A-levels and GCSEs to be tougher
Sweeping changes to A-levels will see sixth-formers given a separate mark for science practical work in the future, while those studying English will face "unseen" texts and history students will study a greater range of past events, it has been announced.
At GCSE, teenagers taking foreign languages will be asked to do more translating from English, and those studying history will have to learn more about Britain's past.
The changes will mean that teenagers are unlikely to score top grades in science A-levels in the future unless they understand how to do practical experiments, it has been announced.
England's exams regulator Ofqual insisted that the move will put experiments "at the heart" of science.
But science groups expressed concern that practical science marks will not be included in a student's overall A-level grade, saying it would leave universities with an incomplete picture of their abilities.
Details of the major overhaul to science A-levels were announced by the regulator as the Department for Education published new information on the content of a number of new GCSEs and A-levels, due to be introduced to schools in England in 2015 and 2016.
Under the reforms, sixth-formers studying biology, chemistry or physics at A-level will have to conduct at least a dozen experiments over the two-year course.
The courses, which will also include more maths, will be entirely assessed by written exam, which will include questions relating to the theory of the practicals that the students have carried out.
To get good marks in their exam papers, teenagers will have to show the knowledge and understanding that they have gained through doing this lab work, Ofqual said.
Alongside their final grade, students will then also receive a pass or fail mark for their practical work, it added. This is likely to be assessed by teachers and moderated by exam boards conducting spot checks on schools.
Chief regulator Glenys Stacey said: "Our arrangements are designed so that if schools do not do sufficient and sufficiently varied experiments and allow students enough experience of practical lab work then their results will suffer."
Many science teachers see the current system as "stultifying", Ms Stacey said, and in the worst cases, students have little direct experience of experiments.
"It will no longer be possible for a student to do really well unless they are able to demonstrate that they do have the experience and understanding of experimentation when they sit those exams," she added.
Ms Stacey did concede that in some cases a student could theoretically still get a high overall grade and a fail for their practical work.
But Professor Julia Buckingham, chair of the science group SCORE, said: "Universities are likely to perceive A-level grades as a full reflection of a student's knowledge and ability, but the grading will not include practical work which is an integral component of science learning and an essential foundation for studying science at university."
In history, A-level students will have to study topics from a range of 200 years rather than 100 in future, as well as covering the history of more than one country or state outside of Britain.
Those taking English A-level will have to read at least three works from before 1900, and at least one 20th century text. A requirement for students to be tested on "unseen" literary texts has also been reintroduced, the DfE said.
Among changes to GCSEs is an overhaul of science and foreign languages.
Education Secretary Michael Gove said the level of details and scientific knowledge that pupils will need in science-based subjects has increased "significantly", with more maths for each topic.
Pupils will have to cover new topics such as the human genome, gene technology and space physics, he said.
In modern foreign languages GCSEs most questions will now be asked in the relevant language rather than English, and youngsters will also have to do more work translating from English into their chosen language.
Around 40% of the new history GCSE exam will now be on British history, the DfE said, compared with 25% previously.
Pupils will also have to cover historical topics from three different eras (medieval, early modern and modern), the department added, while in geography there is a new requirement for students to carry out at least two cases of fieldwork outside the classroom.
Mr Gove said: "Our changes will make GCSEs and A-levels more ambitious, with greater stretch for the most able. They will prepare young people better for the demands of employment and further study. They will address the pernicious damage caused by grade inflation and dumbing down, which have undermined students' achievements. And they will give pupils, parents, teachers, universities and employers greater confidence in the integrity and reliability of our qualifications system."
The new content comes on the same day as the Government announced that GCSEs and A-levels in arts subjects such as music and drama are to undergo a radical overhaul in a bid to make the courses tougher.