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Physics GCSE: 'insultingly easy, non scientific, and vague'

UK science education flushed away

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Physics GCSE papers are full of questions that are vague, stupid, insultingly easy, political, and non-scientific.

So says secondary school physics teacher Wellington Grey in an open letter to the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) and the AQA exam board.

Grey writes: "I am a physics teacher. Or, at least I used to be. My subject is still called physics. My pupils will sit an exam and earn a GCSE in physics, but that exam doesn't cover anything I recognise as physics."

Grey lists examples to support his complaints about the latest exam papers: one is a simple comprehension question that tests only a pupil's reading ability; another asks why a dark skinned person would be at a lower risk of getting skin cancer. Acceptable answers are "more UV absorbed by dark skin (more melanin)", or "less UV penetrates deep to damage living cells / tissue".

All well and good, but what about Hooke's law? Grey argues that questions so far removed from the traditional subject of physics amount to an ambush on the students sitting the paper.

AQA, the exam board behind the questions, disagreed. It told us: "The evidence we have is that the mark distributions for these new papers are similar to those for the previous papers so candidates appear to find them equally as accessible e.g. grade boundaries are at similar percentages."

It conceded that some of the questions were not well written, but explained that "some of the questions quoted are from specimen material", and are therefore not as well edited as real exam questions.

Grey says his pupils complained the exam did not test the material they had studied. He argues that they are right.

He says the new physics course allows for plenty of debate about science, but that "pupils do not learn meaningful information about the topics they debate".

In its defence, the AQA says: "Our specifications meet the new requirements for 'science' set by our regulator, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, and are fully accredited. The revised requirements place a greater emphasis on 'how science works'. This is the entitlement curriculum for every student: the focus is on scientific literacy with the aim of engaging all students."

The letter comes as thinktank Civitas issued a report saying the school curriculum in the UK has been "corrupted" by political interference. The group says that traditional subjects have been hijacked "to promote fashionable causes such as gender awareness, the environment, and anti-racism". Teachers, meanwhile, are expected to help further the government's social goals, rather than impart knowledge to their students.

Civitas singles out science for particular criticism, while noting that "no subject has escaped the blight of political interference".

Author David Perks suggests that the new scientific curriculum will put more students off studying the subject. The report cites three independent studies that found "students exposed to [the new course] are less likely to trust scientists and less likely to want to continue science at A-level".

Further, independent schools are choosing to enter their students for the International GCSE instead, which still offers the option of studying the three sciences independently. Perks says this is creating an "educational apartheid".

Meanwhile, the DfES says it is not responsible for approving exam specifications. It sent us a statement saying: "There is much, much more to physics than precision and numbers, we would be doing young people no service to undersell it to them by focusing solely on these aspects". ®

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