Case Study 4: Contributing to evidence-informed curriculum policy in secondary school science
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Leeds
Unit of AssessmentEducation
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Education: Curriculum and Pedagogy, Specialist Studies In Education
Summary of the impact
Over more than two decades research conducted at Leeds has had two
interrelated impacts: i) supporting the decision-making process of those
responsible for reforming the school science curriculum by providing
timely and robust research evidence, for example within the recent DfE
National Curriculum Review in England; ii) inspiring follow-on research
and development activities funded by professional organisations, whose aim
is to inform and influence science education policy and practice.
The University of Leeds has made a distinctive contribution to
identifying and evaluating a long- term trend towards a school science
curriculum that attempts to address the needs of all school students, not
just those likely to continue into post-compulsory science courses.
A research programme has been sustained through a series of research
projects since the 1990s, based entirely from the School of Education at
the University of Leeds. Core researchers are Professor Edgar Jenkins
(1967 — now retired), Professor Jim Donnelly (1984 — now retired),
Professor Jim Ryder (Professor of Science Education, 1994 — present), Dr
Matt Homer (Research Fellow, 2002 — present) and Dr Indi Banner (Lecturer
in Science Education, 2008 — present).
A long-term trend since the 1960s, referred to as a `humanisation' of the
school science curriculum , is evidenced by two clear strands:
i) the growing role of vocational/applied curricula, and
ii) the teaching of socio-scientific issues and the nature of science.
The first strand, focusing on the growing role of vocational/applied
curricula, has been led by Professor Donnelly, and funded by the
ESRC [RG1] and the Nuffield Foundation [RG2]. Research
evaluated the meaning, impact and significance of Applied Science through
examining policy documents, interviews with teachers and students, and
through a value added study of the performance of students using the
National Pupil Database (NPD) [2, 3].
This research identified two key issues. Firstly, the goals of such
vocational/applied curricula have often been under-defined. This has led
to a lack of clarity of focus in the enactment and evaluation of such
courses. Secondly, University of Leeds research has shown that the
provision of vocational/applied curricula alongside more traditional
courses offerings has resulted in a stratification of science provision by
student attainment, with lower attaining students more likely to be
following `lower status' vocational/applied courses that tend not to
provide routes into post- compulsory education.
The second strand focuses on the increasing inclusion of teaching
about socio-scientific issues and the nature of science. This is a
growing trend in school science curricula internationally, often
associated with the call for `scientific literacy' or `science for
citizenship'. Our work has examined how adults use science outside of
formal science schooling, showing that science-based insights sit
alongside ethical, social and practical issues in shaping people's
decisions. This has led to our distinctive critique of the feasibility of
the goals of `scientific literacy' in a school context [1, 4].
This research has been underpinned by a series of externally funded
In particular, a three year study from 2008 — 2011, Enactment and Impact
of Science Education Reform (EISER) [RG5], funded by the ESRC and
the Gatsby Foundation, provided a longitudinal analysis of the impact of
increased emphasis on applied science and the teaching of socio-scientific
issues. It focused on teachers' experiences of working with the new
science curriculum, the impact of these reforms on student achievement,
student attitudes towards science education and participation in
post-compulsory science courses. Key findings have been elaborated in
several publications [1, 3, 4], offering details of how the
science curriculum has become much more diverse and stratified, of how the
reforms have been received and implemented in schools, and also of the
mixed reaction by students, with some indicating a preference for a more
traditional science curriculum focusing on canonical science knowledge.
As a result of this, and previous research, the University of Leeds has
become known as a centre for excellence for science curriculum reform
research and in the use the National Pupil Database. The basis of this
reputation was formed by a series of three ESRC funded projects [RG6-8]
from 1990 — 1999, positioning University of Leeds researchers as leading
experts in the field. Research showed the tension between enabling
students to engage in investigatory work in the school science classroom
and the restrictive realities of school curriculum time, availability of
technical resources and broader systemic features of schooling such as
external assessment. A distinctive finding has been the identification of
the distorting effect of a strong focus on accountability through external
assessment. Investigatory work became re-interpreted in schools as a
series of routinised exercises undertaken by students to gain maximum
marks within summative assessment. This research has been elaborated in 
References to the research
All references can be provided on request, and have been assessed
internally as 3* or 4*.
 Donnelly, J., & Ryder, J. (2011). The Pursuit of Humanity:
Curriculum Change in English School Science. History of Education, 40(3),
291-313. DOI: 10.1080/0046760X.2010.521196
 Bell, J., Donnelly, J., Homer, M., & Pell, G. (2009). A
value-added study of the impact of science curriculum reform using the
National Pupil Database. British Educational Research Journal, 35 (1),
 Homer, M., Ryder, J. and Donnelly, J. (2013). Sources of
differential participation rates in school science: the impact of
curriculum reform. British Educational Research Journal, 39 (2), 248-265.
 Ryder, J., & Banner, I. (2011). Multiple aims in the
development of a major reform of the national curriculum for science in
England. International Journal of Science Education, 33(5), 709-725. DOI:
 Donnelly, J., Buchan, A., Jenkins, E. W., Laws, P., &
Welford, G. (1996). Investigations by Order (Driffield: Studies in
 Donnelly, J., & Jenkins, E. W. (2001). Science Education:
Policy, Professionalism and Change (London: Paul Chapman/SAGE).
Relevant Research Grants
[RG1] ESRC 2003-07 Remaking School Science Education Through
Application. Jim Donnelly. RES-000-23-0229. £220,000.
[RG2] Nuffield Foundation. March-July, 2009. Applied Science in
the 14-19 Science Curriculum. Jim Donnelly. £19,000.
[RG3] Nuffield Foundation 2004-06 Implementation and co-ordination
of the evaluation of Twenty First Century Science project. Jim Donnelly.
[RG4] Qualifications and Curriculum Authority 2007-08. The
Implementation of the 2006 Science Education Reforms at KS4. Jim Donnelly
and Jim Ryder. Two separate research studies totalling £60,000.
[RG5] ESRC/Gatsby 2008-11 Enactment and Impact of Science
Education Reform (EISER). Jim Ryder and Jim Donnelly. RES-179-25-0004.
[RG6] ESRC 1990-92 Policy into Practice: The Internal Assessment
of Practical Skills in Science. Jim Donnelly. R000232253. £68,000.
[RG7] ESRC 1993-95 Realizing Policy: AT1 and Science Education in
KS3 and KS4. Jim Donnelly. R000233875. £130,000.
[RG8] ESRC 1995-99 Change and Continuity in Secondary Science
Teaching. Jim Donnelly. R000236073. £95,000.
Details of the impact
Research by the University of Leeds has informed and shaped understanding
and the decision-making process of those responsible for reforming the
school science curriculum, demonstrating a distinctive contribution to
secondary science education policy and practice. Enhancing participation
in post-compulsory science has become a major policy goal within the UK,
but there has been a clear need for research to inform science curriculum
changes so that an appropriate foundation for further science study is
provided whilst the school science experience of those students who do not
want to pursue post-compulsory science courses is still enhanced.
As an expert in his field, Professor Donnelly was appointed to the
committee developing the Royal Society's four `State of the Nation
Reports' (2007 — 2011), which identified and assessed patterns and trends
in participation and attainment in science and mathematics. Aimed at
influencing future educational policy, Professor Donnelly chaired the
subgroup for one of the reports, `Science and mathematics education for
14-19 year olds', contributing findings from University of Leeds research
into applied science [RG1]. Published in 2008, this report is now
referred to extensively in policy debates concerning the school science
curriculum. For example, it is widely cited in a review commissioned by
the Government in 2010 on science and mathematics secondary education [A].
The evaluation of the GCSE Twenty First Century Science [RG3] was
also central to the call that insights from the development of this
qualification should guide the revision of the new GCSEs which were
introduced in 2006 (as reported in ), with ongoing impact
through to 2008 and beyond. The Director of the Nuffield Foundation
reports that the "evaluation of the Twenty First Century Science pilots
was an important and influential piece of work", adding that, "Jim
[Donnelly] was one of the few people in the country with the authority,
expertise and independence to have carried out this piece of work".
The research into applied science [RG1, RG2] also proved
significant in ensuring that the previous government's decision to go
ahead with a Science Diploma in schools (subsequently abandoned by the
Coalition Government) sought to address key issues of status and
scientific content within the aims of the Diploma. The Director of the
Nuffield Foundation stated that [RG2] "provided a clear and
authoritative picture of what was happening ... this affected our own
thinking directly but it also had influence at wider policy levels".
In particular, this study [RG2] was presented by the Director of
the Nuffield Foundation directly to the Qualifications and Curriculum
Development Agency (QCDA) STEM curriculum committee in 2009, and was "received
with great interest and changed thinking within QCDA. I can say from
experience that few of the discussions of that committee were informed
by such clear and reliable data"... "the data about uptake of
Applied Science at GCSE and Level 3 were new to the people on the
committee. They hadn't appreciated the scale of the uptake of AS, the
rate of growth." [B]
The route to impact can also be traced through University of Leeds
research directly informing and shaping educational policy through, for
example, inclusion of research recommendations in the National Curriculum
Review (NCR). The outcomes from the EISER research study [1, 3, 4]
[RG5] formed the basis of a submission of written evidence in May
2011 to the Department for Education NCR. Although lines of impact within
educational policy are inherently difficult to evidence directly, the
science curriculum reform proposals, published in February 2013, do
include the EISER recommendation that the `science curriculum should
include canonical science knowledge, insights into the practices of
science, and discussions about science-related issues that impact on
society (e.g. climate change)'.
Moreover, as a direct result of this research and subsequent submission,
Professor Ryder was invited on 31 May 2011 to join the NCR Science Expert
Working Group. The director of the Science NCR team at the DfE states that
"we have engaged with the [EISER] study and taken into account its
findings."[C]. In a series of private meetings within the DfE
(June 2011 — July 2012), Professor Ryder also presented the findings of
University of Leeds research to members of the NCR team leading on the
content and development of the new national curriculum.
Further impact is demonstrated by how research has informed and shaped
research and development activities of professional organisations aiming
to influence Government practice and policy. The Head of Education Pre-19
at the Institute of Physics, the leading scientific society working to
advance physics education, research and application, references how EISER
NPD analysis has resulted in ongoing work:
"The EISER research, along with other data from the NPD, contributed
to the Institute's decision to set up and fund a project to look at the
effects of socio-economic conditions on children's likelihood to choose
physics at A-level." [D]
The Director of Programmes [E] in the Education Team at the
Gatsby Charitable Foundation, which aims to strengthen science,
engineering and maths education in the UK and inform national policy,
states that the "Science Education team at Leeds University have made a
significant and sustained impact on our understanding of the science
curriculum in schools. Through a series of investigations and
evaluations they have been able to highlight the differences between the
science curriculum as intended by policy makers and as experienced by
teachers and students."
Furthermore, "From a Gatsby perspective their early work on the role
of practical work in the science curriculum has been critical in
informing our current work in trying to understand how a more benign
system of assessment could promote the development of laboratory skills."
(reference to [RG6, RG7]).
In relation to more recent work led by Professor Ryder, the Director also
reports that EISER analysis of the National Pupil Database "has
provided a strong evidence base for the continued push towards triple
science at KS4 although with some important caveats around inclusion
issues". As a result a `push towards triple science' has become a
key policy goal of the Gatsby Charitable Foundation. [E]
Sources to corroborate the impact
[A] `Science and Mathematics Secondary Education for the 21st
Century: Report of the Science and Learning Expert Group' (2010), an
independent review commissioned by Government
The document references the Royal Society, State of the Nation —
science and mathematics education, 14-19, 2008 http://royalsociety.org/education/policy/state-of-nation/14-19/
[B] Corroboration letter from Director of Nuffield Foundation (up
to Autumn 2012)
[C] Corroboration letter from director of Science and PE team,
Curriculum and General Qualifications Reform Group, National Curriculum
Review Division, Department for Education
[D] Corroboration letter from Head of Education Pre-19, Institute
[E] Corroboration letter from Director of Programmes in the
Education Team, Gatsby Charitable Foundation