Universities must step in to reverse atrophy of A-level physics standards

Higher education bodies should reconnect with examining boards to boost scientific literacy and ensure undergraduates are better prepared, says Alan Wilson

March 26, 2009

Lord Drayson, the Minister of State for Science and Innovation, recently said he was going to examine contemporary GCSE and A-level science papers and compare them with the ones he sat in the 1970s. I started my working life in theoretical physics and for the past few years have been involved in science education, and this led me to explore the state of A-level physics today. I was astonished by what I found.

The A-level syllabus from at least one examining board does not require calculus, making it difficult even to offer a decent presentation of Newton's laws. In other words, it represents a dumbing down from the 17th century, but few of the people I have talked to are aware of this.

There are other causes for concern. In physics, formulae have to be learnt or are given, and the onus is on the student to understand units well enough to be able to carry out complicated arithmetic using these formulae, but today there seems to be little effort even to teach the foundation concepts.

In the syllabus I looked at, the second law of thermodynamics was omitted - so its students would be unable to pass the science element of C.P. Snow's "two cultures" test by giving an account of it. They would not be able to unpick one of the most famous formulae in physics: S = klogW.

As universities raise concerns about the reduced mathematical capabilities of their undergraduates, I think the time has come for them to find a way of getting a grip on the situation by reversing their decisions to largely withdraw from examining boards. After all, if a large business, indeed an industry, were having serious problems with its supply chain, it would intervene. The time has come for higher education to do so, too.

Why do we find ourselves in this situation? There are at least three possible reasons. First, exam boards are in a competitive marketplace, so perhaps none of them wants its syllabus in a particular subject to be seen as "difficult".

Second, there is a perceived need to encourage more students to study physics at university, so it is tempting not to make A levels harder in case recruitment problems are exacerbated.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, there is a clash of objectives at the heart of the Government's policy: it wants to boost scientific literacy, while also trying to ensure the existence of an "advanced" cadre who will read subjects such as physics at university to form the science-based, future workforce.

Solving the Government's conundrum may resolve the wider problems. Mathematics offers a pointer through the relatively recently introduced further maths A level. This has been rated a success, albeit one studied by a small, although growing, group. It offers the possibility of stretch and challenge, and thereby sidesteps the argument about the difficulty of the physics A level.

So what about further physics? This would include not only calculus, but would also tackle the core concepts that the existing syllabuses fail to teach. As I am sure is the case with further maths, it could be exciting and challenging for the enthusiast, thereby overcoming the fear of "difficulty". And the exam boards could compete on the grounds of challenge and excitement.

But we should remember, too, the new diploma in science. A consultation by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) on this subject has just ended. Could this qualification, at its top end, prove adequately challenging?

Universities could start a movement for further physics, and perhaps further chemistry and further biology, too. After all, it would benefit them if incoming students needed less remedial work, allowing them to graduate at higher levels within three years. A masters fourth year would be a bonus.

What is needed is a further physics syllabus that provides a smooth transition to university physics - and, indeed, a range of engineering courses as well. It would be an opportunity for university physics departments to work more closely with their schools of education. The latter would benefit, too: intellectually, through work on a syllabus and its associated pedagogy, and financially, because it would remove some of the economic problems caused by having relatively small numbers on science PGCE courses.

Who will lead the way? It has already been pointed out to Lord Drayson that science in schools is part of the DCSF's remit, not his. But universities are his responsibility, and for science, perhaps his department should take the lead.

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