By JR on Monday, June 13, 2011
Head of government review says school syllabus needs to 'get back to the science in science'
Climate change should not be included in the national curriculum, the government adviser in charge of overhauling the school syllabus in England has said.
Tim Oates, whose wide-ranging review of the curriculum for five- to 16-year-olds will be published later this year, said it should be up to schools to decide whether – and how – to teach climate change, and other topics about the effect scientific processes have on our lives.
In an interview with the Guardian, Oates called for the national curriculum "to get back to the science in science". "We have believed that we need to keep the national curriculum up to date with topical issues, but oxidation and gravity don't date," he said. "We are not taking it back 100 years; we are taking it back to the core stuff. The curriculum has become narrowly instrumentalist."
His stance marks a turning point in the development of the national curriculum. Oates' intention is to substantially reduce the national curriculum. Under the previous government, the curriculum expanded to nearly 500 pages. His remarks also show he wants to reverse a shift in emphasis, made under the Labour government, under which teachers were encouraged to place great importance on scientific "issues" and not just scientific knowledge.
Climate change has featured in the national curriculum since 1995. In 2007, the topics "cultural understanding of science" and "applications and implications of science" were added to the curriculum for 11- to 14-year-olds.
But Bob Ward, policy and communications director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, warned that Oates' ideas might not be in pupils' best interests and could make science less interesting for children. "An emphasis on climate change in the curriculum connects the core scientific concepts to topical issues," he said. "Certain politicians feel that they don't like the concept of climate change. I hope this isn't a sign of a political agenda being exercised."
He said leaving climate change out of the national curriculum might encourage a teacher who was a climate change sceptic to abandon teaching the subject to their pupils. "This would not be in the best interests of pupils. It would be like a creationist teacher not teaching about evolution. Climate change is about science. If you remove the context of scientific concepts, you make it less interesting to children."
Annette Smith, chief executive of the Association for Science Education, said she agreed with Oates that the curriculum was too crowded. "However, what I wouldn't want to lose from the national curriculum is the idea that science is developing all the time and that it impinges on our lives," she said.
But Oates, who is director of research at Cambridge Assessment, one of the biggest exam boards in Europe, said the topics that engaged children in science "changed dramatically" from year to year. "The national curriculum shouldn't ever try to keep up with those, otherwise it would keep changing." Teachers knew best which current affairs topics related to science would interest their pupils, he said. "A lot should not be in the national curriculum at all. A lot of damage was done to the curriculum last time it was reviewed," he said.
"If you live in a town where there is a lot of manufacturing, then teachers can use that as a context to discuss the social effects of science; other groups of pupils might be more interested in how the pharmaceutical industry produces drugs. It's really important that children think through the social application of science, but the precise topics... do not have to be specified by the state."
Oates also called for algebra to be taught to pupils at an earlier age. "Algebra has crept later and later over the last few decades. We should start 'pre-algebra' with young children – aged eight, for example," he said. He said that by the age of 11, children could be solving simple algebraic equations.
He said this would bring England into line with some nations in Asia. "Algebra is so important because it is the foundation of so much of maths. In other nations, children operate with equations and algebraic expressions." He said some maths was taught only to older children, because teachers in primary school did not have the confidence to teach it themselves.
The curriculum review, which started in January, will look at 12 subjects, including maths, English, science, and art and design. It will consider which subjects should be compulsory and at what age.
At the launch of the review, Michael Gove, the education secretary, said the national curriculum was "too long ... patronising towards teachers and stifled innovation".
"Its pages are littered with irrelevant material – mainly high-sounding aims, such as the requirement to 'challenge injustice', which are wonderful in politicians' speeches, but contribute nothing to helping students deepen their stock of knowledge."