Archive for March 2, 2010

Education. Education. Education.

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on March 2, 2010 by telescoper

I can’t believe it. It’s an outrage. My world has fallen apart. Everything I used to believe in now stands in ruins.The unthinkable has happened. The Conservative Party has had a good idea.

Actually several. 

This is from the Guardian’s coverage of the story:

A Conservative government would immediately overhaul the national curriculum in English, maths and science – and hand control of A-level exam content to universities and academic experts to end “political control” , the shadow education secretary, Michael Gove, said today.

Every child would get the chance to study all three science subjects – physics, chemistry and biology – separately at GCSE and there would be a return to disciplines such as geometry and algebra in tests for 11-year-olds.

The Tories would abolish the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA), the quango in charge of curriculum design, and benchmark the exams sat by children in England against those taken by young people across the world.

Outlining his plan in a speech to the annual conference of the Advisory Committee for Mathematics Education (Acme), Gove suggested that calculus be restored to A-level physics, and statistical concepts such as randomness and prediction – which have been key to understanding the financial crisis – be part of the GCSE curriculum for the brightest students.

“We will make a radical change to the way in which A-levels are designed,” Gove said. “We must ensure that A-levels are protected from devaluation at the hands of politicians. The institutions with the greatest interest in maintaining standards at A-level are those which receive A-level students – our universities.

“The individuals with the keenest interest in ensuring A-levels require the depth of knowledge necessary to flourish at university are our teaching academics. So we will take control of the A-level syllabus and question-setting process out of the hands of bureaucrats and instead empower universities, exam boards, learned societies and bodies like Acme.”

The national curriculum would be reformed to specify core knowledge “based on global evidence for what children can and should learn at different ages”, with changes to be introduced from September 2011.

Science would be divided into the disciplines of physics, chemistry and biology, rather than the hybrid headings currently used, which include “chemical and material behaviour” and “the environment, earth and universe”.

“When we reconstruct the national curriculum, we will ensure that it is built around a basic entitlement to study each of these scientific disciplines in a proper, rigorous fashion,” Gove said.

“We will ensure that each of the three basic sciences takes its place within the curriculum, in significantly greater depth and greater detail than now. Studying what has now become known as triple science should not be an elite activity but a basic curriculum entitlement.”

There isn’t much  in this that I would disagree with. The only thing that makes me nervous is that  abolishing the QCDA and handing over curriculum control to Universities may simply be a cost-cutting measure. I can see a strong possibility that we might have to take on this duty for free at a time when we’re threatened with big cuts in our research and teaching funds.

I’d also say that I think we’d be better off scrapping A-levels entirely – they’re damaged beyond repair, in my view. “Benchmarking” could be achieved quite easily by making British students take the International Baccalaureate.

These things aside, I would strongly endorse the statement that a proper science education should be an entitlement not a privilege. People might sneer at the reintroduction of geometry into the syllabus but I think it’s an excellent idea. Too much education these days consists of the rote-learning of snack thoughts in bit-sized factoid pieces. Too little involves nurturing brains to exploit their full potential to do things other than act as memory devices.  Education is there to help people learn to apply rigorous logical thinking as well as exercising its creative problem-solving powers. Doing classical Euclidean geometry is a wonderful way to develop the idea of a mathematical proof and, in my view, cutting it out of the school syllabus was a very retrograde step and one that should be reversed as soon as possible.

We’ve been going backwards in science education for far too long. Educationalists have convinced our schools that today’s students are not sufficiently intelligent to do science or mathematics and must instead be content to reproduce it. That’s an insult to the intelligence of the younger generation and it means Universities have to do a great deal of remedial teaching before they can get on and do things properly.

I’m no Conservative, but there’s no doubt in my mind that New Labour lost the plot a long time ago so I think the Tory plans are to be applauded.

Not that I’m going to vote for them.