Alongside his workshop on this topic, NACE Associate Ed Walsh shares five ways to refresh your approach to GCSE science for high-attaining students...

1. Think BEYOND the exams

First, let me make clear that I’m not arguing for a dilution of effort with students being prepared for examination. Good GCSE grades are important, providing passports to the next phase. There’s also a risk that if highly able students don’t get top grades in science, they may assume this field is not for them and pursue other avenues.

However, focusing your attention beyond the exams – and encouraging learners to do the same – has two immediately obvious benefits. For many students, seeing the subject in a wider context is in fact exactly what they need to engage them whilst working towards exams. Second, if students see science as more than a “hard slog” driven by GCSE exam preparation, it is more likely they will look favourably on science and other STEM subjects when considering options post-16. 

2. Don’t rely on the assertion that “science is everywhere” to convince students they should study it

I often hear words to this effect when interviewing teacher training candidates, and I’m never very impressed. Whilst obviously true, it may not carry much weight with an unconvinced 15-year-old. As the EEF report Improving Secondary Science suggests, there is a difference between students seeing science as generally significant and powerful (which many of them do), and seeing it as personally relevant or “for them”.

There’s scope here for us to rethink the way we “sell” science. While pointing out its prevalence can be useful, we also need to highlight the wide range of skills and ideas it develops – thinking logically, analysing evidence, identifying causal links – which have currency far beyond any narrowly defined scientific context.  Being good at science opens far more doors than just the ones that lead to research labs.

3. Provide opportunities for meaningful science experiences…

Recent research suggests that higher rates of science capital correlate with a stronger likelihood of learners pursuing continuing education, training and employment in STEM subjects. Of the four components of science capital – what you know, how you think, what you do and who you know – the formal science curriculum is generally pretty good at developing the first two. However, it’s in everyone’s best interests for science departments to expand their focus on the latter two – what you do and who you know – particularly where learners have few opportunities to develop these outside school.

To address the “what you do” component, seek out and promote opportunities for learners to engage with science and to see science in action – such as science-related news stories and documentaries, local visits and events, and extracurricular hobbies and interests. Where possible, build on learners’ existing interests and activities.

4. … and inspiring encounters

“Who you know” is also key. It can be incredibly powerful for a young person to have someone say to them, as an individual, that they’d be good at being a scientist, studying engineering, going into technology or taking maths to a higher level. Lots of STEM professionals had this experience – a key encounter with someone from their extended family, local community or through an organised activity. 

For many young scientists these experiences and encounters don’t necessarily happen through school – but for some if they don’t happen through school they probably won’t at all. Examples I’ve seen recently paying dividends in this area are the Greenpower Challenge and, for A-level students, Nuffield Research Placements. The services of a good STEM Ambassador are a real asset too.

5. Reframe the goals of KS3

During secondary science CPD events, I often ask: “Is your KS3 course doing its job?” This starts as a discussion about the role of key ideas and developing enquiry skills in preparation for GCSE. However, we could also make the case for KS3 being judged on its capacity to inspire and engage. Do learners get to see how science not only changes lives but can be engaging, intriguing and rewarding? Do activities make students not just “GCSE ready”, but confident and capable? As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re probably right.”

With experience as a secondary head of science, county science adviser and a regional and senior adviser for the Secondary National Strategy, Ed Walsh is an independent consultant in science education. With a proven track record in helping schools improve their science provision, he has published widely in the field, and developed and delivered training for teachers and heads of science, including on behalf of organisations such as ASE and AQA. As a NACE associate, Ed designs and delivers training and resources to support effective teaching and learning for the more able in science.

This blog post was originally published in a longer form at

Additional reading and resources

  • NACE Essentials: Realising the potential of more able learners in GCSE science
  • NACE Essentials: CEIAG for more able learners
  • Webinar: Science capital – putting the research into practice
  • Webinar: Effective questioning in science
To access these resources, log in to the NACE members’ site.
Monday, March 11, 2019