Science – who needs it?

What is the point of studying Science at sixth form level? Last week universities made their view on this very clear: students who opt to study Science as one of their A’Level choices should cover a curriculum which leads them seamlessly on to Science as undergraduates. Hence, the recent grinding of teeth in HE about the failure of A’Levels to instruct sixth formers in the hard Mathematics necessary for Science at university. Many universities lament having to run Mathematics for Science courses for their ‘inadequately qualified first year students’.

However, there clearly is a tension here between the most appropriate sixth form experience and the requirements of universities. A much larger consideration transcends the academic wish list for would-be Scientists and this is that, arguably, Science literacy should be promoted with the same degree of vigour as pure academic Science. Both matter.

So, in my view it would be a retrograde step to make A’Level Sciences only suitable for those students who intend to study the Sciences at university, ignoring those who may wish to either study a different degree or a vocational path that doesn’t include university at all.

As a nation we should consider whether we want to increase the uptake of the Sciences at A’Level and broaden the public understanding of Science, or make the curriculum essentially an access course for those going on to study the Sciences at university. If broadening public understanding and increasing uptake is a priority then there is some merit in the current AS/A2 approach. Taking a subject just to AS level allows students to maintain breadth in their subject choices without the constraint of ‘in order to study Biology you ought to take Chemistry’ or ‘if you take Chemistry you ought to take Maths’. Whilst the design of the IB curriculum maintains breadth and allows for specialisation, offering the best of both worlds.

Taking a broader view of this conundrum, schools must prepare their students for a whole range of careers which will require some understanding of the importance of scientific and technological issues. Surely it is better to encourage and make the Sciences accessible to all, inspiring our young learners whether they are natural Scientists or want to enjoy a more generalist, but equally valid, education in the sixth form. We must not lose sight of the importance of Science to us all.

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