Out with the old GCSE Physics, in with the new!

This June, all the work Year 11 had done for science over three years culminated in 9 exams; in a strange way, this made me nostalgic. AQA GCSE Triple Science was a mountain, each year one stage closer to completing the content, though the road got steeper approaching the peak. Looking back on Physics in particular, I had a dilemma. The hours of self-teaching, note-taking and YouTube videos felt like the opposite of the “interesting stuff”: from the frontiers of sub-atomic understanding to the search for exoplanets and other ideas larger than life. But the GCSE’s are changing, the question is, are they changing for the better?

The most enjoyable bits of GCSE Physics, for me at least, were also the toughest to learn: the content of P3 (Triple only) covered the medical applications of the subject, followed by two sections that delved into how the world around works (and is powered!). Topics such as the motor effect involved practicals that left the class stunned, and these demonstrations or the hands-on work was probably one common factor in the popular areas of this GCSE! There were also skills emphasised in Physics over the last few years that I’m glad to have developed- for one, the importance of maths skills and equation manipulation. Also, Physics provided the best opportunity to practise recording and graphically representing our data, a pivotal aspect of the (now obsolete) ISA’s which also proved to be key in the exams themselves.

The old system did, however, have drawbacks which prompted this reform. In Physics, the curriculum was noticeably disorganised, with similar topics taught in different years rather than following on (e.g topics about energy), as well as indistinct boundaries between topics that were common to all three sciences, such as renewable energy. Some key concepts included in the GCSE such as red shift, the life cycle of a star and the Universe, were squeezed together into one topic. This did not allow for enough time for these concepts to inspire interest in Astrophysics in many students, as can be said for much of the curriculum. Many students found that the emphasis on learning ‘key points’ and repeatable phrases off by heart dulled the STEM subjects in particular. This year’s exams particularly can be said to have had more of a focus on the application of key ideas, as well as their relation to data, perhaps as a move towards what the new wave of qualifications will entail, however throughout the past papers our cohort have trawled through this was not the case. The shift to a better organised GCSE cannot be more gladly accepted.

The most notable changes to the GCSE Sciences and more specifically Physics include the shift from modular exams to two main assessments: both consisting of a combination of multiple choice, structured and short/long written questions, the first covering topics 1–4 (Energy, Electricity, Particle model of matter, Atomic structure) and the second for topics 5–8 (Forces, Waves, Magnetism and electromagnetism, Space physics) with general concepts from 1–4. The ISA was made redundant following the increased emphasis on compulsory experiments, on which students will be examined. The content has not undergone major changes other than the reshuffling, however it must be noted that there are some developments in: the particle model of matter, pressure in liquids, uses of generator effect (for example, the microphone), as well as orbital motion and red shift.

From this year on, it’s true that the GCSE period will be very different. But with a reorganised specification that builds upon itself, more scope to explore the topics and a heavier focus on the practical understanding that should accompany any theory, I would argue that this refinement is a one small step for exam boards, and one leap forward for students!