GCSE Science Consultation

The Government is currently carrying out a consultation on the draft criteria for GCSE Science. Physics textbook writer David Sang, who I’ve worked with in making a number of physics demonstration films, has some concerns which he’s allowed me to share here:

I have specifically commented on the Physics sections as I feel unqualified to comment on Biology and Chemistry – although these are clearer and briefer.

I have restricted myself to two or three examples of each type of problem, although I could have come up with many more and I have seen many more examples in comments from other interested physicists.

The introductory paragraphs describe the statements of content as ‘criteria’, and suggest that ‘flexibility’ remains for Awarding Organisations to develop their specifications. However, the statements have the form and terminology of statements from a specification, rather than being criteria against which a specification could be judged. Also, the detail provided is so extensive that scope for flexibility seems limited; I suspect that these ‘criteria’ could be copied and pasted into a specification document and would then be approved for teaching.
A revision of GCSE Science should be based on educational grounds.

There may be a desire to increase rigour or to increase flexibility; it may be felt that existing specifications do not meet the needs of all groups of students; there might be a desire to introduce recent developments in Science. However, none of this is evident in the draft criteria. It looks simply as though a different group of people have set about writing down what they think should be in the curriculum without much reference to what has gone before. As a consequence, many arbitrary changes have been made.

There are arbitrary removals eg radioactive half-life from Double Science (p41) and arbitrary additions eg g = Gm/r2 (p41) and AM and FM (p34). This makes work for teachers, who have to rewrite their schemes of work; equipment may become redundant, or new equipment may be needed; and there will be knock-on implications for A-level.
Arbitrary detail is included eg drum skins (p32), human audition (p32) and bicycle pumps (p39). Including such detail tends to prescribe how a topic is approached, thereby restricting flexibility. These will have to appear in exam specifications and will be accorded more weight than they deserve.

Many of the statements are badly expressed and are therefore unclear in their requirements. In particular, many statements begin with ‘Explain that …’, but I suspect that this phrase could be replaced by ‘Recall and apply’. It should be possible to convert an ‘Explain’ statement into a ‘Why?’ or ‘How?’ question, but this is usually impossible.
There are many statements in which the English construction is poor so that the precise intention is obscure eg Newton’s First Law (p31) and many more.

Arbitrary (or poor) selection of items for separate science Physics eg light and materials (p33), uses of EM radiation (p34). In several places, ideas are developed in Double Award but applications of these ideas only appear in separate science Physics. This will make Double Award more theoretical than separate science Physics.

Incorrect terminology eg ‘distortion’ should be ‘deformation’ (p39), ’tissue cells’ should be ‘cells’ (p41) and many more.

Incorrect physics eg a false distinction is drawn between linear and rotational forces (p30); ‘orbits of meteors’ (p42); objects immersed in liquids are not necessarily ‘subject to a net upward force’ (p39). This suggests that too few people have been involved in casting a critical eye over the draft before publication.

Poor examples of practical activities eg ‘design a domestic mains circuit based on a single fuse plug to maximise lighting intensity’ (p46) – this could not be done in practice for safety reasons, and simply designing is not a good example of a practical activity; ‘write a report …’ (p46) – this is not an example, merely a reworking of the statement it is supposed to illustrate.

Unnecessary parts of statements eg ‘define the terms specific latent heat and specific heat capacity and distinguish between them’ (p38) – any definitions of these quantities are bound to be distinct.

If you’re a science teacher, please contribute your own thoughts to the consultation here.


  1. (1) removing half life is daft, it is a concept integral to radioactive materials and IMHO a very important one to understand when arguing for or against the use of nuclear power based on disposal of radioactive waste. It is also important that students have a good understanding of radioactive decay at this level before tackling exponential decay in A-level.
    (2) adding g=Gm/r2 increases the mathematical demand of GCSE physics unreasonably, partly because of the difficulty of the algebra and partly because of G being a number most will not comprehend. I think this formula should remain in A-level. Students cope with other difficult algebra e.g. Resistors in parallel when the numbers are easy.
    (Have not read it for myself yet, I expect I will have further comments later)!

  2. Thanks to David for writing this, and Alom for posting it. I can see some of the same issues, though probably couldn’t have expressed them so well.
    I think the key word is arbritary. There’s no overall structure or aim for the changes, unless you count constant claims/demands for ‘more rigour’. The lack of correct physics suggests those contributors were not specialists, something confirmed if I remember right by the list of those involved.
    It feels like the changes have been made to justify a new specification, rather some kind of underpinning logic. Why should AM/FM be specified, rather than for example Wi-Fi? A few years back it was analogue/digital signals. The level of detail that you can do in schools tends to be minimal, ending up as a few facts to get exam marks rather than anything coherent.
    It’s a biological analogy, but still: these changes are mutations, changes with no purpose or reason. If enough changes are suggested, and we then ensure enough selection pressure so that the stupid changes are weeded out, then we will have an improved, more fit-for-purpose, evolved set of criteria. But so far, I don’t think we can use that kind of description.
    (You’ve saved me posting these comments on my own blog – many thanks!)

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