Science in schools: Triple or Double?


512px-thumbnailThere is currently a demand from various organisations for more pupils to be offered Triple Science in Secondary Schools. The Open Public Services Network, OPSN, has noted that the ‘curriculum taught in poorer parts of England is significantly different to that taught in wealthier areas.’ Geography and wealth have a significant determining factor on opportunity to study Triple Science. They also noted that ‘more than a third of schools do not enter any pupils for Triple Science.’

The CBI is calling for all children who achieve good grades in science at age 14 to be automatically enrolled onto Triple Science GCSEs. The CBI says that Triple Science gives pupils the confidence to go on and study A Level Sciences followed by science courses at University.

The Department for Education, meanwhile, says that ‘75% of Triple Science pupils achieving the highest grades progress to A Level Science subjects whereas 59% achieving these highest grades in Double Science progress to A Level Science subjects.’ They do not seem to analyse the reasons behind this. You wonder, is it simply confidence?

It is interesting to note that the Department for Education has recently removed the IGCSE Sciences from league tables, these being a greater equivalent to the old O Levels and more in depth.

So, what should we make of all this? The problems in poorer areas are invariably related to poor pupil and family attitudes, and so attempting to teach Triple Science to all in poorer areas has a certain futility to it until attitudes change.
One of the limiting factors in what is taught in schools is curriculum time. The legal requirement for science was 12%, but for pupils to have a fighting chance of doing well enough in science GCSEs they needed about 20%. My old school taught Double Science with 20% curriculum time. They started offering Triple Science to the top set with 24% curriculum time, the extra time coming from one lesson per week after school! They are now compelling all pupils to take Triple Science with 24% curriculum time built into the main timetable. Other subjects will have suffered as a result.

There is a notion that Triple Science is necessary for a good base to allow a pupil to go on and do A Level Sciences. I would say it is beneficial but it is by no means necessary. I took numerous pupils through A Level Chemistry with great success on the basis of doing Double Science alone long before any Triple Science was on offer in my school. This was also mostly before the modular system was introduced. If the Triple Science is so vital to promoting the uptake of A Levels why did students do A Levels on the basis of Double Science? And how did they manage? But they did if they were able enough.

It is not that Triple Science is vital for A Levels, but rather it is about pupils ability and suitability for A Levels. A Levels can be followed from any of Double, Triple and IGCSE Science. The courses chosen need to be on the basis of what is best for individual pupils in individual schools.
What is needless and unacceptable in my view is compelling all pupils to do Triple Sciences. Those who are not going on to A Level Sciences do not need 3 science GCSEs, with a quarter of their curriculum time being taken up in this way. This is not in their interests. The Double Science does a good enough job if we want the future general public to have a decent grounding in scientific knowledge. The other big issue with all pupils studying Triple Science is that it is not suitable to the ability of many pupils. We overestimate the ability of average pupils and we overestimate the long term memories of these pupils, so the extra material of Triple Science creates an unreasonable extra burden for no good result. Triple Science should be thought of as top sets subjects.
In conclusion the needs of the individual pupils are more important than the needs of the school, the education system, the league tables, industry and the latest political demands.