The key to future global wellbeing?

A few months back, a blogging physics teacher by the (online) name of Wellington Grey caused a bit of stir by publishing an open letter to the DfES and AQA asking, actually begging, them to give him his subject back.

I am a physics teacher. Or, at least I used to be. My subject is still called physics. My pupils will sit an exam and earn a GCSE in physics, but that exam doesn’t cover anything I recognize as physics. Over the past year the UK Department for Education and the AQA board changed the subject. They took the physics out of physics and replaced it with… something else, something nebulous and ill defined. I worry about this change. I worry about my pupils, I worry about the state of science education in this country, and I worry about the future physics teachers — if there will be any.

Please go and read the article in full, if you’ve haven’t come across it already, especially if you care about the state of education, and particularly science education in the UK.

Wellington’s comments on the parlous state of the physics curriculum made the BBC News, drawing this comment from the AQA:

“Our specifications meet the new requirements for science set by our regulator, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, and are fully accredited.

“The revised requirements place a greater emphasis on ‘how science works’. This is the entitlement curriculum for every student: the focus is on scientific literacy with the aim of engaging all students.”

And this from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority:

“The new science curriculum and GCSEs provide a common core of science which all young people will need to understand the issues that will affect their lives. It also provides a thorough grounding for those who will continue studying science at A-level and beyond.

“The vast majority of pupils will continue to study the equivalent of two GCSEs’ worth of science: GCSE Science (the ‘core’) plus their choice of appropriate additional GCSEs.”

So neither have bothered to answer any of the criticism levelled at the new curriculum by Wellington Grey, or address the single most important issue, the systematic defenestration of mathematical rigour from the study of physics at GSCE level.

Why does this matter? Well, in the context of the science of physics it matters for the reasons that Wellington outlines here:

The thing that attracts pupils to physics is its precision. Here, at last, is a discipline that gives real answers that apply to the physical world. But that precision is now gone. Calculations — the very soul of physics — are absent from the new GCSE. Physics is a subject unpolluted by a torrent of malleable words, but now everything must be described in words.

In this course, pupils debate topics like global warming and nuclear power. Debate drives science, but pupils do not learn meaningful information about the topics they debate. Scientific argument is based on quantifiable evidence. The person with the better evidence, not the better rhetoric or talking points, wins. But my pupils now discuss the benefits and drawbacks of nuclear power plants, without any real understanding of how they work or what radiation is.

If you were lucky enough to have studied physics back in the days when the subject meant something then you’ll know exactly what Wellington is driving at. If not, then perhaps I can provide an example to illustrate exactly what he means.

What follows are two examination questions taken from physics papers that candidates would typically take at the age of sixteen. The first is from a 2006 GCSE ‘higher’ physics paper, the second from a 2003 GCE ‘O’ Level paper. In both cases these are the examinations that a candidate would be expected to pass with a grade of C or better, in order to go one to study the subject at ‘A’ Level and to make the comparison even easier, both questions deal with the same basic topic – heat.

Let’s kick things off with the first part of the GCSE question –


Now that is a decent starter question in a physics exam. The diagram, itself, is a little superfluous but otherwise, to get the marks, the candidate has to demonstrate a knowledge of the principles of thermal conduction and how this functions at the atomic level – one would presume that the reference to ‘particles in the copper’ is intended to disguise the fact that the candidate needs to talk about atoms so as not to give them part of the answer, quantum theory being rightly beyond the scope of a GCSE course.

Part two of the question, however, demonstrates everything that is wrong with the GCSE syllabus:


That is not a physics question. In fact it does not test a candidates knowledge and understanding of physics in any material respect. Its a question that could be answered by anyone with a basic command of mathematics whether or not they understood the first thing about thermal conduction or not and nothing more, one in which all that’s required is that the candidate multiply the value of the annual saving in energy costs for each option, by five, subtract the relevant installation cost and then compare the results to see which gives the highest cost savings.

Okay, now here’s a comparable question on the same topic from the 2003 GCE ‘O’ Level paper.


Okay, so you’ve got two simplified diagrams rather than one, but the basic starting premise is the same – explain thermal conduction in terms of what goes on at the atomic – well, actually, molecular – level.

What follows by way of supplemental questions is, however, very different.


Now that’s a physics question.

You’ll notice that it manages to get in the same basic point about energy efficiency – part b(ii) – as the GCSE question, but does it in a way that forces candidates to think about their answer rather than having it spoon-fed to them and it asks them why the second heater is the more efficient with reference to their understanding of the physics of heat and energy.

And then to cap things off it asks candidates to demonstrate their knowledge of physics by way of making a number of straightforward but relevant calculations of energy use and efficiency.

Its also a much more challenging question and, therefore, a much better test of the candidate’s knowledge and understanding of physics, because that what it actually tests where the supplementary part of the GCSE question does nothing of the sort.

You have to say, therefore, that the GCE ‘O’ level is a more difficult examination and that, all other things being equal, a decent grade in such an examination would be worth more than an equivalent grade in the GCSE examination.

By any objective measurement you might care to apply, the GCSE question is substantially less challenging than the GCE ‘O’ level question, making the GSCE much easier to pass and much a much easier examination in which to obtain a higher grade, albeit one that is worth much less than the equivalent ‘O’ level for having been acquired via a much less challenging exam.

Whether that means that GCSE candidates are, overall, weaker than those who took the GCE ‘O’ level is more difficult to say – the GCSE examination question may not be fully reflective of the content of the GSCE course, so its at least possible that someone who studied for the GCSE could do as well in an ‘O’ level examination, although I have to say that I consider that a rather doubtful proposition in most cases, and given the pressures they face it would be a rare, committed and valuable teacher who looked to teach beyond the confines of the exam content when dealing with all but the most able students.

Regardless of what the government, administrators and teachers/teaching unions might have to say, its impossible not to conclude that the GSCE physics exam is substantially ‘dumbed down’ by comparison to the GCE ‘O’ Level – to argue that it’s just ‘different’ and tests different but equally valid skills and knowledge might wash in a less empirical subject but not in one where empiricism is the very heart and soul of the subject.

I don’t care what the AQA has to say about their examinations being properly ‘accredited’ and as for the QCA’s response that the:

‘vast majority of pupils will continue to study the equivalent of two GCSEs’ worth of science’

…well so fucking what?

From what I can see with my own eyes, two GCSEs’ ‘worth’ of science doesn’t amount to very much science at all…

…and whatever else you do don’t give me the usual bullshit about how hard kids have worked to achieve their grades as if that somehow gainsays any possible debate about standards, the content of the curriculum and whether a subject like physics is being dumbed down in order to create a false and unmerited picture of improvements in secondary education – the two questions cited about show damn well that it is.

The sickest joke in all this this is what the QCA’s own website has to say about physics:

Physics forms the basis of most modern technologies and is the key to future global well-being. Physics is the study of the laws that govern the physical world. It tries to understand the nature of basic things such as motion, forces, energy, matter, heat, sound and light. These are found throughout the universe, and so physicists study a wide range of topics. You might find a physicist smashing atomic particles together to find out how the universe began or you might find a physicist orbiting the Earth as an astronaut. Physicists also work in hospitals, designing new instruments or scanning techniques. Some physicists even create smaller and faster electronics for the next generation of computers.

If physics really is the ‘key to future global well-being’ then stop fucking the subject up by taking out of the curriculum all the content that is actually physics and let teachers like Wellington do what they do best, and just teach kids what they know.


I’ve been asked to upload the full exam papers, so here goes.

First here’s the AQA’s 2006 papers:

Physics Single Award (Specification B)

Science Double Award (Higher) paper 3 – Physics

And now two GCE ‘O’ Level Papers, as provided by Cambridge University to the independent sector and to international schools:

Physics (paper 2) – Theory

Physics (paper 4) – this paper is provided as an alternative to carrying out a practical exam, i.e. testing experimentational skills.

See for yourself which you think in the better test of ability.

  • hellblazer

    A good post as always (the examples are telling). I just want to ask: do you really mean a “2003 GCE ‘O’Level”? I thought the ‘O’ Levels disappeared in the 1980s. Or have I misread/misunderstood?

  • Cambridge University continued to supply an O level syllabus and exam papers to the independent sector at least up until 2003, which is how I found the paper in question.

  • Unity, would you be able to post the full exam papers on here? Or email them to me. I’d be very interested to compare the whole papers against each other.

    I’m surprised, actually, that there has been no scientific study comparing older exam papers with newer ones. With physics particularly, I’m sure it would be possible to empirically demonstrate that they’ve gotten easier. That would be some rotten fruit to throw at the government, wouldn’t it?

  • All done – two AQA GCSE papers and two GCE ‘O’level papers.

    And yes, one can demonstrate how the papers have got easier in empirical terms. IIRC a newspaper did it a while back using Maths papers, which were given to two subjects, one GCSE student and one older person who’d sat the old ‘O’ level.

    As I recall both came in about equal on the GSCE paper, but on the ‘O’ level paper the older person scored considerably higher.

    That’s not necessarily evidence of differences in ability but it does show up the differences in content.

  • The sciences have always been an area that government and think tanks have seen fit to directly interfere with.

  • Kent man

    It really is time that governments stopped pissing about with education. It is none of governments business. It is the business of parents. The government may chose to fund education, although traditionally this was done largely through local government ‘rates’. The only thing that successive governments have done since usurping the role of education controller is to debase the curriculum content and examination standard, in the interest of proving how ever increasingly “equal” everybody is becoming. The level of this equality is perfectly evident “init”.
    The current suggestion that school learning should start at six or seven is about the only sensible thing suggested in the last thirty years or more. One thing that should be obligatory before starting school is the ability to read. Not necessarily to Shakespeare or War and Peace level, but sufficient to be able to recognise everyday words, those word that make up the vocabulary of a six or seven year old.
    It would be advantageous if there was an examination for this before entering school. The parent has already taught the child to speak and it would therefore seem reasonable to expect the parent to do the same for the written word…….though some of the products of the modern education system may find it difficult to teach something of which they themselves are incapable.

  • Ah, I remember my physics GCSE (circa 1997). Having to remember and be able to apply somewhere in the region of 26 equations to stand a chance of an A grade in the higher paper was quite a challenge! Shame it’s all gone now, replaced by critical theory after poncing about doing an English degree…

  • I think I recall having to do proper Physics in my GCSE of 1990. Of course, my memory is clouded by the A level I sat in 1992 (which was far more rigorous of course), so I can’t be certain.

    The problem is that education is pretty important to the country, and to the future of the economy, particularly the science subjects. So they will interfere if things don’t look good (and the level of uptake is a problem).

    Kent Man – twaddle. It was bad enough when kids were judged at 11 and on that basis left to rot in poor schools if they failed, without doing it at 7. It’s precisely because parents don’t always teach their kids to read by the time that they are 5 that schools have to do it.

  • E

    If you think what they have done to secondary education is bad you should see what they have done to the education of nurses. Any useful bit of information, anything that you might need to know as a nurse, anything that ends in

  • I haven’t downloaded the full papers, but doesn’t the difference in origin explain some of the differences in content?

    If you wanted to show systematic dumbing down you would need to compare papers from the same organisation, or else rule out intentional differences based on the different objectives of the organisations you chose. Perhaps you could show that the papers were to be held against some common standard such as a common outcome for the same pupils.

  • Simon:

    Not really.

    You could make such an argument in respect of somewhat less empirical subjects in which opinion and subjectivity plays a greater role but not when it comes to physics, which should include a significant degree of mathematical rigour but patently, in the modern exam questions, does not.

    Put it this way; there is much less content in the modern physics syllabus, hence the much easier exams, and in physics that matters.

    If you take a subject like history then, to a considerable extent, it can be treated in a content neutral fashion. It doesn’t really matter whether you study World War I or World War II because the base skills and knowledge you use to analyse each are broadly the same and can be readily transferred to the different subject matter.

    That’s not something that’s true for physics – you have to have the discipline specific knowledge to get anywhere. Newton’s laws of motion tell you little or nothing about the nature of electromagnetism, for that you have to study Faraday et al or you’re stuffed.

    In the sciences, content is either there or it isn’t, and what the papers show is that in the modern syllabus much of what I studied for my ‘O’ level is almost, if not entirely, absent. Large parts of the syllabus that used to be taught to kids sitting exams at 16 years of age have simply been taken out of the subject in their entirety and the quality of the subject (and of exam passes gained in it) are all the poorer for their omission.

  • “Large parts of the syllabus that used to be taught to kids sitting exams at 16 years of age have simply been taken out of the subject in their entirety and the quality of the subject (and of exam passes gained in it) are all the poorer for their omission.”

    I don’t know the various institutional relationships at work here, but I don’t believe this assertion is supported by the exam paper comparison without additional context. You have not addressed the possibility that Cambridge University exam papers are and always have been deliberately harder (i.e. test on more knowledge) than AQA ones due to differences in target market and objectives, for example.

    Speaking from experience as a 27 year old, I think the second question is nearer what I remember and the first is more like a pre-GCSE comprehensive level question, but memory is a funny thing.

  • The Executive head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, Ken Boston, wrote a paper (dated 24 June 2002) when retiring from his post in Australia and before arriving in the UK in which he wrote:
    “There should be equal educational opportunity, and potential equality of outcomes” for all young Australians. This, he reported was the unanimous view of the Australian College of Education. The document is online at

    The reason I highlight this is because there is, it seems to me, pressure to go from “equality of educational opportunity” to “equality of outcomes” in the manner in which our education system is being reformed …

  • “And yes, one can demonstrate how the papers have got easier in empirical terms…”

    I’m not sure this is good evidence of a difference in ability or content, as the results you mentioned are perfectly consistent with the older person being just better at physics/exams than the GCSE student. If he had been a little less good at them, he would have done worse in the GCSE but still better in the O level, which would prove precisely nothing. And of course, that’s not to mention that a sample of one proves nothing.

    I know more about maths than physics, but since the same claim is made about it perhaps saying something about maths might throw some light on the case of physics. When I studied maths at school, we didn’t do an enormous amount of trigonometry, learning theorems about chords and sections of circles as they did in the good old days, but we did learn about group theory and set theory, which was certainly not taught in the good old days. And I can tell you that whereas almost all of modern mathematics is stated in the language of these two theories, and in the case of group theory has been for over a hundred years, there is very little need of advanced theorems of Euclidean geometry. In my time as an undergraduate and graduate student, I used group theory and set theory every day, but I don’t think I used any Euclidean geometry once. (I think I once followed a proof in non-Euclidean geometry that mirrored the proof of the Euclidean version.)

    Now that’s not to say that the exams aren’t easier in some overall sense, but the evidence in the entry and comments above is a long way from proving the point for the reasons pointed out in my comment and Simon’s one two above.

  • Dan:

    Funnily enough I had a conversation with the head of science at my son’s school only last week, at the school’s 6th form open day, and as teacher he’s of the opinion that most of what was taught at ‘O’ level in my own day – in physics and chemistry specifically – is today, not covered until AS level.

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