New science courses 'will cause drop in standards'
A LEADING academic has warned that changes proposed to Leaving Certificate science syllabuses could result in pupils falling behind other countries.
Proposed new syllabuses for biology, chemistry and physics are not detailed enough and only point teachers to "broad topics and learning outcomes", it has been claimed.
Professor Aine Hyland, emeritus professor of education at University College Cork (UCC), believes that the teaching of Leaving Certificate science subjects could lead to a fall in standards if issued in their current form.
The proposals, drawn up by government education advisers, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), were recently sent to Education Minister Ruairi Quinn for consideration.
But Prof Hyland, a curriculum and examinations expert, is critical of the absence of information about what Continued on Page 16
teachers and students should expect in the exams, which, she believes, should be included at this stage.
She is also concerned about the lack of the depth required for the various topics. Prof Hyland questions the focus only on learning outcomes and issues a stark warning: "There is a real risk that the teaching and learning targets will be at a minimum rather than a maximum level, that the bar will not be set high enough for student learning, and that, as a result, standards will fall."
However, defending the draft syllabuses, NCCA chief executive Dr Anne Looney said Prof Hyland's analysis was "of interest, but is somewhat constrained by the fact that the additional support materials and guidelines referenced have yet to be developed in the Irish context".
Dr Looney said that the NCCA's practice was to await approval of the final specification before beginning work on the support materials. Such work was under way, she said.
This work was "focusing on clear alignment between the aims, objectives and learning outcomes articulated in the specification" and "whether the learning outcomes had been achieved and to what standard", she said.
Prof Hyland's criticism comes in an 80-page report commissioned by the Irish Science Teachers' Association (ISTA), which has been raising concerns over a number of years about the proposed design and content of the draft syllabuses.
The report was presented to the annual conference of the ISTA over the weekend. The ISTA has rejected the NCCA proposals and is calling on Mr Quinn to do the same.
ISTA chairperson Mary Mullaghy said it was clear from the Hyland Report that the draft syllabuses "do not measure up to international best practice" and that "the benchmarking exercise carried out by the NCCA appears to be seriously flawed".
The science subjects are the first at Leaving Certificate level to be revised under an ongoing process of curriculum reform and Prof Hyland warned that if a similar approach is adopted in other subjects it was almost inevitable that the ISTA concerns would be echoed by other subject associations and by third-level representatives.
A key feature of the new science syllabi is the introduction of practical exams for the first time for Leaving Certificate students of biology, chemistry and physics, which is widely regarded as a very positive development and one also welcomed by Prof Hyland.
In preparing her analysis, Prof Hyland looked at practice in other other countries, as did the NCCA, but she has questioned the benchmarks used by the curriculum body. The report concludes that the draft syllabuses do not conform with international best practice.
Prof Hyland said it was now a matter for the minister, who could accept or decline the advice of the NCCA or refer the draft syllabi back for further elaboration on the basis of what she had suggested, or consult with his own inspectors or the State Examinations Commission.
She said whatever the minister decided, the full range of syllabus documentation, including teachers' notes, examination specifications, should be officially published at the same time as the syllabus itself "to enable teachers to become familiar with the new material and to undergo appropriate professional development and upskilling.
ISTA president Charlie Dolan, who is also chair of the Education & Skills Group with the employers' organisation Ibec, said from the perspective of industry it was vital that the syllabuses of biology, chemistry and physics were of the highest standards and retained their international recognition.