by Dr R G Evans, Principal Stockport College


An effective way of beginning this overview of post-16 science education is to look at the curriculum and the associated qualifications at this stage of education and training. Figure 1 attempts to show in a relatively simplistic fashion the curriculum pathways post-16 which operated during most of the 1990s.



The curriculum pathways and the qualifications were highlighted in the Review of Qualifications for 16-19 year olds^ chaired by Ron Dearing. Following this review a large number of the recommendations were accepted by the Government, including the merging of the Schools Curriculum Assessment Authority (SCAA) and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications (NCVQ) to create the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). QCA is currently developing a national qualifications framework which is shown in Figure 2 below.



The proposed National Qualifications Framework builds upon the previous curriculum structures and the pathways described by Dearing, but now has a much clearer focus on increasing levels of knowledge, competence and skills as well as a greater occupational focus. In addition, the entry level will provide entry opportunities for learners of all ages to allow them to progress onto and through the various curriculum categories and levels.

National policy will require the regulatory authorities to create a clear, coherent and inclusive national qualifications framework with the reconised qualifications mapped and grouped according to purpose and level. The qualifications will be considered, as Figure 2 indicates in terms of accreditation for the three broad categories: General, General Vocational and Occupational, each possessing a series of associated levels of attainment. The national framework has stressed that the design should possess the following characteristics of freedom, choice and flexibility:

  • freedom to be an individual and create a personal route of progression/ transition in work or education
  • choice to stay in education or move into work, which is age independent.
  • flexibility to transfer skills from one job area to another without starting back at the beginning.

In addition the framework must:

  • be readily understandable.
  • bring the academic (general) and vocational together.
  • offer clear progression/transition routes.
  • possess rigorous standards.
  • be transparent and be open to public accountability and
  • embrace new 16 to 19 qualification.

The overall strategy that underpins the framework is to: raise achievement, widen participation, and engender a culture of lifelong learning.

There is a great deal of discussion about the way that Access courses will be accommodated within the proposed national framework. This range of provision, much of which has been accredited by the Open College Networks (OCNs), has been particularly successful in attracting mature learners back to study. A number of Access programmes have been in science and science related areas and many students have progressed onto higher education and into employment. It is important that this curriculum pathway is not removed from the post-16 education landscape because of a wish for simplicity or as a way of reducing costs. There must be a curriculum provision that matches and satisfies the needs and expectations of the mature learner and this recognition might not be given within the general, general vocational and occupational pathways. Figure 3 attempts to provide an indication of ‘equivalence’ between the three qualification pathways although it must be noted that such equivalence mappings are often unconstructive and can deny the purpose of the qualifications.



Part of the development of the national framework includes a number of significant reforms to the programmes of study associated with the three curriculum pathways. These key reforms will be introduced from September 2000 and in brief can be summarised as:

  • a new reformulated advanced subsidiary (‘AS’) qualification representing the first half of the full ‘A’-level and worth 50% of the marks. The ‘AS’ is so designed to encourage breadth by a take up of more subjects, particularly in the first year of post-16 study and to provide better progression/transition from GCSE into ‘A’-level study.
  • new ‘A’-level syllabuses, usually comprising six units configured to allow candidates to choose linear or modular assessment.
  • a new requirement for a significant element of ‘synoptic’ ‘A’-level assessment.
  • some modifications to the maximum coursework limits (30% in most subjects).
  • redesigned special papers.
  • a revised GNVQ at foundation, intermediate and advanced level.
  • a new six-unit GNVQ at advanced level, equivalent in size to a single ‘A’-level and graded on a similar scale — A to E; a small number of three unit GNVQ qualifications equivalent to a single ‘AS’ may be introduced in some programmes.
  • a new key skills qualification to encourage learners to develop essential skills of communication, application of number and information technology drawing on evidence from their chosen programme of study.

With these reforms it is hoped to increase the choices open to learners making it easier to combine different qualifications, to allow a broader range of options and to make it easier for people to return to learning after time spent out of full-time education. This approach could offer real opportunities to schools and colleges to introduce mathematics and science programmes of study, possibly based on the AS-level that would continue and raise mathematical achievement and involvement in science beyond the compulsory school leaving age. Depending ultimately on the rules of combination that QCA will determine, this could provide some really interesting curriculum development opportunities to institutions that could lead to greater participation in science post-16. Equally important this development will add value to some core programmes of study that the students elect to do where there are opportunities to study maths and science subjects beyond GCSE, which is designated the intermediate level of the national framework. Obviously there will be considerable resource implications, both human and physical, for schools and colleges in developing and delivering these programme combinations.

In order to further understand the context of this issue below is a brief background to the Further Education sector and its constituent colleges.


The FE sector is the major player in post-16 education and training. The scale of the activity can be illustrated by presenting the provisional figures for the number of students enrolled in the colleges funded by the Further Education Funding Council (FEFC) in England on 1.11.98. The following key points of these enrolments highlight the richness and diversity of the sector: 2.4 million students on 1.11.98; 2.0 million of these students were enrolled on provision funded by the FEFC; students on Council funded provision were studying for approximately 3.7 million qualifications, including: GNVQ precursors, GNVQs, NVQs, GCSEs, GCE ‘A’ and ‘AS’ level examinations, HNC/Ds, access to higher education courses, open college network courses, and NVQ/GNVQ additional units. Also:

  • 28% of the students were aged under 19 and 78% of these were enrolled on full-time full-year programmes.
  • students aged under 19 on FEFC provision were studying for 1.6 million qualifications across the awards identified above.

The remaining 72% of the students were adults (over 19 years of age) of which 11% were enrolled on full-time full-year programmes. Table 1 shows the 1996/97 estimated student numbers enrolled on a selection of a number of programmes funded by FEFC.

Programme AreaEstimated Number of Students 1996–97
Health and Community Care450,800
Hotel and Catering148,500
Art and Design204,400
Basic Education193,050

Source: Funding for the Future –FEDA 1998 and Key Statistics FEFC 1995

A very wide variety of courses and qualifications are available within the sector and can be identified in the curriculum pathways shown in Figure 1, namely the General Curriculum pathway (GCSES, A Levels, A/AS) and on the General Vocational pathway (GNVQS) and then a range of NVQs and other vocational qualifications (VQs) validated by such examining boards as Edexcel Foundation; Oxford, Cambridge, Royal Society of Arts Examination (OCR) and the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA). In addition colleges offer and deliver a wide range of ‘Access’ programmes of study. Figure 4 below shows the levels studied in FE colleges during the year 1996-97.



The most recent provisional figures, again from the November 1998 census, are shown in Figure 5 and show enrolments by level and type of qualification.

LevelQualificationProvisional number on 1/11/98
Level 1 or entryGNVQ
Level 2GCSE
GNVQ precursors
Level 3GCE A and AS level
GNVQ precursor
Access to higher education
Level 4,5 and HENVQ
Level not specified229.9
All levels1,958.7

Source: FEFC Statistical First release 27/04/1999

In conclusion there are more 16 and 17 year olds in FE than in schools, 400,000 compared with 375,600 in all schools. Also there are more students in FE than in the universities and finally the FE sector provides a substantial proportion of new entrants to degree courses being of the order of 40% of all entrants. It must also be remembered that the sector delivers approximately 12% of all higher education in the UK.

This completes the initial scene setting for the FE sector and has already shown the difficulty of obtaining and presenting valid and reliable data. This country does not have a coherent and consistent system for collecting statistics on students. A large number of organisations and agencies collect the data in different ways and there is no one single agency that presents the information in a comprehensive, coherent, consistent and comprehensible way. The data presented in this article reflects this difficulty. The data derives from different sources and relates to different cohorts and for different years with long periods before the final validated data is published and released into the public domain. Data is collected for different age groups, modes of attendance, qualifications and in many cases for different parts of the UK. It is almost impossible to use the data in an informative way, which then allows more effective planning in an area that the majority of educationists and practitioners know is in difficulty, namely science. Effective planning can only occur if a valid, reliable, consistent and coherent database exists.

Particular problems exist when one is attempting to compare similar qualifications that are obtained in both the school and FE sectors. It is also not helped that the style, approaches, methods and format used by FEFC and Ofsted are different in reporting inspections of GNVQs and GCE-‘A’ and ‘AS’ levels. What is needed as a matter of urgency is a standard dataset for Ofsted, FEFC, DfEE and other agencies that currently collect data. However, this report does attempt to provide information, both quantitative and qualitative that reflects the nature of post-16 provision with particular emphasis on science. The rest of the report now focuses on science.


A great deal of useful information can be derived from the FEFC inspection reports and the Sciences Survey Science is the third largest FEFC programme area.

The science programme area covers all science subjects but also mathematics, computing and information technology. In addition to science subjects such as biology, chemistry and physics, the sector colleges offer a wide range of specialist and vocational provision in such areas as audiology, environmental science, opthalmics, pharmacy and veterinary sciences. The range of provision on associated qualifications available to the students is very diverse and includes programmes of study from the general, general vocational, vocational and access pathways, shown in Figures 1 and 2. Many are present within the vocational programmes and include science as a subject in curriculum areas such as hairdressing, engineering, built environment and catering. Like schools at sixth form level, science has declined in popularity in FE over recent years in spite of the spread of modular provision in such programmes as GCE-A and AS levels. The development of GNVQ science programmes at all levels has been slow and many colleges do not believe these address the needs of industry as effectively as awards that were previously available including BTEC First and National Certificates and Diplomas now often referred to as GNVQ precursors. However universities that have accepted GNVQ students recognise that they have developed excellent study and communication skills and have become more effective independent learners.

There has been a significant decline in the number of part-time science students and this has been largely due to changing recruitment and training policies and practices in science and science related industries. Many companies have significantly reduced their workforces and are increasingly recruiting graduates directly into technician level work. Also because of difficulties of resources many companies have found it difficult to sponsor their employees to attend college. Also many industrialists feel that the science NVQs lack academic vigour and do not provide employees with sufficient depth of knowledge and understanding of the processes. Many industrialists argue that NVQs are only of value when involved in very routine work.

It is difficult to ascertain precise information about science enrolments because the programme area includes Information Technology and Mathematics but when one attempts to analyse how many students are actually studying science specific and science related subjects, the numbers become relatively small across the 435 colleges that comprise the FE sector. It might help the presentation to take each of the curriculum pathways separately and provide information about the health and state of the subjects.


GCE ‘A’ Levels constitute the largest number of science entries post-16 with approximately 136,000 candidates. Table 2 shows the number of GCE-A levels awarded in schools and colleges.


Source: Interboard Statistics

Increasingly like schools, colleges are moving into modular science and this is improving both the retention and achievement rates. However, the numbers are still very small and reflect the decline that has been witnessed in A-level sciences over the past few decades. Increasingly students are electing to study a mixed economy of A-levels. Only about 3000 candidates now take all three sciences at A-level. Figure 6 indicates how students are exercising greater choice and most certainly this has in turn led to a reduction in students who are taking science/maths specific clusters.



Source: Annual Statistics

This trend is best illustrated more sharply when actual student numbers are considered between 1983 and 1993. A 40% decline occurred in numbers on specialist science groupings compared with an increase of 28% on humanities and a 31% increase on mixed economy programmes. These figures must also be placed in the context of a decline of approximately 30% in the numbers of 18 year olds. Obviously the number of students and graduates in engineering, science and technology subjects is determined by the demography of each successive age group and their career intentions or preferences. There is now a greater range of subjects and this partly explains the shift to mixed economy ‘A’-level options.

In addition, single science ‘A’- levels have not shown significant increases when compared with other subjects. Figure 7 shows that physics has remained roughly around 6% of the total entries to A-level whilst chemistry has shown a slight increase from 6- 7% and biology has shown the greatest increase from about 6%-9%. This is shown in the figure below and remember this is for all ‘A’-level science entries across sixth forms in schools and the FE sector. It is not easy to disaggregate the data for the two sectors. Most of the specific science ‘A’-levels are delivered in sixth form colleges with fewer being delivered in general FE colleges which are more involved with science in the general vocational, occupational and access programmes.



Announcements will be made in late Autumn 1999 on which subject specification will be accepted by QCA and at present AQA, Edexcel Foundation and OCR are busy consulting on the specifications. The next pathway is that associated with the General Vocational Qualifications.


Figure 8 shows the number of GNVQs awarded in 1997/98.



Table 3 shows the enrolments on the science GNVQ programmes of study.


Currently the Advanced GNVQ full award equates to two GCE A-levels and opportunities exist for the students over the two year study period to study additional courses, eg one A-level, further GNVQ units. The national framework and the introduction of the single and part awards, ie the 6 or 3 unit awards will possibly allow greater opportunities to enhance and enrich a science programme of study providing more depth of study in a physical or biological science by studying additional GNVQ or NVQ units or an A-level or two AS levels. The criteria for such combinations are still to be announced by QC A. The third and final curriculum pathway that comprises the national framework is that associated with the occupationally specific qualifications.


NVQs are taken mainly by people in employment. Public confidence in these qualifications is growing and the total number of NVQ certificates awarded up to 30.9.98 was in excess of 2.2 million. The work based route does however present major problems and challenges to colleges particularly in the area of assessment when students are on full-time programmes. Real working environments (RWEs) have to be available for these students and whilst this is easier to realise for such subjects as hairdressing (college salons), catering (college restaurants), travel and leisure (college travel shops) and motor vehicle studies (college workshops/garages), it does present real difficulties for students in sciences and many other areas of study. To overcome this problem, colleges are attempting to create more realistic working environments within the institutions as well as further strengthening partnerships with employers. However, colleges still have a major role to play in delivering NVQs for students who are on day release/evening modes of attendance from employers by delivering the underpinning knowledge and understanding that is required for NVQS. NVQs are based on national occupational standards and QCA works with the National Training Organisations (NTOs) and other organisations that set standards for these important qualifications. The qualifications are unit based and the number and size of units varies depending on the area studied. Candidates achieve a unit when they are assessed as competent in applying all the skills and knowledge specified within it. The competencies are defined as a result of an analysis of work role. NVQs are divided into eleven generic occupational areas and the five levels shown in figure 2.

The areas are:

  1. Tending animals, plants and land.
  2. Extracting and providing natural resources.
  3. Constructing.
  4. Engineering.
  5. Manufacturing.
  6. Transporting.
  7. Providing goods and services.
  8. Providing health, social and protective services.
  9. Providing business services.
  10. Communicating.
  11. Developing and extending knowledge and skill.

Currently there are approximately 880 NVQ titles in the framework. The. National Training Organisations (NTOs) are independent, employer driven strategic bodies focussed on specific sectors or areas of employment. Currently there are sixty-five recognised NTOs and ultimately there will be approximately seventy-five. The NTO for sciences is the Science Technology and Maths Council (ST+M). The STEM Council was established in 1994 and recognised as an NTO in 1997. The STEM NTO must provide a focus for these essential disciplines and areas as they are present and impact on practically all aspects of employment and most certainly figure increasingly in the lives of all citizens who live in a world dominated by science and technology. The NTO for science must be a truly cross sectoral lead organisation as science is present in varying degrees in over 70% of all occupations.

As can be seen in Figure 9 a number of organisations are involved in the process of developing, delivering, awarding and maintaining the quality of NVQS.




The above analysis shows that post-16 science is not particularly strong. Science continues to decline and lose, in real terms, its overall share in student enrolments post-16 at sixth forms in schools, FE colleges and universities. Fewer students are electing to study science in the general curriculum pathway, both in schools and colleges. Fewer able students are also opting to pursue A-level science programmes, preferring to move to the humanities or mixed economy combinations.

The development of GNVQs as shown in table 2, despite its obvious benefits and value as a real alternative to GCE A-level, has not really shown significant growth. GNVQ science programmes at foundation, intermediate and advanced levels do offer excellent opportunities for students to progress onto employment or higher education. The processes of learning in a GNVQ add value to the student’s ability to cope with assignments and create more independent learning styles. Unfortunately the GNVQ science programme is too often seen as a poor relation to A-level sciences. Hopefully the new GNVQ specifications will raise the profile of this important and valuable award.

Occupationally specific science NVQs present another range of concerns at all its five levels but particularly at levels 4 and 5. Because of the pressures placed on the universities to achieve their targets on science degrees, the universities over the past few years have poached (3) students who would have enrolled or begun study on Higher National Diplomas. Sadly, institutional priorities have subverted the ethics of honest recruitment. Too often students who would have benefited and achieved at HND have been accepted on honours degree programmes with all the attendant difficulties that would produce.

The recession of the 1980s and 1990s has in addition precipitated significant declines in student numbers released by their employers. Employers have found it increasingly difficult to send their employees to day release/evening study at colleges. This coupled with changing approaches to recruitment and training practices has brought about significant decreases in students on NVQs and VQ programmes.

The demise of the traditional apprenticeship and day release has coincided with an increased trend to recruiting graduates directly into technician positions, where previously the employers would have sent their employees to part-time provision at levels 2 and 3 and ultimately on to Higher National Certificates and then possibly on to part-time degrees often delivered at the colleges. However, the colleges continue to offer a very rich range of vocational provision, both full time and part-time. The numbers on each programme can be small and as a result often be financially unviable. Science is a very expensive provision to maintain at colleges. The funding methodology does not fully recognise the high cost of delivery and the need to have up to date equipment to support these studies. Also, the need to create realistic working environments makes it difficult for colleges to offer awards gained by full-time study on the occupational pathway. The work-based route is a strategically important route for science and science-related provision. The recently established Training Standards Council (TSC) which inspects work based provision developed and delivered in the seventy-two English Training and Enterprise Councils (TEC), private training agencies and colleges has begun to raise the profile of this important area of training. In addition, if you have fewer students there is a double ratchet on the unit costs and the delivery of this provision can then become very expensive and many colleges have, over the past five or six years, merged their science provision with other departments or faculties or significantly reduced the range and scope of provision offered. This mirrors very much what is happening within engineering and construction studies in the FE sector and sadly increasingly witnessed in the university sector.

One particularly difficult issue when attempting to provide an overview of science post-16 is the difficulty in obtaining reliable and valid statistics. It is absolutely essential develop a coherent and consistent way of collecting data, eg a national standard dataset which is quickly produced and the information from this data quickly made available to managers and practitioners in education and training. It is only with reliable information that planning can be effectively managed and some of the difficulties associated with science can be tackled to develop a long-term strategy to improve the current state of this important range of disciplines.


Unfortunately space constraints mean it is not possible to provide information about this provision in other parts of the UK, eg Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland or the provision managed by the TECs, eg Modern Apprenticeships (MAs). Also, the exploration of the issues around mathematics and its important place in science and science related education and training has not been highlighted. However a recent FEFC report on mathematics(4) highlights some very interesting issues for colleges, many of which are appropriate to sixth forms in schools.

It is a well known fact that many science teachers in sixth forms in schools and colleges are over the age of fifty. Teacher recruitment in science still continues to give great concern and we are in danger of not having enough highly qualified and motivated teachers of science in all educational sectors within the next few years. PGCE and BEd enrolments continue to show significant decline and this too will cause additional problems to all the educational sectors. As a result the stock and flow of motivated and qualified staff is sadly depleted.

Also,it has not been possible to discuss further the future of Access provision for mature students in science. This most certainly needs a more considered debate, particularly in the light of the exercises that the QCA are currently undertaking in developing the new national curriculum framework.

To complete this overview readers are referred to: Appendix 1 which lists a number of abbreviations and acronyms used in the article and Appendix 2 which provides some useful references and finally in Appendix 3 a number of useful website addresses are given.


  • AQA Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (= City and Guilds London Institute (CGLI) + AEB + NEAB)
  • Edexcel (Foundation) Business and Technology Council + University of London Examinations and Assessment Council — BTEC + ULEAC
  • OCR -Oxford, Cambridge Royal Society of Arts Examinations — RSA + UCLES + UODLE + MEB

Other Abbreviations and Acronyms Used in Article

  • AS Advanced Subsidiary.
  • DFEE Department for Education and Employment
  • FEDA  Further Education Development Agency
  • FEFC Further Education Funding Council.
  • FESR Further Education Statistical Record.
  • GNVQs General National Vocational Qualifications.
  • HEFCE(E) Higher Education Funding Council (England).
  • HNC/HNDs Higher National Certificates/Diplomas.
  • ISR Individual Student Record
  • JCNVAB Joint Council for National Vocational Awarding Bodies.
  • NCVQ National Council for Vocational Qualifications.
  • NTO National Training Organisation.
  • NVQs National Vocational Qualifications
  • QCA Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (SCAA + NCVQ).
  • RWEs Realistic Working Environments.
  • SCAA Schools Curriculum Assessment Authority
  • ST+M Science Technology and Mathematics Council
  • TECs Training and Enterprise Councils
  • TSC Training Standards Council
  • VQS Vocational Qualifications



  • (1) Dearing, R. (1996) Review of Qualifications for 16 —19 year olds. London: SCAA.
  • (2) Sciences (March 1998) Curriculum Area Survey Report — FEFC.
  • (3) Evans, R (December 1994) Poached Beyond Palatability — TES.
  • (4) Mathematics (Feb. 1999) — FEFC.

Other Useful References

  • Further Education for the New Millennium — DfEE, Feb. 1998.
  • The Learning Age: a Renaissance for a New Britain, Com 3 790, ISBN 0 10 13 7902 1, TSO 1998.
  • House of Commons, Education and Employment Committee Further Education; 6th report. ISBN 0 10 235898 X, TSO, 1998.
  • Hodgson, A and Spours, K. Dearing and Beyond 14-19 Qualifications. ISBN 0 7494 2160 6, Kogan Page.
  • Young, MFD (1998) The Curriculum of the Future. ISBN 0 7507 0788 7, Falmer Press.
  • Institute of Physics, Post-16 Initiative, Shaping the Future. Series of booklets 1999+.
  • Departmental Report. The Government’s Expenditure Plans 1999-2000 to 2001-02. DfEE March 1999.


A very useful Science Gateway site has been created by Sheffield College:

Science Technology and Mathematics Council (ST+M) are developing a website. Postal address: 20 Queensberry Place, London, SW7 2DZ, tel: 0171 225 1155.


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