Thursday, 26 March 2009

To work with or against the government?

Last week I wrote about the new GCSEs and how my son was able to get a decent score in a paper through general knowledge and a bit of simple grammar. The meeting I then attended, to discuss these papers was interesting, but it was run under Chatham House Rule so I'm not free to discuss what happened. However the idea is to use the information gathered to sit down with the government and its representatives and persuade them (if needs be - it might be that the meeting concludes that all is well) of a new path to follow. So rather than 'publicise and shame' which might make people defensive, it's 'sit down and talk'.

The evening after the meeting I went to the opera to see Dr Atomic, John Adams' take on the Manhattan Project. A key idea in this is that the scientists collaborated with the government, giving them what they wanted and allowing those in Washington to make the big decisions - given the information, they can be trusted to do what's right, they can make the political judgements. Looking back it is easy to condemn those scientists for their part in the project and their easy, passive guilt in working with the authorities rather than speaking out or refusing to collaborate.

I keenly felt the irony of that moment and wondered if we shall be seen as the generation of teachers who collaborated to bring about the end of good science in the UK. Or will history see us as the concerned and active teachers who pushed the government at the right moment? Or will the new GCSEs actually turn out to be the saviours of science, in spite of the naysayers in the independent school system? Who can tell?

Thursday, 12 March 2009

The new science GCSES

I've been asked to be part of a team looking into the quality of the new GCSE exams - seeing if they match up to the specs, if they are demanding enough etc. As part of my homework the Royal Society sent me a set of last summer's OCR Gateway papers to try.

I had a look at them and then thought I'd do an experiment. I gave the first foundation tier science paper to my son to do. Zach is 8, is in year 3 at school and almost knows what science is. I did have to read some of the longer words for him and I took oral rather than written answers (he hates writing). The paper consists of 20 marks for each of biology, chemistry and physics. Zach scored 12/20, 11/20,10/20 respectively giving 33/60 and a creditable D grade (37 for a C grade, the highest achievable on a foundation tier paper). The average mark for this paper nationally was 31.6/60, slightly below Zach's score.

Is this a case of fantastic genes, inherited from two parents with PhDs in physics? Maybe, but nothing in his school work suggests he's going to grow up as a man with a computerised voice in a wheelchair, or a fuzzy-haired, violin-playing odd-sock wearing icon of physics. The moral of this story is certainly not that Zach is some kind of science genius with pushy parents - he hasn't solved any of the basic equations of quantum mechanics as yet!

He even beat me in one question. Asked about the advantages of mobile phones being a form of wireless communications I failed to get the second point the examiners were looking for. I didn't say "They have no wires" stupid am I?