High-flying GCSE students set for an A or A* pass scored zero points in a mock science exam which included old O-level questions.
The two-hour exam, devised by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) and named "The Five Decade Challenge", included questions from past science papers spread over the past 43 years.
The results published today showed the older the paper, the fewer marks the students scored. For instance, the average score for the 2005 paper questions was 35 per cent, compared to 15 per cent for the 1965 questions.
Overall, the average score was 25 per cent but the RSC said some children scored no marks at all. The RSC called the test, taken by just over 1,300 of the country's brightest 16-year-olds, the first hard evidence of a "catastrophic slippage" in exam standards.
In a petition launched on the Downing Street website, the RSC says the current examination system was "failing a generation, which will be unequipped to address key issues facing society, whether as specialist scientists or members of a scientific community".
Too many teachers were "teaching to the test" because of the pressure of performance league tables, so students were missing out on background information to help them understand their subject. Despite taking into account syllabus changes which meant certain topics – such as enthalpy and bond energies – were not tackled until A-level, the results, it argued, provided conclusive proof that the papers had become easier. In particular, it added, today's pupils lacked the maths skills necessary to tackle the calculations associated with equations.
Dr Richard Pike, chief executive of the RSC, said: "The brightest pupils are not being trained in mathematical techniques, because they can get a grade A* pass without doing a single calculation. Conversely, the majority get at least a 'good pass' (grade C) by showing merely a superficial knowledge on a wide range of issues but no understanding of the fundamentals.
"The fact highly-intelligent youngsters were unfamiliar with these types of questions, obtaining on average 35 per cent from recent papers and just 15 per cent from the 1960s, points to a systematic failure and misplaced priorities in the education system."
The top mark was 94 per cent. The average was 33 per cent for independent schools, 23 per cent for state schools, 27 per cent for boys and 23 per cent for girls. "Children are being asked questions that show our curriculum isn't preparing them for the 21st century," said Michael Gove, the shadow Education Secretary.
A campaign to recruit 6,600 science teachers in the next two years is being launched today by the Training and Development Agency, which is responsible for teacher recruitment. It is exceeding its recruitment target for science teachers by two per cent this year.
"The Schools minister thinks science should be made more 'girl-friendly'. How so? By studding lab coats with pink rhinestones?"