Post-16 Science in Further Education

Dick Evans, Cornwall College and chair of the post 16 ASE Committee..

The teaching of science figures significantly in the further education sector (FE), both as a single discipline and a subject servicing vocational or pre-vocational courses. For convenience, the courses in a typical FE college can be mapped into three basic course pathways namely:

  1. academic/general
  2. vocational.
  3. pre-vocational.

This approach is somewhat simplistic, as increasingly students will pursue mixed-economy courses, that is courses, modules or parts of courses from more than one of these pathways. Provision covers a wide spectrum with courses possessing various levels and unfortunately at present having little or no agreed exchange value between awards.

Single subject courses that are centrally dominated, e.g. GCSE, AS and A levels co-exist with locally managed but nationally moderated and validated courses, e.g. Business and Technician Education Council (BTEC) and City and Guilds of London Institute (CGLI).Various Science Professional Bodies.

Academic/General Courses.

In this area colleges significantly overlap with post-16 provision in the schools sector. Most FE colleges offer science subjects at GCSE and GCE A and S levels and colleges are increasingly developing courses at AS level. A typical college will also offer a number of different examination groups/boards. Students who are pursuing very specific vocational/technical provision, e.g. caring or pre-nursing courses, often need these awards, and as a result of this, human biology at A level is very popular in the FE sector. Obviously the sector shares with the schools many of the issues and needs associated with these awards, e.g. adequate resources, effective in-service training. The message seems to be that science education, like other subjects, must become more balanced and possess greater breadth than at present. Overall, this is welcomed by the FE sector. However, there is concern that the provision pre-16 matches that of post-16, and that the processes, experiences and qualifications students receive, possess coherence and allow progression. It is essential that schools and colleges work closely together to exchange ideas, concerns and wherever possible highlight examples of good practice.

Extension of the Technical Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI) will require the two sectors to co-operate together to the benefit of young people in the 14 to 18 age range. Colleges are particularly concerned about the management of coursework for GCSE, and would clearly like to see more opportunity for students coming from schools to colleges.

The sector would like to see the possibility of pooling coursework across a number of subjects, and in this area the science subjects offer some very interesting possibilities. The rejection of the Higginson Report does not help colleges who are attempting to introduce breadth and balance into the A-level course pathways.

Vocational Courses.

Colleges are traditionally recognised for their vocational courses. Here, sadly, a great deal of misunderstanding and, to be honest, ignorance exists about the value and credibility of these awards. Vocational qualification system in this country is extensive, each year over 1.75 million awards are made to individuals over a wide spectrum of occupations. These qualifications are awarded by over three hundred bodies, e.g. BTEC and CGLI, and a large number of professional bodies. The present arrangements for vocational qualifications are both complex and confusing, and in some occupational areas there are a multitude of qualifications and the relationship between them is not understood by employers, higher education or those seeking training.

As a result of this situation the Government has established a National Council for Vocational Qualifications (NCVQ), and its primary task is to reform and rationalise the provision. National Council for Vocational Qualifications (NCVQ) is proposing an assessment-led and competency-based framework for the awards. However, the decision to establish the NCVQ is not likely to simplify the structure or bridge the gap between academic and vocational awards unless the certifying bodies concede some of their autonomy and curtail their entrepreneurial activities. It is essential that the frameworks being created by NCVQ match, as closely as possible, with the frameworks devised by SEAC (Secondary Examinations and Assessment Council) and SCOTVEC (Scottish Vocational Education Council) to promote an ordered pattern which realises cohesion and continuity.

One major concern of staff in FE is the need to convince prospective students applying to the sector (and their parents) of the equal value of BTEC national awards with GCE A levels. These awards are an alternative to A levels, and it is essential that “parity of esteem” is engendered. Similar arguments are needed with many HE admissions tutors, although it is interesting to note that no such problems exist with most employers.

Another major examination body is City and Guilds Institute of London (CGLI), which is involved in the assessment and recognition of achievements in vocational education and training.

The institute is confident that its current four level structure will accord with the new NVQ framework. Many of the City and Guilds schemes require science or science-related topics to service the main vocational course. Students attend colleges under various modes, e.g. full-time, part-time, evening only, block release, and increasingly distance learning.

Clearly the topics must be taught in a way which is seen by the students (and equally important by the employers who release the students for their off the job training) as being relevant and appropriate. Teaching science to students who may have dropped science completely at the end of the third year at school and who have made a decision to pursue a very specific vocational course presents some interesting problems and challenges. For example, hairdressing courses contain a significant section on science, and require both physical and biological concepts—not easy when most of these students have studied little chemistry or physics at school. Similarly engineering/construction students often see little point in learning about the chemical and physical properties of materials. Lecturers must not only know their subject, but also have the ability to relate that knowledge to the real practical situation.In addition the teaching and learning environments where practical work is under taken must be as realistic as possible. Also work experience is essential whether work simulation or work placement in industry.

Similar problems exist with the students on BTEC and other vocational courses, where there are gaps in their knowledge. Colleges have had to develop bridging or remedial courses to compensate for these gaps or inadequacies. The increasing adoption of balanced science will improve the situation, for all students will have experienced aspects of all the sciences up to 16. The need for these compensatory measures should decrease. It is essential that sufficient time is made available in the National Curriculum (NC) for balanced science, i.e. 20% without a lower option of 12.5%.

Pre-vocational Courses.

Colleges have over the past few years developed and run, very successfully, Certificate in Pre-vocational Education (CPVE). Although the future of this award is still uncertain, especially its place within the NVQ framework, it has offered valuable opportunities to students. Students completing CPVE have progressed on to BTEC National Awards, A levels and many have gained employment. Unfortunately, evidence has shown that very few students study any of the science elements within the CPVE framework professional awards.

Professional Awards

Some colleges offer provision for students wishing to gain professional qualifications. This work is classified as higher education and most of the programmes are part-time. Students are graduates or possess equivalent qualifications, for example, BTEC Higher Diplomas/Certificates. Professional bodies/associations validate the colleges which intend to offer their qualifications. Examples of some of these professional bodies are the Royal Society of Chemistry, Institute of Medical Laboratory Science and the Institute of Biology. Under the new arrangements for higher education, maintained colleges of FE, which will be outside the new Polytechnic Colleges Funding Council (PCFC), will continue to offer these courses subject to the LEA support and favourable contracts with PCFC.


The majority of separate science subjects in FE are at GCSE, AS and GCE A level. Sadly, relatively few students pursue BTEC science specific awards, and as long as students/parents/HE admissions tutors worship at the A level altar, this unfortunate occurrence will continue. Perhaps when falling roles really begin to take effect, admission tutors in HE will begin to recognise the value of these awards.

The other major activity in science teaching in the sector is the servicing of vocational courses which are requiring increased scientific content. It is therefore important that the two pathways, namely GCSE and the foundation course criteria, include science which can be matched with the requirements post-16. This is a strong argument for balanced science for all students up to 16. Obviously staff in FE must have the support of in-service education and training in order to update their knowledge, and wherever possible, have opportunities to meet with school colleagues and have experience of industry/ commerce.

The ASE recently established a Working Party looking at post-16 science. For information about the work of the group, please see page 10 of this issue of Education in Science.

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