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Are standards in school science slipping?

Tom Feilden | 06:52 UK time, Thursday, 27 November 2008

Can you answer this?

Calculate the percentage by mass of phosphorus present in calcium phosphate, Ca3(PO4)2.
Relative atomic masses: Ca = 40; P = 31; O = 16.

No? Well, neither can the majority of the country's brightest 16-year-olds.

The question comes from an O-level chemistry paper set in 1965, and it's just one of 40 from 50 years of exams the Royal Society of Chemistry has put together to test the standard of science teaching in schools today.

Over the summer more than 1,000 of the best students from all over the country sat this extra paper online, and according to the RSC the results "demolish the myth of record-breaking educational performance in science".

The results do make painful reading, and although the winner of the "Five-Decade Challenge" managed an impressive 94%, the average score was just 25%.

Breaking the figures down by decade also reveals an alarming slump in performance over time, with pupils managing to answer 35% of the questions from the 2000s correctly, but only 15% from the 1960s.

The chief executive of the RSC, Dr Richard Pike, claims the results provide hard evidence of a catastrophic fall in the standard of science teaching, and explodes the myth that we've been enjoying a "great leap forward" in education.

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"The brightest pupils," he says, "are not being stretched, or trained in mathematical techniques, because they can get an A* grade without doing a single calculation. Conversely, the majority get at least a 'good pass' (grade C) by showing merely a superficial knowledge on a wide range of issues, but no understanding of the fundamentals."

To press home the message the Society has launched an e-petition on the Downing Street website - it's already been signed by 1,500 people - and is sending a copy of the report to every MP.

But even if today's pupils can't answer the questions put to 16-year-olds in the 1960s and 1970s, does that really mean standards have fallen? Professor John Holman from the National Science Learning Centre in York is not so sure. In the first place, he says, the way science is taught is very different. In the past, students were taught a much more limited curriculum in greater depth. Today's syllabus is much broader.

And of course you can't go back in time and get pupils from the 1960s and 1970s to sit today's GCSE exams so the comparison isn't really valid.

By the way, the answer to the question I posed at the top is: 20%. Each molecule of calcium phosphate contains three atoms of calcium, and two sets of one atom of phosphorus and four atoms of oxygen. That gives you a calculation of 40x3 + (31 + 64)x2 which equals 310. The mass of the phosphorus (62) as a percentage of the whole (310) is 20%.



  • Comment number 1.

    I am angry and dismayed about this campaign from the RSC. The 'competition' that they ran was carried out completely unfairly. I know this because I am a chemistry teacher and I (naively) entered some of my students.

    It was carried out at the end of June, when the majority of year 11 students are on study leave. The country's 'brightest' students simply were not able to take part.

    The questions involved topics that are generally covered in the second half of the GCSE course so if, as we did, schools entered some of their brightest year 10 students, they would not have fared well simply because they have not been taught these parts of the syllabus yet!

    I am disappointed that the RSC seems to think it is acceptable for them, an organisation with charitable status and funded by member's money, to so unjustly attack science education in this way.

  • Comment number 2.

    As a former physics graduate, I agree with Dr Pike. Mr Holman may have a point in that todays students are taught a broader syllabus, but multi choice questions WILL NEVER be a substitute for the ability to think, to calculate, to work something out from 'first principles', from the 'basics'. Just like baking a cake I guess, you need the 'recipe'?. That 'skill' or 'ability' was drummed, taught and instilled in us by our 'in-depth' syllabus, Physics Maths and Chemistry. In doing so, our Teachers left us with the ability to answer our LONG exam questions and to WORK out the answer and succeed in getting so many pupils with A level passes in a Comprehensive school in the 1970's! Problem solving these days can be done by computer, but when in the desert, on top of a mountain or in the middle of a working industrial site, the ability to "calculate results" "calculate risks" is more useful (and safer) than the modern day "methods" taught. Pupils are no less bright or intelligent today. As we all (older and wiser generations) know, the introduction of 'politics' into the classroom has been its only downfall. I congratulate Dr Pike on bringing this finally to the fore. Mr Holman needs to return to a traditional classroom - "Can do (much) better".

  • Comment number 3.

    sanity4all's post illustrates the fact that few people actually know what is taught in schools for science qualifications.

    Not all syllabuses include multiple-choice questions, and those that do do not assess solely by this method. Also, multiple-choice science questions include calculations; the answers are all different, but similar, numbers. You cannot answer them correctly without completing the calculation - it makes no difference how you enter the result.

    To address his final point about scientists in the field, yes, it is important to be able to carry out calculations by hand. And these skills are taught. At A-level they are covered in detail. I think it is extremely unlikely that anyone these days would enter the science sector without, at the very least, A-levels (and probably a degree), so it is entirely inappropriate to criticise GCSEs for not preparing scientists carry out calculations "in the middle of a working industrial site".

  • Comment number 4.

    sanity4all writes: "That 'skill' or 'ability' was drummed, taught and instilled in us by our 'in-depth' syllabus, Physics Maths and Chemistry."
    – that's what is remembered, but not what happened. How is it that scientifically-minded commentators rely on 30-year-old personal anecdotal evidence when trying to elucidate the changes in education?

    and then: "Problem solving these days can be done by computer"
    – unfortunately not, but the computer as a tool for humans to solve problems has transformed the landscape. I would always use a computer to solve complex arithmetical problems - in so doing I represent the solution, often in a spreadsheet, with deeper understanding than a rote method memorised , but it is always me who is solving the problem.

  • Comment number 5.

    “... you can't go back in time and get pupils from the 1960s and 1970s to sit today's GCSE exams so the comparison isn't really valid” says Tom Feilden. Why not? I’m game. Incidentally, I got the 20% answer in under a minute, and I haven’t used my O-level chemistry since I took the exams in 1962, so I worked from first principles.

  • Comment number 6.

    The poor standards in science teaching reach all the way to university. I was at Glasgow University. Previously they had had seperate first year chemistry and biology classes for those with and those without a-levels/advanced highers in these subjects. Now everyone is lumped together, and those with a lower level of science attend a science fundamentals class where they are taught how to use a ruler and draw graphs. How are people getting onto university science courses without these skills? And why do schools and universities insist on dragging down the more advanced students by lumping everyone together? I spent my first year repeating everything I had learned at A-level.

  • Comment number 7.

    As a 21 year old currently in University studying English Language, I'm not a stupid person, yet I failed to grasp Science from the start of school till the end, I genuinely beleive that some people have the brain for it, while others like myself are simply bored stupid by it, very little of science taught to me at GCSE had any relevance to me in my life as a 16 year old, the example of the formula you put up made me remember chemistry on a friday and my eyes glazing over, really not caring if the equasion was balanced or not, it didn't make any difference.

    As for Physics, it's just not practical. I'm not alone on this I'm sure, I'm not some thuggish lout who disregarded school, far from it, I tried hard, stayed through to college and came away with 3 a levels.

    I think perhaps science needs to re-evaluate itself as a subject, realise that children simply aren't interested in the vast majority, or at least they weren't in my school, a standard middle performing High School.

    I've noticed the adverts for maths and science on the tv reccently, they seem to smack of desperation to me, "science is cool guys, look you can be james bond" when in fact that's one massive great big lie because when you sit down for double chemistry on a thursday morning it'll be 2 hours of putting 2's over letters.


  • Comment number 8.

    It is an excellent article and I agree with Dr. Pike. I run a team of engineers in an international consultancy company and I am staggered by the lack of first principles capability of recent graduates who come to interview with me.

    At the end of the day I am the consumer of the output of the British education system and I am deeply dissatisfied.

    This has consequences - 90% of our income is from outside the UK yet we are increasingly having to set up offices outside of the UK to gain the graduates with sufficient capability. As a result, all this foriegn capital goes elsewhere.

    The dumbing down of science education is beyond doubt and it directly impacts on our national competitiveness. It must be stopped and reversed.

  • Comment number 9.

    Yet another attempt to demoralise our hard-working children. My daughter took triple science GCSEs last year and my husband, who took physics and chemistry A levels in the 1960s, was amazed at both the amount and the high level of the material which has to be covered in the current GCSEs, especially in chemistry. This 'study' is simply not comparing like with like, and combined with the testimony of the science teacher that it wasn't even students at the end of their courses who were tested, is bad science in itself.

  • Comment number 10.

    Whoops a slight slip in your explanation of the answer.

    You said

    "Each molecule of calcium phosphate contains three atoms of calcium, and two sets of one atom of phosphate and four atoms of oxygen"

    Phosphate is not an atom, it is a molecule or "compound"

    You should have said,

    ...And two sets of one molecule of phosphate...


    Good article though.

  • Comment number 11.

    I strongly support the RSC in their campaign.

    Prof Holman defending current teaching by pointing out that today's syllabus is much broader but less in depth than in the past only serves to underline what the problem is. Which is better, to cram students with a myriad of answers that they need to remember (great if that's the exact question that comes up), or to give them the means to solve problems by themselves?

    It's naive in the extreme to expect to teach children every bit of scientific knowledge they're ever going to need in their lives, so what's the point of trying by means of an excessively broad and "relevant" syllabus?

    Instead, we need to be teaching the importance of general scientific principles such as: observing the world around you; basing your beliefs on what's supported by evidence rather than what seems obvious; not ignoring difficult results that don't fit in with the established theory; coming up with hypotheses then designing experiments to support or disprove them; the importance of an intelligent analytical mind; how to be both sceptical and willing to change one's beliefs in the light of new evidence. In other words, encouraging people to think for themselves and come up with new solutions to problems rather than learning by rote.

    It's not very politically correct these days to say so but we should remind ourselves of the sad but inescapable truth that some people simply are more intelligent (able, gifted, use whatever adjective you choose) than others. The education system today is in danger of confusing cause and effect (intelligent pupils get exam answers right, so if we make everyone work really hard to improve overall exam results then that proves they're more intelligent, right?)

  • Comment number 12.

    I recently did a bit of teaching with both GCSE and A level mathematics classes. The content of the A level was much as I remembered it from 40 years ago. I would say, from memory, that there was a bit less calculus but more on other subjects. The material on vectors was new and in my day not covered until University (Engineering). I certainly don't think that the A level material was significantly easier. I would, however, add that a lot of the GCSE material seems of little value to anyone not intending to take mathematics further.

  • Comment number 13.

    I did the calculation correctly - but then I passed 'O' Level Chemistry in 1978.

    We ask less of children in school these days in terms of academic achievement (as opposed to the hurried consumption, digestion and regurgitation of 'bite size' nuggets of information) and, as a result, we get less.

    Children these days don't get the chance to study the individual sciences - Biology, Chemistry, Physics - only 'General Science'.

    Despite what some teachers and other 'educational professionals' might say, standards are markedly lower than they were, say, 25 years ago. After all, there are 3 times more universities than there were in the 1980's and they have to be filled somehow ! As the Americans say, 'Go figure' !

  • Comment number 14.

    I was a lecturer at an FE College (post 16) from 1992 to 2004 and most of the courses that I taught had a minimum entry requirement of 5 GCSE passes at grades A to C. During those 12 years there was general agreement among my fellow lecturers that the standards fell by about 2 years, ie incoming 16-year old students were producing work that we would originally have expected from 14-year olds. Further, when I joined the staff from industry in 1992, I was already disappointed by the standards that I found because students with 5 GCSEs at A to C were not able to do what students with 5 'O'-levels (Grades 1 to 6) had been able to do 20 years before. This is particularly worrying in science courses because knowledge has to be built up year on year, and I wonder whether it is possible for students to catch up sufficiently thoroughly while doing 'A'-levels and a degree, for it to be realistic to expect recent graduates to go straight into research, as was expected in the 60s and 70s. I would also point out that, if this expectation is still there, it puts a huge strain on post-16 teachers to get students up to those standards in the time available (ie the time that government and grant authorities are prepared to fund).
    None of this has been helped by OFSTED who seem to think that once a student has started a course they must pass it, lecturers are made to feel that any failures are their fault for poor teaching rather than students' laziness or inability. The desire to broaden education has definitely led to a shallowing of knowledge.
    Another skill that was normally inherent in the education process, and which has now largely been lost, is how to exercise judgement. Older readers will be well aware that essays and assignments were set by the lecturer/teacher saying: 'give me 1000 words on such and such'; by the time that I finished that was completely unacceptable, instead two pages of typescript had to be produced for every assignment. Those two pages would contain the work, what was expected in order to achieve different grades, reading list and other sources, and often a broad outline of what needed to be covered. Students didn't have to constantly ask themselves 'is this relevant?', nor did they have to think through what they had to talk about, all this was done for them. If you didn't do it (as a Lecturer) you often got pages of unedited text and illustrations downloaded from the web and blank incomprehesion from the student when you pointed out that you didn't want this pre-produced stuff but the student's own work.
    I am worried how all this will play out over the next few decades since, at a time when our economy and future prosperity will depend on the quality of our scientists, engineers and technicians, we seem intent on increasing the number of courses with 'studies' in their title and closing those pesky (and expensive) science departments. After all how usful is one more film critic by comparison with a good chemist?

  • Comment number 15.

    I can assure all readers that this article is completely ficticious. To state that the " majority of the country's brightest 16 year olds" could not do this calculation is simply untrue. How do I know this? As a first year undergraduate studying medicine, I have only recently passed my chemistry GCSE and A-level, so am aware that the calculations in exams are in fact the bread and butter of the most intelligent 16 year olds.

    Additionally, to say that the most talented youngsters are not challenged enough is also a complete absurdity. Despite the common public perception, GCSE's and A-levels are still difficult and still require hard work on the part of even the smartest pupils. And for those wanting an extra challenge, there are now science extension papers at GCSE and Advanced Extension Awards (AEA) at A-level.

    I am bewildered as to the point of fabricating such a story, and am ashamed that the BBC is condoning what is essentially very poor journalism

  • Comment number 16.

    As a student who sat the exam in July (scoring over 70% and coming in the top 30) i believe that the cliams that the RSC are making are incorrect. this is because the exam could not have been a scientific test of the abilities of students today compared to students 50 years ago. the fact that the average score for for participants in the exam was so low is not necessarily an indication of slipping standards, but more that the focus of the curriculum is changing- students scored higher percentages in the questions taken form more recent papers as these percentages that i recieved along with the results of my own exam show:

    1960s: 15.3%
    1970s: 18.1%
    1980s: 21.6%
    1990s: 34.5%
    2000s: 35.1%

    the students that sat the exam were also probably those who had taken that new "360 science" syllabus introduced last year. this is another large change to the content and way that students are taught science and is therefore inapplicable to the older question style. although i personally do not like the 360 syllabus and would rather have sat the older exam, i do not believe that it is any easier than the pervious syllabus, which i followed for biology and physics, which have also been replaced by 360 science.

    furthermore, the low scores in the challenge exam are not due to gaps in the student's knowledge- the RSC server could not cope with the volume of people logging onto it symultaniously to take the exam and seemed to crash- meaning that i lost 15 minutes of the 2 hours avaliable for the test. if everybody experianced the same problem how could they be expected to score as highly as they would have done had the full time been avaliable?

    i believe that the current debate is an important one, but the imformaton that the RSC give to back up their claims cannot be scientific or representative.

  • Comment number 17.

    GCEMan wrote:
    "Children these days don't get the chance to study the individual sciences - Biology, Chemistry, Physics - only 'General Science'."

    Once again an uninformed reader is up on their high horse spouting complete rubbish.

    At GCSE, all pupils at the state comprehensive I attended 2 years ago had seperate 2 hour lessons for biology, chemistry and physics, as well as another 3 hours each week for maths.

    If you don't know anything about the current science curriculum, don't just make it up!

  • Comment number 18.

    On average, and over the last say 40 years, British people have been getting no more or less intelligent.

    There has been a huge increase in university places; most of which will be filled each year.

    when my parents went to uni, the target was for 10% of all school levers to go into further education. When I went to uni (Glasgow, Chemistry 2005) that target was nearer 50%

    As the government claims this rise in % could be down to educational advances (unlikely), or as I believe it is down to a watering down of lots of standards, such as school exam difficulty and university entry requirements.

    The Scottish system may be slightly different to that of England's, but i see this change as the result of a large and unfortunate change in social and political thinking.
    Our education system needs to learn from its own past.

  • Comment number 19.

    Well spotted chemboy1.

    But now I come to think about it, it's not the use of the term "atom" that's wrong, but the reference to "phosphate"....I should have said one atom of phosphorus.

    Have sorted it out.

  • Comment number 20.

    The attitude of Tobymono illustrates a bigger problem

    "I think perhaps science needs to re-evaluate itself as a subject, realise that children simply aren't interested in the vast majority, or at least they weren't in my school, a standard middle performing High School".

    I am a social science graduate who had no interest in science or maths. I have spent thirty years working in the tech sector and had to build my technical knowledge the hard way. Someone needs to communicate to children that there are more impotant and better paid jobs from science and math. I still pursue my interest in English, History and Politics but I now see them for what they truly are. Flights of fantasy, hobbies, sirens to vanity as they give expression to my personal opinion.

    If the UK is to compete effectively in the global economy it needs to produce technologists, engineers and scientists. I don't see India and China chasing after the UK's world lead in media, entertainment
    and gameshows. They know what is required to house and feed their countries.

    Sorry.. but English graduates are a nice to have. Scientists are a must have.

  • Comment number 21.

    Some comments posted miss the important points Dr Pike, Preacher, KenCharman and Barry_James make.

    It is the ability (intuitive, natural talent or taught skill) to think on your feet, analyse and understand the problems at hand that are missing when applying the knowledge taught in the Sciences, in this case Chemistry.

    That can only be achieved through a proper grounding in the subject, be it Science or Engineering.

    I've often been asked by colleagues (in sheer exasperation) how did I know the answer or what to do, in a given professional situation. I answer truthfully, I didn't, until I understood the question or the problem.

    Current teaching methods today do not achieve that and haven't for many years from my own and my siblings experience.

    For example, there was a time when you could learn one of the sciences without Maths or any of the others. How? More importantly, WHY?

    In answer to kat_street's comments, my sibling has taught Chemistry to A and O level students for the last 25 years but left for a few years because of the decline and political interference in "how to teach students" by an infamous London LEA.
    Instead they took time out to teach African Chemistry teachers and write Chemistry TextBooks for an advanced African national institution before returning to teaching full time in the UK.

    Now my sibling constantly decries the 'dumbing' down and constant interference in how, what and when they can teach and assess their charges and continuous changes to syllabus, methods and policies.

    Not because of the adverse affect it has on themselves, but to bluntly quote my sibling.

    "It is so sad for the children. They will just become unable to think for themselves and people will think they are thick, when they are not. It's not their fault.".

    Whilst I accept not all subjects are tested by multiple-choice, the elementary training of pupils to think for themselves is all too often lacking, as underlined by Barry_James in Engineering.

    I rest my case.

    To the student who seemed demoralised by the article, I'd say, don't despair.

    Science can appear boring or difficult at first and I failed my first year science, due mostly to a teacher more interested in beer and his female colleagues than his primary job function of teaching.

    Once the 'penny drops' (how many understand that fundamental 'truth'?) Science is so incredibly interesting, you won't want to stop.

    Perhaps I was lucky too. I had some "old fashioned" non-graduate teachers who taught me my Maths, Chemistry and Physics in such a way as I could mentally picture the subject and so give the answers, after working it out mentally.

    That teaching has allowed me to read and understand (with near certainty) any publication, medical, biological, chemical, electronic, engineering, theoretical physics, but I do admit to struggling with some of Robert Peston's 'financial instruments'!

  • Comment number 22.

    Tom Feilden wrote: "Calculate the percentage by mass of phosphorus present in calcium phosphate, Ca3(PO4)2.
    Relative atomic masses: Ca = 40; P = 31; O = 16.

    No? Well, neither can the majority of the country's brightest 16-year-olds."

    From the "Five-Decade Challenge" exam report linked above (page 8):

    "... 52% successfully calculated the percentage mass of phosphorus in calcium phosphate..."

    So, unless I'm missing something, apparently the majority of the country's brightest 16-year-olds can, actually.

  • Comment number 23.

    Jonathon Stevenson writes about the modern day "rigours" of GCSE and A/AS Level.

    The reason that there is a need for "extension" papers and why there is a profusion of "starred" and "starred" grades at A Level is because examiners and universities are no longer able to distinguish between average and good candiadates.

    I would have thought that someone as intelligent as he claims to be would be able to see that.

  • Comment number 24.

    Chemistry was one of my favourite subjects at O and A level. It certainly had the best and most exciting experiments. For 'O' level I remember the whole class doing a preparation of 100% Nitric Acid.

    My daughter, currently studying chemistry for GCSE hates it. Its boring, there are virtually no practicals, any experiment even remotely hazardous will only be done by the teacher, if at all. BORING. All the work they do is just from a text book.

    It is not just chemistry that is suffering. All science has been systematically dumbed down. The very fact that most pupils now only get the chance to study "double" GCSE science rather than the three separate subjects is proof of that.

    My old chemistry teacher had a couple of saying:

    1. Regarding experiements:
    If it moves its Biology, if it smells its chemistry and if it doesn't work its physics!

    2. Regarding maths in science:
    Biology is a science for scientists who can't do maths.
    Sociology is a science for scientists who can't do science.

    It seems to me the the Government is determined to take the sociology approach for all science taught in schools.

  • Comment number 25.

    I worked as a "science" teacher for 13 years but left two years ago to work in industry again - a sad comment on the shortage of skilled scientists available for industry now. Many children and teachers take declining standards as a personal insult. They are not. Let us not forget that O level was an elitist exam for a minority of students but at least those with aptitude got to handle the acid and do some inspirational stuff.

    Now everybody does dual award general science g.c.s.e. (okay , not quite everyone) which means everyone gets the "opportunity" to be dragged through some godawful repetitive "investigation" into drying paper towels because it fits the exam board criteria.

    Perhaps the idea that getting a science qualification in a one-size-fits-all curriculum is a democratic right for a pupil distracts us from appreciating that we should target pupils with interest and ability with challenging science rather than grinding them all through the mediocre mill of g.c.s.e.

    Maybe more would then go on to attain something worthwhile from science if this more interesting route were available. Those who don't like science could continue with g.c.s.e. to get a D/C grade for what it's worth. It would help to ditch OFSTED and the ridiculous insistence that dragging the average grade up by a miniscule amount each year represents true progress. It doesnot, it represents a year on year jump to exam boards perceived to be easier and "improved" coursework (i.e. teachers spoon feeding those on marginal grades).

  • Comment number 26.

    I did Maths, Physics and Chemistry O & A levels in the 60s and graduated through part time study in the 70s. I then took Geology GSSE and A level in the 90s and "re-sat" my subjects recently. So maybe I can comment from experience.
    Allowing for my maturity and further education I would say that the recent exams took a lot lower level of understanding and knowledge. I do not think pupils are less intelligent or hard working but they are victims of the politicisation of education where league tables and sats are everything. Politicians (and teachers) have cynically manipulated children for their own ends.
    Let's have an honest debate to improve standards instead of hysterical denials by vested interests.

  • Comment number 27.

    I am not sure why pupils from the past couldn't try some of today's papers. Of course, there are new subjects such as Statistics that I did not study in the early '50. But my exams did include algebra, trigonometry and calculus. I can still produce the Quadratic Formula from first principles.

    Oh, and I failed Chemistry but passed Physics. I answered your question because I have studied Chemistry since school days.

  • Comment number 28.

    The BBC has already reported how 15 year old pupils are average by international standards see the PISA rankings here:

    Durham University has also carried out research on this topic and there is a review of this and other studies shown here :

  • Comment number 29.

    It is simply not fair on the students that they are not stretched.

    A young relative of mine who studied the sciences came out with top grades although she had done no practical chemistry because of health and saftety and poor facilities at school and gained top grades in physics but had no knowledge of calculus.

    I have frequently been called on for asssistance to help with my lapsed science knowledge and some of the work covered in her degree was A level standard 30 years ago.

    The children can only sit the exams they are set and are clearly very motivated but they are taught to pass exams not taugt to learn the subject matter and think abstractly.

    The same applies to many aspects of education, I was appalled when I heard they watched videos of Shakespeare plays and read the study notes but never actually read the play and could achieve top marks by doing this.

  • Comment number 30.

    I was pleased to recall my 1956 knowledge of molecular weights and with the help of Windows Calc did the sums for Tom's test. But in fifty two years the knowledge of how to do this as been completely useless. I learnt the real basis of chemistry by asking my chemistry master awkward questions in the lunch hour and the biology master was kind enough to help me with understanding of genetics in the same way. Later I managed 180 points of a Open University Science Degree of which the best bit was the 'Science Matters" course about Nuclear Power, Climate Change and Genetic Engineering which everyone who wants to have some useful knowledge about the basis of current issues should take. I had concluded long since that '0' level science was not knowledge or skills, but a joke, and a glance recently at an 'A' level physics crib book was that A level was a muddle with no intellectual coherence.

  • Comment number 31.

    I'm a maths teacher in a comprehensive, with 23 years experience.
    Maths at A-level is now absurdly easy in comparison with 30 years ago. Today's pupils get top grades when they are clueless about many basic algebraic principles ( If you got an A last year , well ,the chances are that it would have been a C in 1980. Do not believe what the headmaster said in the local paper the day after. Ask your head of maths in private after he's been guaranteed his pension).

    Our head of science is thoroughly disullusioned about the subject, and says that he can no longer call himself a science teacher.
    I was covering a top set English lesson in year 11 a couple of years ago, and observed the pupils cutting and pasting for their coursework. What intellects such a course must breed ! .

    Our MFL teacher is shocked at how little French is needed to get a pass at GCSE , and pupils who study the subject at A level can barely speak a word.

    We now wonder why the economy is in such a mess, and junk programmes proliferate on television. ( We need something for the thousands of media and sociology graduated to do, probably )

  • Comment number 32.

    To say that pupils can "only take general science" is complete nonsense.

    Look at:
    This is the BBC's data on exam entries and results for Chemistry GCSE in 2008. There were 76656 entries.

    Not all of those students are in private schools either, I myself teach in a state sector school where almost all pupils take separate sciences.

    These numbers are rising, too. The Government is strongly encouraging schools to offer separate science GCSEs.

    The RSC is going down the wrong path. Why aren't they campaigning to get laboratories refurbished in schools, new equipment provided and new science buildings built? THAT would support teachers and pupils. Instead they choose to take an action which demoralises pupils and makes them feel their qualification is useless and pointless. If you were a 16 year-old, how would you feel right now?

  • Comment number 33.

    The criticism from the Royal Society of Chemistry study of GCSE Chemistry applies equally to GCSE Mathematics.

    It is the same absence of any tasks demanding the substantial chains of reasoning involved in solving problems.

    Fragmentation, breaking a problem down into a sequence of short items, can give the impression of rising standards, but without equipping pupils with usable skills. It's like painting by numbers. (In Mathematics, the typical 'reasoning length' of subtasks is about 90 seconds)

    It is Government policy, expressed in the new Programmes of Study for Mathematics, to move away from this but there are formidable obstacles to making it happen. Because the stakes are so high, everyone fears change.

  • Comment number 34.

    As someone who in 1960 scored a dismal 25% in the 'O' level chemistry paper set by the Oxford and Cambridge joint board, who, a friend assures me, set the easiest papers, I fully expected not to be able to answer this question, especially since I have never since made any serious attempt to brush up my chemistry. In the event it took me about 30 seconds to work out the right answer in my head.

    It seems certainly that an inexorable decline in educational standards generally began at the end of the sixties, initiated by my generation and enthusiastically perpetuated by governments and educators ever since. As to technical and scientific matters, the gulf between the generations is now unbridgeable. The other day I had to explain to a 30 year-old with a "masters" what nickel was and that steel was made from iron. The ame person called herself a musician and had never heard Schumann, or even of him.

  • Comment number 35.

    Actually the school students of the 60s and 70s are for the most part still alive, so you could ask them to answer questions from today's GCSE papers.

  • Comment number 36.

    There is no doubt that Chemistry GCSE standards have dropped significantly over time.

    My 18 yr old did her GCSE Chemistry 2 yrs ago at one school, her brother doing the IGCSE Chemistry last year at another. What a difference - no ridiculous course work for the IGCSE and some far more analytical questions, far closer to the old O level. It is a shame that state schools are not allowed to have their top sets do the IGCSE, which is a far more challenging exam for capable students. It works for African schools, but our government wants to drive everyone in this country down to the lowest common denominator level.

    At the same time, they want high percentages of state school entrants to top universities. The chance of achieving this objective across most of the core science subjects under current policies is low.

  • Comment number 37.

    Congratulations to the RSC for trying to add solid data to support the yearly complaints that Exams at 16 are getting easier and easier hence the rise in pass rates.

    Congratulations to the student (#16) who actually did the paper for their considered and informative comment. However why oh why not capitalise it correctly and check the spelling - detracts from the positive and feeds the impression that education is becoming educashun.

    I did do the paper for fun but as I have higher education in the subject it is impossible to be truly objective as to whether newer questions are easier.
    This is I believe one of the issues when the clarion call is made each year that standards are slipping - you cannot unlearn or selectively ignore post 'O' level knowledge when answering the question now.
    What was difficult and challenging when you were learning it for the first time becomes easy as further learning reinforces the original knowledge. (#35 reason what you suggest couldn't, in my view, be regarded as conclusive). It is therefore not surprising that over decades people believe prior years new students have it easier as objectivity is harder to maintain the further back in time you go. This is basic human nature or the 'grass is greener' effect.

    One possible method to test this would be to instead: set the paper and just ask the question what year was this question set. I did this myself (I profess to being a believer that things are easier now than they were) but was surprised to find that it was not clear cut. The question posed in the article I rated as so easy it must be 2000 vintage, whilst it is noted to be 1965.
    Viewing the questions as can you solve these based on the information printed without any prior knowledge gave a curve very similar to the results i.e. questions with high marks awarded (irrespective of decade) in my view required no actual knowledge but could be solved completely based on logic. i.e. the answer is in the question.
    If an exam is designed to test knowledge and understanding then to my mind these questions are basically pointless (about a useful as the old urban myth of getting 1% for correctly spelling your name).

    I did find that the older questions required more direct knowledge to even attempt an answer. You knew it or you didn't. This not surprisingly meant very low marks were scored on the report.

    So I find I agree with the conclusion of the report but for a slightly different reasoning.
    The lack of understanding and basic ability to process information and think for themselves I see in new employees now scares me to death for the future. They seem to think that anything can be looked up on the internet so searching on google is the core skill - they are sadly deluded, it is just useful.
    Whilst off topic but vaguely related - I recently on a visit to a sibling was treated to the 11 year old nephews latest exploits. Very proud of the gold star (thought they were passe) for his project on slavery, nicely typed and after a brief scan I was quite impressed, seemed very good detail. Asking questions as I am wont to do was less impressive - he didn;t actually appear to understand or know anything he had written. My sibling was a little embarrassed, but he spent hours on the computer doing this, he said. A short investigation revealed the answer to the conundrum - Wikipedia - not quite copy paste but not far off (apparently were are now aware - teacher is wise to this so we have to change it a bit!).

  • Comment number 38.

    I find nothing surprising in these results. I've been interviewing graduate-level job applicants with science and engineering qualifications for almost 30 years. Back in 1980, we used to ask all the interviewees a few straightforward technical questions, to be fair to older applicants whose formal education may have been disrupted by WWII and its aftermath. For recent graduates, the questions were a formality, and we used to explain why we asking them such elementary stuff - otherwise some of them thought there must be some trickery about being asked something that was as "obvious" to them as "what is 5+7".

    Nowdays, we still ask the exact same questions to all applicants. If we are lucky, about 10% of the recent graduates will make a reasonable attempt at an answer, with a bit of help from the interviewers. Most of them don't even know where to start, and have no idea how to "think on their feet" starting from first principles.

    Still, there are plenty of young people from China, India, Eastern Europe, etc who DO understand the value of education, and have systems that deliver it. If most engineering graduates from reputable British universities are barely qualified to work in McDonalds, that is their loss, not my employer's. Whch part of "globalization" don't they understand?

  • Comment number 39.

    I would say instead of the typo of phosphate for phosphorous the more interesting error is the description of CaPO4 as a molecule. CaPO4 isn't a molecular chemical, instead being a crystal, and as such referring to a molecule of it is wrong. Use 'formula unit' instead.

  • Comment number 40.

    I think that this article reflects the current ability of GSCE students, on average, across the UK. What is incorrectly states, however, is that the standard of Science teaching itself is lower than forty or fifty years ago.

    Teachers are bound by a curriculum that is largley outside their control. The fact that so many students now achieve highly in national tests shows that this syllabus is in fact being taught effectivley. Perhaps the discussion should focus on the appropriateness of the curriculum, rather than the ability of teachers.

    It seems that so many in industry are calling for students with more specialised knowledge, rather than the catch-all subjects that are being taught presently. But not all students would be capable, or even interested, in learning a few subjects to great detail. Maybe it would be benefical to introduce some sort of system where by students are selected for their aptitude in certain subjects and allowed to study with others of similar ability or interest, and those who's strengths lie elsewhere allowed to persue a less academic course without the stigma currently attached to such non-academic prorams of study.

    Hang on, we had this once, didn't we?

  • Comment number 41.

    "I think perhaps science needs to re-evaluate itself as a subject, realise that children simply aren't interested in the vast majority, or at least they weren't in my school, a standard middle performing High School".

    This illustrates that the problem is not science, or what science professionals think is a necessary component of their subject as regards science education at GCSE level, but the public perception of science and scientific knowledge.

    It is still pretty much the case that you can know very little science, but still be considered an educated person. That even a BBC science correspondent considers in necessary to see it as a great achievement that he could perform that utterly basic computation.

    As regards exam questions, the problem is not just the content of the syllabus, but the fact that questions now tend to lead you through the question, rather than presenting you with the problem, and asking you to solve it -- holds true for maths and physics papers, as well as chemistry. Hence students (was going to call them pupils, which shows my age!) just don't get taught the sort of analytic, problem-solving skills that are certainly an important, transferable skill, even if they never again use the minuitiae of molar masses.

    And only teaching kids what they are interested in? That would produce a rather sparse syllabus indeed. The job of teachers (if they had the time!) would be not just to shovel the stuff in, but to try to get across to them how appreciation of science and scientific issues is totally necessary in our modern world, that it is something that people ignore at their peril.

  • Comment number 42.

    Can I add to the criticism of this survey? I also am a science teacher and entered some of my students for this 'research'. None were able to complete the task because of IT failure at the RSC's end - but a number came in the top quarter of respondents. So, I can only conclude that the survey data is flawed. To scientist like the RSC this should have been the end - to press on with a dubious press release brings their credibility into serious question.

    I also don't know how the title of this blog is still standing - 52% of those entering the competition, despite IT problems, DID get the question cited correct - I thought the BBC was trying to be accurate!

    On other points raised, recent changes to GCSEs are trying to address the lack of rigour at GCSE - especially expanded access to three Sciences at GCSE - this is a great development and deserves the support of the RSC, not more brickbats.

    Oh, and to those in industry who whinge about the quality of new applicants since the 1970s or 80s, since that date most of the best scientists have gone to work in finance or management or IT consultancy due to better salaries. That may change now, but that's why you're seeing worse people!

  • Comment number 43.

    I love stuff like this. Firstly, read the report. The only person it seems has done this is one of the entrants who has it absolutely right (sorry if there are others but I'm one of the generation with no attention span and by comment 10 I was completely bored with hyperbole and people airing a prejudice that they think this report supports).

    This result can not be said to reflect a drop in standards. To do that you must assume that the standard in 1965, 88 or whenever, was higher. That has not been proven.

    What this study shows is that students tend to make more errors on mathematical questions. It does not show that Mathematics standards have dropped, necessarily, but it does suggest that students today are not confident with the Mathematics or perhaps apply formulas and don't think about it too carefully - there are many other possibilities.

    If you read this report closely the only conclusion really supported is that of the performance in Maths questions. Moreover, the analysis of the results as "trends" is also questionable for one population set.

    Then, we also miss the performance of a student group from each year of the old questions. Would it not be of interest to see how the older ones did also on the same questions? And no doubt, many more would have to be Grammar School students for 1965.

    The RSC mean well, but as a scientific study this is not good and they should all know better. An A for effort and purpose, C for execution (maybe that should be D for some of the Grumblies out there clinging to their O-levels).

  • Comment number 44.

    I can only assume that due to our environment today, (meaning television, and radio) people don't have as much free time on their hands to actually contemplate, read, study, and think about things. In other words, we really aren't as smart as people in the pre-television era. We've lost some of our ability to think.

    I was just wondering. How hard were the questions from tests back in 1945? Were the questions just as hard or harder than they were in 1965? Going back that far might truly show if there is a real trend towards stupidity.

  • Comment number 45.

    I am 24, only took Science to GCSE standard but managed to do the question at the top of the page in my head in about a minute. Even though my Science certificate is a double award for all three the lessons and the exams were taken seperately from each other.

    The posts on this blog do raise a serious point though. I know some people say the test was unfair but the posts from those industry complaining about the standard of recent graduates seems to indicate there is a problem with science education all the way up to university.

    Here's my problem. I have started a new job and there are two ways in which I can progress in the new company. I can either go down the management route and take the internal training available for that. However I was considering going down the technical route. The latter would mean doing studying in my own time over the next few years in order to get a Chemistry degree. Either through part time study or through the Open University. I've been doing the foundation course in my own own time at the moment and have really enjoyed it and found it to be not too tasking so feel I have the ability and motivation to move onto a full degree. However I am concerned from the posts above that if I were to take a full degree at a British university it would mean that I spend thousands of pounds and years of my life getting a dud degree that would not be useful to industry or my own career. I can not study abroad for a whole host of reasons.

    So should I study Chemistry in the UK? Or should I skip a return to science and do management training instead?

  • Comment number 46.

    I agree with Kat_street, I too am a science teacher and I am disappointed at the RSC. The comment that you can achieve an A* without doing a single calculation is rubbish.
    There may be some issues with science teaching in that we lack specialists because of a shortage of science graduates, but this is because science of yester year was so boring and abstract that people didn't want to pursue it. As science teachers now we are trying to address this and make science more accessible to everyone.
    I am sick of these reports which rubbish the achievements of our students, they work really hard to get great marks only to be rubbished in the press. How dare you take away from the success of others? I find it disgusting and I feel the RSC and BBC should be ashamed of themselves.

  • Comment number 47.

    "... but this is because science of yester year was so boring and abstract that people didn't want to pursue it. As science teachers now we are trying to address this and make science more accessible to everyone."

    Which seems to mean wittering on endlessly about the applications of science, whilst totally missing the basics of the science in question.

    Science (and maths) is abstract in many ways, which is why many people find it hard. But I refute the point that the science of yesteryear (which is pretty much the same science as today) was boring and abstract -- if it was, it still is, and the only way to make it 'interesting' and 'accessible' is to take the actual science out, and replace it with fairly pointless wittering on about the applications of science -- which is not science, and someone with a qualification which includes a large proportion of the above has a fairly worthless qualification as far as science is concerned.

    Yes, use some imaginative applications of science stuff if you will to motivate, but why bother examining kids on this, it isn't the same as being able to do the actual science. Which is perhaps why so many of the pupils couldn't do the boring science question that required problem-solving and calculation.

  • Comment number 48.

    "I am sick of these reports which rubbish the achievements of our students, they work really hard to get great marks only to be rubbished in the press. How dare you take away from the success of others?"

    They may work hard, no one says they don't, but they are being conned if they refuse to acknowledge that many doubt the validity or usefulness of the qualifications they hold. This is not a slur on the students, they did the best they could, but with our current curriculum, and the current way that science as a school subject has been dumbed down.

    The point, for me, of a science qualification, is not how hard the student worked, but the relevant scientific knowledge and skills they either do or do not possess.

    We should not let our feelings for the efforts of the students deflect us from this criticism.

  • Comment number 49.

    I hope that Tom doesn't think this question was hard. It is only tearfully easy math and the 'hardest' part is understanding that something outside a set of parentheses should be applied to everything inside it (that, and remembering that subscripts indicate quantity). It would be slightly less trivial if one had to look up or remember the atomic masses of the elements...

    Anyone who sat in on the first week of a chemistry class in high school should be able to do it.

    If all the questions were like this, it seems an easy test.

  • Comment number 50.

    yay! I got it right and im 16..
    well, lets just say, gcse (double award anyways) science isnt trully challenging... and well there's a lot more to learn out there than that.. tho i guess the good thing is it is really broad, so being that gcse science is compulsory, it gives people a taster..

  • Comment number 51.

    I am concerned about attitudes to insulting comments in the light of the recent remarks by Carol Thatcher.

    I could be wrong but isn't the use of the phrase "Slum Dog" as used in the film title Slum Dog millionaire is highly insulting to the people who live in the Indian Slums or am I missing something?


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