A “dumbing down” of science at GCSE level could see Wales “miss out on some brilliant scientists in the future”, an academic has warned.
From 2025, physics, chemistry and biology will no longer be offered as separate subjects.
Instead, students will study for a single integrated science award that combines all three subjects and is worth two GCSEs.
Qualifications According to Wales, integrating subjects allowed students to take a variety of GCSEs.
Cardiff Metropolitan University’s academic team lead in biomedical sciences, Dr. Lowri Mainwaring, stated: “I’m concerned about the message that combining those three GCSEs will send to students.
“What does this dumbing down, or convergence of science, teach our students about science? That it may not be as significant as it should be?
“The one thing we’ve learned over the last 20 months is that science is extremely important; without scientists from all over the world, we wouldn’t have an understanding of Covid at all, let alone a vaccine.”
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She understood Qualifications Wales’ desire to “create more space” in the curriculum for students to study other subjects, but she was concerned that the change would result in fewer students taking A-levels and degrees in science.
“There’s already a big gap between GCSE and A-level; by lowering or changing the curriculum at GCSE, that gap could be even bigger,” she said.
“How can we ensure that those who want to continue their studies in science at a higher level are not afraid to do so?
“We need to encourage more people to pursue science rather than saying, ‘It’s OK if you do less of it,’ because I believe we may lose some brilliant scientists in the future because they lack confidence [to advance].”
Prof Alma Harris of Swansea University’s department of education and childhood studies echoed these concerns: “My main concern is for the students and how they will be able to progress into university or employment with these new GCSE qualifications.
“But my main concern with this integrated approach is subject knowledge and the amount of time teachers will have to cover those subjects when they’re combined into one GCSE.
“Those three science subjects are very different in nature, and they require very different skills and abilities – compartmentalising them would seem reasonable, but compressing them raises some concerns.”
“I think having a single root for all the sciences together is quite a positive change,” Eluned Parrott, head of Wales at the Institute of Physics, said. “But we think it’s really important to retain the name and individual grades for individual subjects, because the sciences are quite different in character.”
When asked how the new GCSE would be perceived by employers and universities outside of Wales, she responded: “Wales has the right to set its own educational agenda in the same way that Scotland does, and it will differ from England.
“What we must ensure is that the value and quality of qualifications obtained by Welsh students are comparable to those obtained by students in other parts of the UK and around the world.”
“We know our ways of working in the past, where subjects were in little boxes that weren’t joined up, is part of the reason we are facing a climate emergency,” said Prof Mary Gagen of Swansea University’s department of geography. “The new curriculum is one way Wales is ensuring future generations are equipped with the skills to support a green and prosperous future for all.”
She said she knew from speaking to schools through the university’s Science for Schools scheme that teachers had “a lot of anxiety” about the new curriculum.
“One of our teachers summed up their concerns as feeling like there is a big experiment going in Wales with the new curriculum and children’s futures, they have real anxiety about that taking place alongside a pandemic they feel that what Welsh education needs right now is stability and investment,” she said.
The change to science is part of a major overhaul to education which will see separate English language and literature GCSEs merged and new GCSEs, including engineering and manufacturing and film and digital media, created.
The results of a public consultation were published in July.
The report that followed the consultation, produced for Qualifications Wales by Opinion Research Services, acknowledged that when asked about the plans for the new science GCE, there was a “fairly equal split in reactions” among the 355 people who responded – 42% were in favour and 40% were against.
How will the new science GCSE work?
The existing science GCSEs, including the existing science double award, will be replaced by a new double award.
According to Qualifications Wales, the new GCSE will cover the fundamentals of biology, chemistry, and physics, as well as how they relate to one another.
It stated that it would collaborate with stakeholders to determine the content and assessment of the new GCSE.
Individual schools determine which GCSEs are mandatory and which are optional, so the new GCSE may not be mandatory in all schools.
Qualifications Wales stated that it is “still open to the possibility of developing other made-for-Wales qualifications to complement the new GCSE science qualification.”
“Around 20% of schools in Wales don’t offer the separate science GCSEs in biology, chemistry, and physics, and so this means that not all learners in Wales are currently given the same degree of choice about which science GCSE [they take], so we’re adopting a common GCSE offer for all learners in Wales, and that would support greater equality of opportunity,” said Catrin Verrall, a senior qualifications manager at Qualifications Wales.
“We’re also integrating subjects in other areas, so maths and English, and the goal of integrating subjects is to give learners and schools the freedom to choose a mix of GCSEs that reflect the breadth and balance of the new curriculum.”
Universities, she claims, have “clearly indicated a clear preference for learners with a breadth of different learning and experiences.”
“These qualifications are a really exciting opportunity for us to reimagine qualifications that are fit for the future and relevant and engaging for our young learners in Wales,” she added.