Just before I took my physics GCSE, the teacher (one of the best I ever had) Mr Knott, informed us that the national average in the previous year had been grade E. He then wondered out loud how it was possible to avoid getting killed if your grasp of the basic forces that control existence was so lacking.
So I wondered quietly to myself this morning what he would be making of the new “Twenty-First Century Science GCSE” which has come under criticism from leading scientists for not being scientific enough. Under the new curriculum, boring and unnecessary elements (such as facts and experiments) have been made secondary to crucial topical discussions on matters such as GM crops and bird flu.
The first thing that strikes you is: why can’t schools manage to do both? I happily remember burning something to a crisp with a bunsen burner in the chemistry block before skipping off to a Personal & Social Education lesson - satchel swinging jauntily at my side and a-polishing an apple for teacher - to thrash out the issues of the day with fellow pupils and the trendy English-class assistant. But fair enough, life moves on and so must teaching methods. Let’s call it progress.
But where’s the progress in undermining how science is taught? Already in decline, science in the classroom does not need further weakening. Maybe the Twenty-First Century GCSE was envisaged to address this by popularising science. If so, it’s going about it the wrong way round. Sound understanding and practice should inform debate. Deciding what goes up on the whiteboard based on that week’s newspaper headlines misses the point of what science is.
Sadly, it seems that science in schools is falling victim to the same threats as science in society: abused to promote particular interests or wishful thinking; discredited through specious yet well-promoted reasoning; or Ludditely derided as the source of humankind’s problems.
It is society itself that suffers from all this. Originally, scientific advance was dependent on a progressive society. The Enlightenment and commercial freedoms opened the way for new inventions and ideas. But very swiftly, the position reversed. Today, more than ever, progressive society is dependent on scientific advance: whether it’s the emancipating and demystifying effects of the internet, the equalising of health and life expectancy through medical “miracles”, or the new technologies delivering ever more efficient and cleaner power.
And whether you’re Isaac Newton or an air-conditioning engineer, the application of science begins at your school desk. So a progressive education policy needs urgently to address the degrading of physics, chemistry and biology teaching. Preferably before Mr Knott’s vision of a lot more teenagers falling over, electrocuting themselves or trying to fly comes true.