The Cambridge View on Science

The Cambridge View on Science

Understanding of the fundamentals of Science empowers students to use this knowledge creatively to make sense of the world around them and to make informed decisions about aspects of Science that impact on their lives.

Our vision for Science qualifications in England is to provide an appropriate foundation for those wishing to progress to further Science study, whilst also offering a grounding in the fundamentals of Science for those students who do not continue the subject after 16. The variety of formats used within the assessment materials will enable all students to be catered for and ensure that teaching is to the curriculum and not focused on the test.

We analysed the curricula of a wide range of high performing jurisdictions and engaged with a range of experts in Science and teaching.  This has led us to conclude that our syllabuses should be centred on the key scientific concepts, for instance for Chemistry the idea that the physical properties of elements and compounds are determined by the nature of the bonding. Appreciation of the way students develop their understanding of concepts ensures a smooth transition from the 11-14 stage and provides a firm basis for students’ further progression. Teachers will be provided with ample opportunities to enthuse their students with appropriately selected applications. Students on our courses will be engaged by a wide variety of practical opportunities, gaining skills with equipment and data handling as well as an appreciation of how scientific ideas are developed.


Currently the 14-16 Curriculum Programme of Study forms part of the criteria for vocational qualifications that attract performance points in Science; this enables a wider group of students to access the subject in another way. This already raises some challenges in terms of designing truly vocational approaches because of the academic nature of the curriculum content. The proposed new 14-16 National Curriculum is substantially more detailed than the current version.  There are, for example, 77 statements for Biology compared to the six statements in the current Programme of Study that could be classified as Biology; the draft curriculum document contains almost double the number of statements for Biology than the 1999 Double Award curriculum. The material is also strongly academic in nature. The size and nature of the 14-16 curriculum content would cause significant problems for the design of vocational courses if the requirement to cover this material is retained.

Internal Assessment - Practical Assignments 

Science is evidence based, that evidence coming from careful observation and experimentation. Practical work is therefore an essential part of a student’s education in Science and new GCSEs must encourage the widest variety of practical experience. We believe students should engage in frequent practical work throughout a course, fostering their scientific curiosity by means of experiments, investigations and field work and developing their skills in the use of standard laboratory equipment and in handling data.

Any assessment of practical skills should be carried out in a way that does not limit or distort a student’s experience of practical activities. Any practical assessment delivered to a national cohort of tens of thousands will need to work as expected on every occasion and for every candidate. Spurious results or experiments not working (e.g. because of impurities in the chemicals used) present serious obstacles to ensuring that students receive due credit for what they are actually able to do experimentally. Our experience and research shows that coursework and controlled assessment can become a driver which limits the range of practical skills being completed and discourages some teachers from exploring a wider range of practical activities in lessons. 

In consultation with experts, such as teachers, employers and Higher Education (HE), we have concluded that a written examination testing skills that can only be obtained through practical work is the best way forward at this point.  Our work on International GCSEs indicates that such an alternative to a practical paper is perfectly feasible, promoting a wide range of practical skills during the course and providing a straightforward assessment.

Examination Aids 

Science assessments should use real data. Without calculators students would struggle to solve real life Science problems, for example the February draft of the National Curriculum includes calculations using the ideal gas constant R = 8.31 J K–1 mol–1. We recommend therefore that students should be allowed to use calculators for all 14-16 Science examinations.

The Periodic Table is an important tool which allows higher order concepts to be tested. The alternative to its provision would be to provide data in those questions where it is needed, but this would reduce the level of demand considerably since candidates would no longer need to devise their own problem solving strategy. We recommend therefore that students should be allowed to use copies of the Periodic Table in 14-16 Chemistry examinations.

If 14-16 Physics exams are to be accessible to the widest ability range – and we believe they should – certain formulae need to be made available during the exam. However, some formulae (e.g. average speed = distance ÷ time) are such fundamental concepts that everyone should learn them. We intend to work with learned societies and others to create a consensus around which formulae fit this description.

As part of our on-going programme to develop reformed GCSEs we will continue to consult as widely as possible with teachers, learned societies and Higher Education. If you would like to share your views with us please email

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Research Matters

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