Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)



  Chairman: Welcome to the first session in our inquiry into what for us is an extremely important area of scientific endeavour in this country, the people who are taught in our schools from 14 to 19, and, of course, there are issues of further education colleges, and so on, and teachers; and we look forward to this session today. Thank you all for coming, and, since there are many of you, I am quite sure, as good teachers, you have got your act together and you have a spokesperson; but, nevertheless, do not let that deflect from other people who want to come in.

  Dr Iddon: Chairman, before we start, can I declare an interest, as usual. I am Parliamentary Liaison Officer to the Royal Society of Chemistry, and I would like that recorded.

  Chairman: Thank you, Dr Iddon. Let us start off with Mr McWalter, who has to leave us briefly, so I will let him have the first question.

Mr McWalter

  1. I apologise for that. I have a Statutory Instrument in a couple of minutes' time. I just wanted to raise the question, as a maths graduate, do you think that science students have the mathematical capability they need, to support their scientific study; and if there is a problem with maths does it lie within the maths curriculum, or does it lie rather in a lack of co-ordination between, say, mathematics and the teaching of physics, as an example, or other such subjects?
  (Ms Wilson) Can I take that just initially and bring my colleagues in. When the National Curriculum was first introduced, there was a lack of co-ordination between the science curriculum and the maths curriculum, and when the latest revision was undertaken some of that was ironed out. There are some problems, in that the conventions that the mathematicians use and the conventions that the science teachers use for the same thing are sometimes different. Certainly, for my own subject area, physics, our problem is not particularly the content of the maths curriculum but the degree to which students have the chance to practise their mathematics and to develop their skills and to develop a firm foundation in their skills. We do believe, post 16, as physicists, that if we need mathematics then, to an extent, we should be prepared to teach that mathematics, as and when it is needed, for the physics; we do not believe that we should dictate to the mathematicians what mathematics they should teach. And we believe there are actually advantages if the teachers are capable of teaching the mathematics through the physics context, because then the reason for studying that particular aspect of maths is clear, and students develop the additional mathematical skills within context and with a motivation to learn that mathematics, because they can see why they need to learn it.

  2. I wonder whether Lucy Allen might wish to comment on whether the mathematicians are maybe making it much too difficult for people anyway to get the confidence they need to want to carry on with sciences?
  (Ms Allen) I think we would just reiterate, really, what Catherine has just outlined. It is having the opportunity to cross-apply between contexts, and there is probably a case for mathematics and science looking at the links between the subject areas within a curriculum and working out to make it more specific, more explicit to the students how they are actually using maths within a science context, because that makes more sense to learn; and that will be the motivation, and they will be able to learn how to apply what they are learning, rather than in a fixed context.

  3. Perhaps I should just ask Nigel is it a worry to The Royal Society?
  (Mr Thomas) As you may know, The Society undertook a study of geometry, around nine months ago; in particular, we found that, post 16, the mathematics curriculum should be revised and looked at. Looking at geometry, we found that there was a lack of teaching of spatial awareness, which obviously has a direct link into some of the stuff that they will be doing, as scientists, in higher education. It is a concern to us. The Society would certainly recommend, at a local level, at least, there is time built into the school week to allow teachers to talk to each other. We have certainly found that this is one of the main issues; teachers are so busy teaching their own subject and do not have the time just to sit down for an hour or two hours a week to say, "This is what's coming up in the science curriculum; can we see any links between what you are about to teach them in mathematics?"
  (Ms Wilson) I will certainly reinforce that. As the Institute of Physics, we had a joint maths/physics working party within the last two, three years. We did not actually reach agreement, necessarily, but, having the time to talk to each other and listen to each other's point of view, we came to a better understanding, and there is not time for that sort of discussion and linking between science and mathematics in schools.

Mr Heath

  4. Can I put a simplistic proposition to you; it is simplistic in the extreme, which is that there is a higher correlation, as we know, obviously, a relationship between physics and mathematics, but some children are not naturally able in maths—it is not a subject that they like particularly; would you accept a proposition that the National Curriculum insistence on teaching across the three sciences actually has a drag effect on some children, students, who are drawn to the life sciences but have an aversion to the mathematical side of physics and find that they are unable to progress because they are required to do a subject which, to them, is entirely alien? It is probably a question to the biologists, in the first instance, but I do not know.
  (Ms Day) I think there have been some studies on this, and, I think, if the support is there for the mathematics and if it can be taught through the context of life sciences, and so forth, that they will continue to do it.

  5. Even though it is a subject which they may not like particularly, or choose, and there are other options available to them in the curriculum? I am thinking of that crucial point where they decide what they are going to progress with, and they think, "Oh, I don't want to do physics; I'd love to do biology but I can't do physics. I'll do chemistry because I can see it relates, but I don't want to do physics." I am sorry, it is a simplistic proposition.
  (Ms Wilson) Certainly, one of the problems with linkage of physics and maths is the fact that, if you do physics and you wish to continue with physics post 18 then you will have to do maths as a second subject, and maths and physics are two of the most difficult; the perception of students is that they are the most difficult ones, and they want to broaden; so if they are faced with a choice that they have to do physics and they have to do maths, and they perceive them as difficult, that might be a disincentive. In fact, the amount of mathematics that is required now for GCSE science is such that I would not have thought necessarily they would be put off very readily by their experience of mathematics in science up to that level.


  6. Thank you very much. You see Mr McWalter has deceived me here; he has returned. Let me go back a bit to the first question I was going to ask you, which is much gentler, really. It was going to ask if you could say, just briefly, how your institutions are involved with influencing science education policy and with supporting schools—if you could do it in a few, brief sentences, which, as educationalists, I am sure you will be able to do; each institution, what your role is, and the successes perhaps?
  (Ms Day) The Institute of Biology, yes, the policy; we have regular meetings with fellow education officers and we respond to issues as they come up, and we consult with teachers to represent their views.

  7. Have you been successful in influencing science education policy, do you think?
  (Ms Day) Yes, I believe so.
  (Dr Osborne) I think I would agree with that. The Royal Society of Chemistry has a large INSET programme for teachers, and produces a vast amount of curriculum material, which is sent to all schools, to enhance the teaching of chemistry and the wider kind of investigative science. In terms of policy, I think we are quite successful in influencing organisations like QCA, in terms of formulating what they do and the way they should be moving forward.
  (Ms Wilson) Yes, I think one of the great strengths that we have at the moment is that we do meet regularly, as education officers, across the science institutions, including the Association for Science Education. I think we would like to have more influence; we do not think that science education is all that it should be and would like to see changes introduced. But we do feel that we have the ear of certain of the Government agencies; perhaps we are a little concerned that we work, interact, very well with, for instance, the QCA science team but we are not sure how much what we discuss with them actually percolates up through the system.[1]

  (Mr Thomas) The Royal Society obviously has a remit across all the sciences and mathematics, and so one of our roles is to help to bring the other organisations together, to see if there are any common threads, and often there are. Recent successes, if I take the last 12 months, as I mentioned earlier: the Society issued a geometry report, which is influencing the National Numeracy Strategy; it is going out to all the regional trainers at the moment. In science, as you may know, The Society, with the ASE, recently did two reports on school technicians, and it is pleasing to report that the Department for Education and Skills has asked us to set up a joint working group to take those recommendations forward. So I would say certainly we have had quite a lot of influence, in the last 12, 18 months.

  (Ms Allen) The Institute of Mathematics is much smaller than the other organisations, and participation in the secondary area of education is a recently new field for us. We have actually been consulting with our members and providing feedback to QCA, particularly at the moment, on the AS mathematics review, and we are involved on the actual criteria review panel and we have actually met with the Head of Curriculum Division; but the focus of that is feedback, consulting with members. We are in discussions with the Technology College Trust, at the moment, to look at the criteria being set up for the new specialism, maths and computing, and we have set up a group which picks up members from the other maths organisations and mathematicians who are practising in various sectors of the economy; so, hopefully, the output of that will be a guidance document which will inform both teachers and schools of the expectations of employers, and the employers of how they are using schools.

  Chairman: I will have to adjourn for ten minutes; we have a vote; that is an indication of a vote. Thank you.

  The Committee suspended from 4.38 pm to 4.46 pm for a division in the House.


  8. I hope that we do not have any more interruptions; it is discontinuous for us, too, and disruptive, but it is the nature of the place. Let me ask you a question then, as professional bodies, if you have official discussions about the content of the curriculum; what sort of things could you influence, what have you influenced, how do you go about it, have you got good examples? For example, if I wanted to prevent Darwinian teaching in schools, which is not unknown, how would you influence a process like that?
  (Ms Wilson) Our first vehicle is through the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, and certainly when the A level specifications and the criteria were last revised we all had representations on the QCA committee, relevant QCA committees, and fought our pitches for our separate subjects, and generally asked for less content, because we believe that curricula tend to be overloaded. And when I said that we would like to influence science education more, we would like there to be more time to explore the interests that young people have, to look at the relevance of the science that they learn in schools to their lives, to look at the issues raised by science for society.

  9. But the curriculum is overloaded, so you have not been influential really in that, have you? Who are the big hitters then, in terms of deciding the curriculum?
  (Ms Wilson) That is one of the problems we have; we can discuss with QCA at our level, but when it gets beyond that we do not have, as the education officers, an opportunity to influence, and likewise teachers do not have the opportunity to influence, to the extent which we would like.

Dr Iddon

  10. I would like just to reinforce the question. Do you think that we drop enough of the "old science"in order to be able to replace it with the new science, or do we just overload the curriculum because we do not do the former?
  (Ms Wilson) I think we very rarely start with anything like a clean sheet of paper; and one of the things we see as an advantage, of looking at the curriculum 14-19, is that there may be opportunities for looking at the needs of youngsters, whatever their aspirations, attitudes, ambitions are, to try to develop a curriculum which is closer to their needs. And we would be delighted if the current Government Green Paper, or this Committee, enabled us to have more influence in that respect.
  (Dr Osborne) I think also though that we have all agreed that the current QCA proposals for a science curriculum for the 21st century go quite a considerable way towards producing a science curriculum for everybody, not just those who are going to be future scientists. And we can see that, actually, possibly, that may influence some of those students who would do such a course then to consider taking sciences post 16, because they are actually enthused by something that relates to their everyday life, rather than abstract, if you like, almost last century science.

Bob Spink

  11. I will come to that in a moment, but, on the science curriculum key stage 4, the learned societies, I think, drew the conclusion that it fails to inspire and challenge, and you are looking for both inspiring and challenging those students who want to take science as a profession, later on, as a career, and also just increasing awareness and engagement in science for those who will be citizens and need an understanding of science for their future lives. Bearing all that in mind, the Government's, the DfES, Green Paper for 14-19s, that was published in February this year, that proposed that science remains compulsory at key stage 4, but that it needs reviewing and updating, shall we say; what needs to be changed in the curriculum to make sure that at key stage 4 the curriculum becomes appealing to both sets, the professional scientist, in future, and those who would need science as citizens; what needs changing; how can it be changed?
  (Mr Thomas) As Dr Osborne has said, really the new proposals on the table from the QCA for keeping science in step with the 21st century, we believe, are very good. They divide 20 per cent of the curriculum dedicated to science into two halves at key stage 4, roughly speaking, with one half for all people, dedicated largely to science for citizenship, and then another 10 per cent will be taken by students, and that 10 per cent will be determined by their aspirations, their abilities; if they wanted to go on to do science at university, that may be a different 10 per cent than if they wanted to do another subject. It actually ties into something that Dr Gibson asked originally, in terms of the influence that the learned societies have. Those proposals have been drawn up now for a year, or so, and currently are still going through iteration, and at every stage the discussions we have had with QCA influence that growth. And so, from the Green Paper, when these proposals do come out and get piloted in 2003, I think that was a concrete example of where the learned societies have had an effect on the curriculum that is taught.

  12. Clearly, QCA will lead the process, but you think the learned societies should have an input to that. Dr Iddon asked you the question about whether we cut enough of the old when we bring in the new, or whether we leave the curriculum cluttered; what would you actually cut from the science budget to make space for this new science citizenship; what would you cut; can you give specifics?
  (Mr Thomas) From the science curriculum?

  13. Yes?
  (Mr Thomas) The President of the Royal Society, Lord May, was asked this question two weeks ago, and he said "anything." Really, it almost does not matter what you cut out, if you can get a coherent base for the curriculum that trains science for citizenship; then arguing about whether it should be one aspect of physics, or one aspect of chemistry, is almost a waste of time.
  (Dr Osborne) I think there are some fundamental, major ideas of science that all people need to have, but it is the way you exemplify them; much of the exemplification is in very old-fashioned terms, that does not relate to what young people see about them today. I think another point to make is that this kind of science is not a dumbing-down, in many cases it is more difficult than the present kind of, if you like, science training for future scientists.
  (Ms Wilson) The key stage 3 science strategy is being developed around key ideas of science, which are the basic building-blocks; clearly, one must have some basic building-blocks, you cannot have a content-free curriculum, but we want to make sure that those are exemplified in ways that give youngsters an interest in the science and keep their enthusiasm. Each stage, I think, will say, even higher education will say to us, we do not mind if they have less of a science background, as long as they are still excited by the science that they are receiving at the previous level. We can add on to that, as long as the enthusiasm is there and the basic building-blocks are there.

  Bob Spink: I am delighted to hear you say that. Let us forget we are in Committee now; let us think we are in the pub, over a pint, just having a chat, do you actually yearn for the days when you had the flashes and bangs and the smells of old-fashioned science, that I used to have when I was a little boy? Do you think that would do any good?

  Chairman: It sounds like you do, though, Dr Spink.

Bob Spink

  14. I yearn for the pint.
  (Dr Osborne) I have to say, with good teachers, they are still there, and that is the way they get their students excited with what they are doing.

  15. To follow on, with Ms Wilson—the Institute of Physics actually withdrew from the joint submission, and submitted separately, right at the end, and presumably that is because you want to see the unique and separate identity of physics maintained. Can you expand on that a little bit, just clear up what happened?
  (Ms Wilson) What we have produced is a statement which is complementary to the joint statement from the other organisations; we are not arguing against that. We do believe though that physics is in almost a unique situation, in that it is the basis of the physical school sciences, physics in higher education and engineering. We do not have currently enough people going through into higher education to provide graduates going into the physics-based industries; we do not have enough people of quality going on and getting degrees who will want to come into teaching; we must safeguard that pool of people who will study physics or engineering post 16 and post 18, but that is not to say that we do not support the tenet of getting a more appropriate science for everyone up to the age of 16. So it is an emphasis, not a difference.


  16. I would still like to hear from you, though, that there is something in the curriculum that you would do away with, a load of nonsense that is being taught. Is Boyle's Law nonsense, for example? I always thought it was, but I never understood it, really.
  (Ms Wilson) We do not need to teach it now; there have been things that have dropped out.

  17. Oh, right; you have got rid of it at last?
  (Ms Wilson) Like Snell's Law. What we do not like is the scatter-gun approach to the National Curriculum, where we have a bit of this and a bit of that; we want more coherence, taking a story and seeing it through; now, to an extent, which story it is is not important, as long as we have got the basic there. At the moment, the young person studying science up to the age of 16 does not get a feel for what the sciences are about, because it is lots of little topics crammed in together.

Mr Heath

  18. Really, just to clarify it for me, because, what you are saying about science and citizenship, I think, is that you teach scientific principles and relate them to everyday experience, which is absolutely what I am hearing from children that they want from the curriculum and they are not getting at the moment; they are just getting facts, rather than relevance. But is there a risk of losing, in that approach, scientific method, techniques, skills, or are they all acquirable later?
  (Ms Wilson) We would see these as being most important, as part of science and citizenship, as part of understanding science, as part of our culture, the way in which science has developed over the years; it is about just the sorts of things that you are saying, so it is looking at evidence and how people arrive at evidence, how theories are put forward, or disproved, not proved, disproved. So it is the science process we see as important as the science content. I think we are reluctant to talk about what we would drop, because—


  19. It might be somebody else's subject, perhaps; that is the problem, is it not, really?
  (Ms Wilson) Yes; and it is not something to be entered into lightly.

1   Note by witness: The Institute of Physics, like the Royal Society of Chemistry, runs a varied programme of in-service training activities for teachers, including courses in physics for non-specialists. Additionally it provides some curriculum enrichment resources and an electronic link-up/discussion group for teachers. The Institute also runs activities for students, aiming to portray the excitement, relevance and fun of the subject through residential courses, one-day events and lectures. It produces a range of careers material for pupils/students from age 11 upwards. Having developed a successful new A-level physics scheme, the Institute is about to invest in the development of an electronically-based resource to support those who teach physics 11-14 , but who do not have a strong background in the subject. Back

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