Why the new GCSE specs are making me reconsider my future as a science teacher


I’ve loved teaching science in a special school.  Having left mainstream teaching many years ago (anyone remember Salter’s science?) I started teaching our students entry level and then progressed to GCSE/BTEC qualifications.

Being in a small school has given me the flexibility to teach how I want to using the methods and resources I want to.  I’ve seen successive governments come and go and carried on doing my own thing.

The more I find out about the new science GCSE exam, the less I feel I want to be a science teacher any more.  I decided several years ago that I don’t want to return to teaching in a mainstream school and made a choice to stay in a special school as a subject specialist (not a common post), passing up promotion and opportunities elsewhere to follow my heart.  I’ve always been proud of the achievements of my students and last year saw a return to GCSE and a bumper set of results.

Today a combination of events has made me wonder if I want to follow this path until retirement.  The first event was marking my GCSE mock papers which are always depressingly low.  This alone wasn’t enough to drive me to despair as they were low last year, we haven’t finished the course yet nor have we started to revise or ramp up the exam prep.  I’m sure teachers all over the country are feeling the same right now!

Tonight I sat through some e-training on the new AQA combined science GCSE and the maths and practical components of this course.  Unfortunately in putting together the new GCSEs there seems to have been virtually no consideration given to special needs students who seem to be overlooked in every aspect of the new qualification.

In moving to a new grading structure, many of the grades my students will achieve have been lumped together at the lower end meaning the most common target for my students will be a grade 1.  The jumps between grades at the lower end are quite large making it hard for them to move up the grading ladder.

Hearing about the new compulsory practicals is frustrating.  Again absolutely no consideration has been given to those teaching science in non-standard settings.  We are given a comprehensive list of practical experiments that we need to start teaching, in six months time, requiring thousands of pounds worth of equipment that we don’t have.  I asked the host of my e-training session what they suggest we do and their rather vague and unhelpful suggestion was to borrow it.  I’m a science teacher and deputy head with no technician.  I’ll hand my notice in and leave the profession before I’m reduced to constantly ferrying equipment between various local mainstream schools and my own.  That is of course assuming that there are departments local to me that actually have the equipment themselves and are willing to lend it to a stranger from another school.  It was suggested during the training that schools use demonstrations if they have insufficient equipment but that doesn’t address the issue facing schools that have none.  Awarding organisations will require schools to provide a practical science statement confirming that they have taken reasonable steps to provide these activities and failure to complete the statement will be considered malpractice.  If computer simulations are not acceptable where am I to suddenly find this equipment?

Of course for a government intent on returning us to good old fashioned Victorian style class teaching, demonstrations may seem a good idea but they don’t make for engaging science lessons if used in excess.

I haven’t even started to think about the maths context of the course and the demands that this will place on my students.  My current year 9 are putting the finishing touches on their BTEC portfolios before they start GCSE next year.  I’m wondering how they will cope with standard notation and all the graph work when many of them don’t even know their number bonds to ten.  AQA say the maths content in the foundation stage will be “not lower than that expected at key stage 3” which is helpful knowing that many of my students are around age related expectations of a year 2 or 3 student for maths.

I’m sure you can understand my frustration and I’m sure I’m not alone in some if not all of my concerns.  Teachers in special schools and other alternative settings must be asking themselves what have they done to face this huge barrier and what was wrong with what they were doing before.

I’d be interested to hear from others in similar settings and what plans are in place for the new (and at the time of writing unaccredited) GCSE specifications from September.

I’ll leave you with this little gem from one of my mock papers.




Published by Rob Butler

Ex-science teacher, ex-school leader and full-time geek.

10 replies on “Why the new GCSE specs are making me reconsider my future as a science teacher”

  1. Hi
    I also am a science specialist at a special school and I am part of a small moderation group of SEN science teachers. We are thinking about continuing with entry level and then focusing on just the biology GCSE for our students. I would be really interested to hear your opinion on this

  2. I too work in a special school and am very frustrated. The disappearance of the single award science means that I won’t be able to offer GCSE science any more, it is currently hard enough to cover the syllabus for the single award, let alone to double the content.
    We will be going back to the Entry Level, and hopefully the lower demand of this course wil mean that we can spend more time investigating, which is the best part of science anyway. Not sure the senior managers at the school will be too delighted, but I can’t see another way forward.

    1. I’m going to a CPD session this weekend with the exam boards. I intend asking them the questions that the e-trainer skirted around today. IGCSE is looking more attractive but will have to take up with governors. Can’t bear another round of BTEC….

  3. Hi Rob
    I have every sympathy. I am teaching science to SEN classes within a mainstream school.

    I was very impressed with your student’s response. This student writes legibly, with letters sitting neatly on the line, the spelling is understandable and the body part identified belongs to the correct organ system. I think you must be an excellent teacher. Just a bit of tweaking needed in revision!

    It’s better than the student who wrote, “The foetus is stored in the rectum.”

    Unfortunately exams take no account of the progress your student may well have made to get to that stage. OK they got it wrong but so nearly there.

    I suspect we will all be getting more U grades instead of grade G because whatever they say I suspect the new grade 1 will really be the old grade F.
    What everyone seems to forget is that in ‘the good old days’ these kids would have left school long before any exams were taken.
    Chin up you’re doing a great job,

    1. I didn’t get a rectum but I got a few stomachs and a small intestine!

      I’m not concerned about those on the current spec but the new one seems to be a huge lap in difficulty for students and teachers! 😦

      1. I agree. We’ve been teaching the new spec since September to year 9. The Maths is horrendous, even the Maths dept. are amazed at the expectations for Science. Things that are basic in Science only seem to be taught to top sets in Maths. Some of my students struggle to use a pencil and ruler to draw their own axes on graphs. They have difficulty coping with whole number scales, so how on Earth are they expected top deal with significant figures and orders of magnitude. Then of course we have the age old problem with Maths teachers insisting that a line-of best-fit is always straight. I tackled someone about this recently and argued that rates of reaction graphs and enzyme graphs had curves only to be told that well yes they do but in Maths it is always straight lines. I even had a student arguing with me that his Maths teacher had told him that it was always a straight line and Maths teachers are more important than Science teachers because Maths and English are the only things that count!

  4. I have no answers, but have taught our single science GCSE class with some students who will have similar needs to those you teach (we include a large county resource base at our school) for a few years and we had some success with mocks being dire but exam technique being good enough to meet targets of F to C by the summer, on a mixture of H and F, depending on the student. The changes mean it’s looking like we will put all students through double next year.

    Would IGCSE help your practical situation if nothing else? (… I have just seen your comment saying as much, actually).

    Could entry level qualifications become more recognised by employers if used more widely?

    I sympathise with your instinct to give students the chance to gain qualifications at a special school setting – I know not all teachers and special school heads prioritise that. I hope the exam boards can address your observations when they come up for air after finally getting their courses accredited. Keep going!

  5. Hi Rob, as an ex-teacher I understand your concern and we are within the exam boards trying to do everything in our power to support you all. We will be putting together a list of “kitchen chemistry” experiments requiring less equipment for the likes of yourself and those in Prus. We are in the process of rewriting our entry level qualification so it covers the program of study. I promise you we are working on it and if there is anything you can suggest that we can do to help we are all ears.

    Kind regards

    Michelle Spiller (science subject specialist ocr)

  6. Tricky situation for sure, the new courses are aiming very high. I currently teach IGCSE both Edexcel and CIE but will be moving back to GCSE from September.

    For a certified course for kids aiming at grades 1, 2 and 3 take a look at IGCSE. CIE have traditionally offered the toughest (exam – not boundaries!) IGCSE course for many years. Their triple award papers are genuinely tricky in places. However they are one of the few awarding bodies still offering single award (Edexcel stopped a while ago). CIE’s foundation paper is very light on maths but still has a mixture of assessment with MC, free-response and practical (exam or coursework). If you can duck out of GCSE and take IGCSE this might be the course for you

    1. As an addition to Steve’s post: Edexcel IGCSE single award is coming back for first award from 2019.

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