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Department for Education Consultation: National Curriculum Reform (England) - Key Stage 4 Science

The Department for Education has launched a consultation into National Curriculum Reform - Key Stage 4 Science. Details of the consultation along with the Terms of Reference can be found on the government website. The submission produced by the Geological Society can be found below:

Submitted 23 July 2014

  1. The Geological Society is the UK’s learned and professional body for geoscience, with more than 11,000 Fellows (members) worldwide. The Fellowship encompasses those working in industry, academia and government with a broad range of perspectives on policy-relevant science, and the Society is a leading communicator of this science to government bodies and other non-specialist audiences.
  2. We have been actively involved in the National Curriculum Reform process since late 2011. During that time, we have met with officials in the Geography and Science curriculum review teams, at their request, to discuss how Earth science topics should best be assigned across the Geography and Science programmes of study, and across Key Stages. Our objectives in doing so have been to help ensure that programmes of study are coherent, that there is appropriate progression between Key Stages, and that all students are introduced to the key concepts which underpin how our planet works.
  3. Among other written submissions, we responded to the consultation on the Draft Legislative Order for the new National Curriculum KS1-3 (July 2013) and to the consultation on Reformed GCSE Subject Content (August 2013). In those responses, we noted that most of the main recommendations we had made in our April 2013 response to the February 2013 draft curriculum in respect of KS1-3 had been taken up. We especially welcomed the improved integration and more coherent treatment of Earth science topics between the Science and Geography programmes of study at KS1-3 compared with the proposals set out in the draft curriculum published in February 2013. 
  4. However, our July/August 2013 responses also noted that recommendations we had made in April in respect of the draft curriculum for KS4 Science were not reflected in the proposed content for GCSE set out for consultation at that point. (We recognised that the consultation held between February and April on the draft National Curriculum excluded KS4 Science, that the draft National Curriculum content indicated for this stage was for guidance only, and that this was to be the subject of separate consultation.) We reiterated the main concerns we had previously raised in respect of KS4 Science in responding to the consultation on reformed GCSE subject content. Our key concerns were not addressed in the final GCSE subject content document published in April 2014. 
  5. We do not understand why the consultation on GCSE content preceded the present consultation on the National Curriculum for KS4 Science, as we would expect the specification of core GCSE content to follow from the National Curriculum. We raised this point in our August 2013 response, and again when we were in correspondence with officials in the Science Review Team in March 2014 (at which point we received no further response). It seems highly unlikely that the present consultation will result in anything being added to the proposed National Curriculum which is not already included in the revised GCSE content, given that this has already been published, restricting the effectiveness of this consultation.
  6. Putting aside the illogical sequencing of consultations, we have pointed out that it is difficult to comment meaningfully on programmes of study or Key Stages in isolation from others. This has been exacerbated by lack of clarity about the National Curriculum review process, which has now been running for three and a half years. This is especially frustrating given the Department’s stated ambition, which we share, to ensure appropriate progression between key stages.
  7. In light of all this, it is disappointing but unsurprising that the proposed National Curriculum for KS4 Science still seems to reflect closely that set out in draft for information in February 2013, which in turn has been reflected in the draft and final GCSE content documents, and does not take on board the integrated set of recommendations we made regarding the proposed new National Curriculum as a whole in April 2013.
  8. As noted in our earlier responses, we are pleased to see that plate tectonics is mentioned in the new National Curriculum for Geography at KS3, as a driver for geographical processes and features. But it is also important that students understand it as a unifying scientific theory in Earth science, which is based on observed evidence and explains much of how our planet works. We believe that this is best done in KS4 Physics, where it would complement existing content, including that on the use of waves to detect Earth structures. At present, this refers only to the Earth’s core and oceans. It should also refer to the Earth’s crust, where use of waves to detect and understand structures is vital, both to understand natural hazards such as earthquakes, and economically (e.g. to find oil and gas). Broadening this reference in this way would be consistent with a scientific treatment of plate tectonics at this stage. Although the old National Curriculum did not explicitly mention plate tectonics, it did refer to the Earth’s surface (as well as its atmosphere) having changed over geological time, and this has provided science teachers with the opportunity to teach about plate tectonics. There is now considerable concern among the Earth science community that the new National Curriculum and GCSE content specification will provide no such opportunity, and that students’ knowledge of this vital concept will be limited to a necessarily restricted treatment in KS3 Geography. Including plate tectonics in the KS4 Science curriculum would provide for appropriate progression from the Earth science content explored at KS3 in both the Geography and Science programmes of study. The proposed curriculum lacks such progression.
  9. In the section on chemical and allied industries, there is reference to competing demands for limited hydrocarbon resources, and to extraction and purification of metals (though ores are no longer mentioned). But there is no reference to these as mineral resources which originated in and are extracted from the Earth. To explain how end products are produced without referring to the origin and nature of the raw materials is to tell only half the story. The only resource now explicitly referred to in the section headed ‘Earth and atmospheric science’ is water. In the draft KS4 programme of study published for guidance in February 2013, there was reference both to water and to calcium carbonate. We recommended broadening this to refer to other minerals used as raw materials. It is disappointing to see that the reference to calcium carbonate has instead simply been removed. The ‘Earth and atmospheric science’ section should explicitly refer to fossil fuels and mineral resources as originating through geological processes, and being extracted from the Earth, to complement the content on their processing and end use in the section on chemical industries. It is vital that students recognise our dependence on Earth’s finite resources, and the impacts of using them.
  10. We continue to believe that students should be made aware by name of some of the many scientific specialisms which exist besides Physics, Biology and Chemistry – such as geology – as well as engineering, so that they know that they have learned something about these subjects in the course of their school studies. Learning outcomes in science should include knowing what different types of scientist do. This is an important step in raising students’ awareness of the opportunities which exist for further study and careers in a wide range of sciences and engineering. The future prosperity and well-being of the UK will depend on the supply of trained personnel in these fields. The proposed National Curriculum for KS4 science is unhelpful and misleading in implying even more strongly than previous documents that science consists solely of three distinct disciplines – Biology, Chemistry and Physics – notwithstanding that these are the main science subjects as taught at secondary school level. Earth science has the potential to provide an ideal introduction to interdisciplinary approaches to science – skills demanded by HE and employers – bridging the Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Geography curriculum, and allowing students to draw on all of these in developing their understanding how our world works.
  11. Despite the difficulty of rethinking the Earth science content of the KS4 Science National Curriculum, given that the revised GCSE content has already been announced, we strongly urge officials and ministers to do so. We would welcome the opportunity to discuss how this might best be achieved.