language and words in the news

In the News: a GCSE by Any Other Name

© Stephen Coburn /

I was amazed to discover today that there is actually such a thing as a PE (physical education) GCSE in the UK. When I was at school (and admittedly, it was a long time ago) ‘studying for a PE GCSE’ would have been some bright sparks’ explanation for what they were doing out on the playing field when they should have been in double Maths. But now it’s a legitimate academic subject.

Much of the PE GCSE curriculum seems to cover things that in my day would have come under good old Biology – for instance the circulatory system, or the mechanics of breathing – but it did make me think about the proliferation of terms we now have for scientific education, and what the differences are.

According to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which helps develop the UK’s National Curriculum, there are almost 40 different science subjects that students can study at school, ranging from Entry Level Science, to Environmental and Land-based Science and Science in Society. (PE doesn’t feature, however, which strikes me as odd, when Human Physiology and Health does.)

The trend over recent years seems to have been towards the study of combined sciences, rather than individual subjects, with a wide range of – often confusing – names and teaching objectives. Just a few short minutes on the internet yields such gems as ‘core’ and ‘additional’ science, applied science, advanced science, ‘double award’ science and – my personal favourite on the confusing stakes – ‘Triple Science’, also known as ‘Separate Sciences’.

This appears to be a single course, drawing elements from basic Science, which all students are required to take, and from the Additional Science course which is optional, then adding in further modules specific to Biology, Physics and Chemistry, to come out with three full GCSEs (plus, presumably, the mandatory Science one).

Debate continues to rage over whether or not this system adequately prepares students who want to go on to specialize in one of the sciences at higher education (or, I would have thought, whether it even provides enough of an introduction for them to make up their minds!), but it strikes me that you need a PhD in Education, just work out which science subjects your child should be taking at school!

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Sharon Creese

1 Comment

  • As a newly qualified English teacher, I can’t comment with much authority on the science GCSEs you mention (some of which I suspect were created for the private sector judging by the time and resources they’d demand from schools), but I can sing the praises of qualifications like ‘entry level science’ and combined award subjects on a more general level. When selecting my own GCSEs, I opted out of Triple Award Science – the 3 standard science GCSEs – for Double Award Science which allowed me broaden my subject base at GCSE by giving me an extra option I could use on subjects I considered more valuable to my career path.

    Some of these qualifications afford less able students the opportunity to sit relevant and valuable qualifications, and a way into the workplace. When I was at school, if you weren’t considered clever enough to take the GCSE, you were placed in the bottom set, took the exam, and came away with a demoralising F. However, some of these new subjects offer students the opportunity to gain points towards wider-reaching qualifications (key skills exams are taken in other subjects like Maths and English, for instance) and they come out of school with GCSE grades that employers demand.

    For the cynic, these ‘easier’ qualifications allow the government to sweep the issue of underachievement under the carpet, and make league tables look good. However, for the teacher and the student, they often provide the valuable moral boost that less able, disaffected or disengaged pupils need to give them a ‘leg up’ into the world of work.

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