Secondary school science in the UK goes through changes every now and then. Some changes are minor, like tweaks to what the students learn and when. Other changes are quite big and these include new content, new approaches to science and new ways of assessing the students. The latest change, introduced in 2016, and first examined in 2018, is an example of a pretty big change.
The first big difference in the new GCSEs is that they are linear. That means all the exams are taken at the end of the course in year 11. Students might study the GCSEs for two or three years, but all the exams will be at the end of the course. There is also no coursework as there was previously, however students have to carry out a number of required practicals. These will be assessed in the final papers and will make up 15% of the marks available. Some school give separate lab books to their students for recording these and others do not. There is no requirement for a school to give students separate lab books, but there is a requirement that all students do all the required practicals.
There are four separate qualifications - Combined Science which is worth two GCSEs and the Separate Sciences (often referred to as Triple Science) and these are Biology, Chemistry and Physics. Each of these Separate Sciences is one GCSE. Incidentally, AQA call their Combined Science course Trilogy. They also have a version of Combined Science called Synergy, but few schools offer that.
One of the most significant (as possibly strange) changes is the shift from an A to G grading system to grade 9 (highest) to 1. A lot of money has been spent on changing to this way of grading (mainly to try to explain the new system and relate it to the old) and it was done to add another grade at the very top for the highest achievers.
There is a lot more content to cover in the new GCSEs so teachers and students have to plan their time and revision well. Students studying the AQA or Edexcel courses all have 6 papers to sit, two each for Biology, Chemistry and Physics. If you you are doing triple science, you will have longer papers. At the end of it, grades are awarded with Combined Science students gaining two grades and triple science gaining one grade for each science. The Combined Science grades can be the same or one grade apart, for example, 8-8 or 8-7. There will not be results that are more than one grade apart. There are a total of 17 possible grade combinations for Combined Science.
A big concern for students is the grade boundaries. Every year students across the country hope for low grade boundaries! These are the scores that give a particular grade. In 2018, the grade boundaries were low, for example for AQA GCSE Biology, (Higher Tier) you needed 69/200 to get a grade 5 and 132/200 (66%) to get a grade 9. You could have dropped 68 out of 200 marks and still have got the top grade. For Edexcel grade boundaries 2018, it was 73/200 and 145/200 respectively. But the less good news is, the grade boundaries tend to increase slightly every year as teachers and students become more familiar with the new specifications and as the students' performance in exams improves. AQA call it the sawtooth effect, where the grade boundaries increase until a new spec arrives and then drop again, in a continuous cycle. The upward slope followed by a little drop in grade boundaries being likened to the teeth of a saw.
So the key message is that students will have to work consistently well in class and keep on top of the work and plan out revision carefully. Some schools start GCSE Science in year 9 which means content from nearly three years ago might need to be covered again. It is becoming harder to cram last minute and get the grades. And students can't rely on low grade boundaries! In the second year of GCSE maths 9-1, the grade boundaries went up enough for some students to miss the grade they wanted. It's not about the grade boundaries but how learning is planned and organised. With a little effort and thought, there is every chance of success.
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Teacher and Creator of The Science Break for GCSE Science