Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 49)



Geraldine Smith

  40. Changing the subject slightly, to the question of science laboratories, the Government have said that they are committing £60 million, over two years, 2000 to 2002, to refurbish and rebuild new laboratories. Now I have been to schools, I have been to my old school, in the constituency, and I think it is the same laboratory that I used 30 years ago, and it was pretty tatty then; and, going round other schools, I have seen one where there have been improvements but the school had to come up with a large sum of money themselves. And I just wonder if you feel, is this £60 million having any impact at all; presumably it is doing some good, but is it anywhere near enough, and, if not, what sort of figure do you think may make a difference, if you can come up with a figure off the top of your head, if you can give any indication? Because I have absolutely no idea, £60 million sounds a lot, but when you start looking at the cost, all round the country, it is probably not very much at all?
  (Mr Thomas) Probably I will not be able to come up with a figure. I have seen obviously the £60 million being announced, several times; it was split across two financial years, and, of course, it is having an effect, it is £60 million. I do not believe it is enough. I think a lot more could be done, both with the actual bricks and mortar of the laboratories, but also actually kitting it out.

  41. What would you call a lot more?
  (Mr Thomas) I really do not want to put a figure on it. I would be happy for The Society to submit something in writing afterwards, when we have had time to consider it, but I would not want to come up with a figure off the top of my head.

  42. I think that would be interesting, if maybe we could get some sort of written response on this?
  (Mr Thomas) Surely. The Society actually has done quite a lot of work, certainly a few years ago, on the provision of laboratory equipment, and particularly the kitting-out of it, so we should be able to provide you with something with a reasonably firm evidence base.

  Chairman: That would be very helpful.

Mr Heath

  43. Are schools ripped off by the equipment producers?
  (Mr Thomas) Not to my knowledge.

  44. Because I have just had the example put to me, at the school I visited recently, where the cost of a multimeter, through scientific equipment providers, was extortionate, and they were available for £2.99 down at Sainsbury's Homebase, and the class now each have a multimeter, as a result. So it is a reasonable example; or is it?
  (Mr Thomas) I have not heard that previously. It is a competitive market, there is more than one equipment supplier.
  (Ms Wilson) And the School Science Service do offer advice on good value for money, with equipment. I think some of the initiatives that schools can bid into means that provision, and quality of laboratory provision, is very varied, so some schools really do not need all that much more. They have good quality labs, they are pleasant, nicely painted, well designed, in terms of teaching, with a variety of styles, but there are some schools that just seem to lose out all round, where a massive injection of funds is needed. And this is where, as you mentioned earlier, the science adviser in the past was able to help a school with determining what equipment to buy; science teachers stayed in post longer, you had less turnover, and so there was always somebody who knew about where the good places were to buy equipment, could be in contact with a school down the road and learn from them. Quite a lot of science teachers feel quite isolated in their schools now, and schools are encouraged, in many ways, to be competitive and not to share, to the extent they used to. But we could do with massive injections of funds into equipment and the sheer appearance of the laboratory.

Geraldine Smith

  45. I was wondering, just a thought, is there any prospect of maybe a few schools in an area joining together to have one sort of super lab, which is something they could use, or would that be completely impractical?
  (Dr Osborne) I think one of the things is that people do not realise that, actually, in many lessons, practical work goes on, so that you do need a substantial number of laboratories. And the kinds of surveys that have been done on laboratory use in schools have always come up with figures of over 90 per cent use, so that gives very little time for the kind of maintenance. The other point I would like to make is, I have just done a quick calculation on your figure of £60 million, and I think that may possibly refurbish a thousand laboratories. Now there are getting on for 5,000 schools, and they all have more than one laboratory; so the sum of money required is very much greater.

  46. Yes. I noticed that when I went round one school, and it was one lovely laboratory, that they had helped refurbish and Government money had helped, but then there were a couple of others that were still just as tatty, and you just think, well, it is so difficult.
  (Ms Wilson) Computer facilities are very important as well, and many schools will have lovely computer facilities, but they are not in the control of the science department, so you have to timetable your science lesson for when you might need computers; well, a good teacher will need a computer at a different time, and the amount of computer provision there is in science laboratories ready to be accessed whenever it is appropriate is not sufficient.

Mr McWalter

  47. I just wonder if you have got some documentary evidence to the effect that it will cost £60 million to upgrade a school laboratory, because that was what was implied in your figure?
  (Dr Osborne) That was.

  48. If that is, indeed, the figure, I think we need that written into the record somehow, because it would be very helpful to us, if we are going to make the kind of claim to the Government that clearly you would like us to make?
  (Dr Osborne) We can get some figures.


  49. Thank you very much; that will be very helpful. I really do have to rush ahead now. Can I say, Ms Wilson, you and your team have kicked off in great style, and it has guided us, indeed, to areas we will probably get into in much more detail. Thank you very much for taking time off. Order, order; we will have a five-minute break while the other team comes in. You are very welcome to stay. And thank you very much, again, and you will get our report in the fullness of time.
  (Ms Wilson) Thank you for giving us the opportunity.

  Chairman: Thank you.

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