Science education is ‘world class’ – reform with caution, ministers warned


England’s ‘rare hat-trick’ of achievement, engagement and skills in science education is being put at risk by 'blind policy borrowing’ from abroad researchers have warned. Pete Henshaw reports.

England’s “world-class” science education could be put at risk by the government’s proposed reforms and “blind policy borrowing” from abroad, ministers have been warned.

A paper by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) is seeking to “debunk the myth that England does not perform well in this core subject”.

It says that England achieves a “rare hat-trick” within its secondary science education – achievement, skills and engagement – and warns against copying policies from countries such as Korea, Japan or Taiwan where achievement is high, but students are disengaged.

A statement from NFER, issued alongside the paper, urges the government to “reform with caution”, warning that its proposals could “derail” the success of science education.

The paper says that, according to the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), England “strikes an important balance between high achievement and positive pupil attitudes when it comes to science, which many of the highest performing countries do not”.

Science Education: Have we overlooked what we are good at? has been written by Dr Newman Burdett and Harriet Weaving, both from NFER’s Centre for International Comparisons.

They emphasise that, according to TIMSS, England has a high student engagement level in science with just 28 per cent wishing they did not have to study the subject. This compares to nearly half (48 per cent) of students in Korea, 

42 per cent in Taiwan, and 34 per cent in Japan.

When it comes to enjoyment, 

74 per cent of England’s students think they are given interesting things to do in science lessons, compared to 35 per cent in Taiwan, 31 per cent in Japan, and 30 per cent in Korea.

England scores highly on delivery too, with 76 per cent of students finding their science teacher interesting, compared to 54 per cent in Taiwan, 53 per cent in Korea, and 52 per cent in Japan.

And students rate content highly as well, with 85 per cent agreeing that they learn “many interesting things” in their science lessons – compared to 72 per cent in Taiwan, 70 per cent in Korea, and 57 per cent in Japan.

The paper also stresses that, according to TIMSS results in 2011 and the Programme for International Student Assessment in 2006, England performs “relatively well in international surveys and can be considered among the ‘world class’”.

In fact, it claims that, alongside England, only Singapore and Hong Kong have struck the balance between engagement and achievement. It states: “Despite our top achievers being outperformed by a small group of Pacific Rim countries, high performance in these countries is not necessarily linked with students enjoying or wanting to study science.

“This suggests we may not want to emulate these countries in the way we educate our pool of potential future scientists and engineers, despite their high achievement. Rather than blind ‘policy borrowing’ from the highest achieving countries, we should understand what we do well that others fail to do.”

The paper also says that England performs statistically better at ‘reasoning’ skills and that the science curriculum “has a good balance of skills to knowledge, which many other countries fail to achieve”.

The Department for Education (DfE) has just closed a consultation over revised subject content for the core GCSEs. The proposals for science see a move towards hard facts and “scientific knowledge”, with more prescriptive draft programmes of study and more content required to be covered.

The NFER paper adds: “At a time when we seem to be putting more content into our science subject criteria, Singapore has actively reduced content to allow more time for the teaching of higher order reasoning skills, and more recently, Hong Kong is thinking of doing this.

“We have achieved a rare hat-trick in England – relatively high achievement in science backed up by the ability to use that knowledge, coupled with positive student attitudes towards learning science. 

“We feel strongly that care should be taken during reform of the GCSE science curriculum to ensure that this balance is not disrupted.”

Dr Burdett said: ‘The problem with making a specification more challenging is not to make it just a ‘slog’ that will deter both the brightest and those struggling; it is to make the material engaging, to make students think, make them rise to that challenge. It is hard to do this but the data suggests that England can do it successfully – we need to learn from that.”

The NFER statement added: “The planned changes to science GCSE largely overlook this evidence in a bid to make the qualification ‘more challenging’, and thereby risk dampening many young people’s enjoyment of the subject – a crucial ingredient in achievement. We cannot emulate Korea, Japan or Taiwan because the disengagement of students and teachers would be disastrous in the UK context – they need to be studying what England and Singapore are doing to engage science students.”

A DfE spokesperson told SecEd: “The consultation on GCSE content closed last month. We are considering all replies and will publish our response in due course.”

Download the NFER paper at


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