Creating more opportunities for learners to study science in Wales

Every year, thousands of learners aged 14-16 across Wales study for qualifications in science and go on to have careers as doctors, dentists, pharmacists and science researchers.

The Curriculum for Wales aims to give learners more opportunities to succeed through a broad and balanced education.

Those who are now in their last year of primary school will be the first learners to experience the new curriculum. We recently announced the GCSE subjects that will be available to them when they turn 14.

Confirming the GCSE subjects is the starting point for reform. This year, we will work with learners, teachers, universities, employers and others to agree the content and assessment for each new GCSE. We will also agree which other qualifications should sit alongside the new GCSEs to offer something for everyone.

We will create a new Combined Science GCSE to replace the six different science GCSEs currently available. While we expressed in our recent report that the new Combined Science GCSE will be around the size of two GCSEs, the final size will be determined by what content and assessment is needed to ensure learners have the same, or better progression opportunities to further and higher education as they do now.

So why have we decided to create a Combined Science GCSE?

A strong foundation

It has never been more important for all learners to gain a solid foundation in science. The world around us is changing faster than ever before. New technology brings new opportunities and insights, but also more complexity and new challenges. The future of our environment, society, and economy depends on learners who can think scientifically and apply their knowledge across many different fields.

The new Combined Science GCSE will give all learners a firm grasp of scientific knowledge and skills and encourage more of them to go on to study and work in science. A common science GCSE will increase opportunities for learners and keep their options open for longer. And it will make science more accessible, more relevant, and more exciting for all learners.

It will give all learners a chance to study the different disciplines of Biology, Chemistry and Physics, while also exploring the connections between them. They will also get to explore the cross-cutting themes reflecting the major challenges of our times, such as climate change, sustainability and the rise of artificial intelligence. The new GCSE will help learners to integrate and apply their learning, making it relevant and engaging.

More choice and keeping options open

Learned bodies, including the Royal Society of Biology, the Royal Society of Chemistry, and the Institute of Physics, all support a single route for science at GCSE[1]. They argue that the current mix of GCSEs gives an illusion of choice, creates unequal opportunities and stops more learners from going on to study science at a higher level. Offering different science GCSEs means learners must decide at the age of 13 which path to take. Sometimes a learner has a choice, sometime the choice is made for them. These early decisions can give some learners the false idea that science is not for them. It can also impede social mobility: research in England shows that learners from more disadvantaged background are less likely to take separate science GCSEs[2].

We will work closely with these learned bodies and others in the field as we develop the content and assessment for the new GCSE.

Progression to science A level

The new Combined Science GCSE will support learners who want to study science at A level and beyond. We know this because it’s what happens right now. Currently, around two-thirds of all learners in Wales take the GCSE Science Double Award. Many of them progress on to A Levels and other level 3 qualifications in Biology, Chemistry and Physics and go on to become the medics, scientists, engineers, and environmentalists of the future.

Access to university

A common misconception is that learners applying for more competitive university courses, such as medicine, must take separate science GCSEs. This is not the case. Some universities do ask for GCSEs in Mathematics and English, but they do not require learners to take specific science GCSEs, and they all accept students who have taken the GCSE Science Double Award.

What universities tell us they value are learners with a breadth of knowledge, skills, and experiences. That is why, alongside the new Combined Science GCSE, we are also creating new GCSEs in Computer Science, Engineering and Manufacturing, Design and Technology, the Built Environment, and Digital Technology.

Working together

Our focus now is on agreeing the content and assessment for these new GCSEs. There are lots of questions to answer. What is the right balance between knowledge, skills and experiences? How much practical work should be involved? What will stretch the most able learners while keeping the overall qualification accessible? Over the next year we will work with learners, teachers, lecturers, employers and parents to help answer these questions.

We want to get as many people as possible involved in this discussion. To register for upcoming events, please visit our website or contact us at reform@qualificationswales.org.

By Emyr George, Director of Qualifications Policy and Reform 

[1] score_sciences_at_ks4_final.pdf (rsb.org.uk)

[2] https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10080169/1/aspires_2_triple_science_policy_briefing.pdf