due to my relationship with my Physics teacher.
I feel that there are negative outcomes for both systems. As I have continued to pursue the study and teaching of science, I’ve always regretted dropping physics. Post 16, all three sciences are quite inter-linked and I suspect a better grounding in all three would have assisted my studies. It would certainly have enabled me to be a more effective key stage 3 teacher in England! Instead, I spent a lot of time learning physics on the job. Are we going to produce the well rounded scientists of tomorrow if many pupils aren’t studying one or two of the sciences past the age of 12/13?
I also believe that there is a wider social value to compulsory science education until the age of 16. Certainly as a Biology teacher, I really do feel that society as a whole benefits from every individual having an understanding of the biological processes taking place inside their bodies, and the world around them. But then, do all teachers think that their subject is very important and should be compulsory until 16? I suspect so.
There are problems with the English system too. One of the things I was dreading about teaching in England was having to teach a compulsory GCSE subject. When I was at school, the subjects we had chosen were normally enjoyable and with good behaviour. The subjects we were forced to take (English, Maths, French, RE) were a different matter! But once I was teaching it never seemed as bad as I worried it would be. I’m not sure why this is, but I suspect that it is often easier to engage challenging pupils with science compared with French and RE, thus making the enforced nature of the subject less of a problem.
The other major drawback of compulsory science education to 16 is the effect on staffing and resources. It means much larger science departments, and although it’s great news for science teachers jobwise, I suspect it’s the reason science classes in England have not been capped at 20 – as science classes have been in Scotland, and other practical subjects (design & technology) have been in England.
So, how have I contradicted myself? We’ll here we have a situation where in England the state has dictated that all pupils will study all three sciences until the age of 16, whereas in Scotland the state has given pupils the freedom to choose their own science education. Perhaps I jumped too quickly to a conclusion!
Which do you think is better?