Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 231-239)




  231. Thank you very much to our first group of witnesses for coming along today to help us in our session on science education from 14 to 19. I am sure you know that we have been talking to young people who are in the system now and we have been really freshened up. We look forward to your help today. I think we will just start now because we have several groups after you. I do not know how you want to handle answering questions but if everybody answers we will be here until midnight. Or you will be here; we will not! We will try and work that out informally. We are very pleased to have you. You bring lots of experience. We are looking forward to all the groups today. We will start off by asking you to introduce yourselves and tell us what you think are the three key issues facing the teaching of science to 14 to 19-year-olds today. I do not know who wants to start. Michelle, are you the leadership?

  (Ms Ryan) I do not think so; we are a team here. The first thing I would like to say is there is a certain degree of disparity between academics and what goes on in schools. A lot of the reading and a lot of the people who look at what should be taught in science do not see exam success as the most important thing, but in schools, as a head of department, the most important thing to us is exam results. Success is a very, very powerful driving force because success is intrinsically linked to motivation of students, the morale of staff and the priority of the subject, and also if a student thinks they are good at a subject there is the possibility they will choose it post-16. In a lot of things as head of science it is important for me to get exam success, so how we teach within a school is very much pushing to ensure that the students do as well as possible and get the best possible grades. One of the key things is modular GCSEs. Most schools now are moving towards modular GCSEs because the results are much better, by choosing that rather than just one exam at the end of the two years, but this has a major impact on how science is taught because the content is covered very quickly, a lot of time is spent doing practice exam questions, and looking at exam study skills, and there is not much practical work done. Practical work is pushed into a few weeks which is really concentrated on course work. It is very prescriptive and focused on getting results. This is something that has a major impact on what we are doing in the classroom.

  232. Would anybody else like to add to that? Is there anything Michelle has missed out?
  (Mr Salmon) I think she has put it very well. Until we get recruitment and retention sorted out the rest does not matter. If we can get inspiring teachers in front of children they will learn and they will get very good exam results. The structures need to be looked at. We want children to do as much practical as possible because they enjoy it, it motivates them and it gives them skills that they can use later on. Not much of my science education is relevant today; it is the skills I learned then that really made the difference.

  233. What about the practical classes that you lay on? Have you got the facilities for that? Have you got the equipment? Would you like to take that up?
  (Ms Stevenson) That is one of the points I would like to raise, that good practical science, as my colleague says, develops pupils and motivates them. What happens at the moment is there is a teacher shortage, quite dire in some areas, teacher morale is still at a low point, and there is the issue of workload in terms of the amount of work they have to do to prepare and mark the practical work. Class size is an issue. As we get less teachers, class sizes have been going up and that has been shown to have a detrimental effect on practical work. Also there is the state of some of the old laboratories, which you might well recognise from your time of being in school—

  234. I saw some on Friday and they were exactly like they were then.
  (Ms Stevenson) There is another issue with practical science and that is we need to address the issue of management and deployment of technical staff as well because they have a valuable contribution to make to good practical work.

  235. We will be meeting representatives. What are the biggest complaints, moans, whinges and groans from science teachers when they come to see you for advice?
  (Ms Stevenson) The state of the laboratories; not being flexible enough to deliver a really vibrant, motivating practical curriculum; teacher shortage, which means we have supply teachers coming in where the quality is not the same; and it is the class sizes. There is an issue sometimes about equipment as well. It depends if all the classes are going on at the same time and there is not enough equipment, those sort of issues.

  236. Do you have a file in your bottom drawer on the great halcyon days that will emerge sooner or later of what you would need to bring them up to standard across the area you advise?
  (Ms Stevenson) One of the beneficial things last year was when we were given funds to help renovate laboratories and that had a really positive effect on teachers' morale. That was a very beneficial thing to do.

Mr Harris

  237. On the same subject, you mentioned staffing difficulties and morale, but as far as resources for practical science are concerned—for instance, when I was at school I always remember the experiment with the sliver of calcium in the water—I know that health and safety requirements are restrictive. In my day you stood four feet away from the water and that was your health and safety measurement. How are you placed as far as having the practical equipment to do this kind of experiment and do you find health and safety restrictions a problem insofar as allowing the kids access?
  (Ms Stevenson) I think there is an issue, if you have got a large class size, about how to manage the health and safety. I do not think there is an issue about basic test tubes and so on, what we would term basic equipment. The issue is about maintenance of other large pieces of equipment and particularly nowadays ICT and the equipment you need to do science through ICT.

  238. This question is specifically to Hannah Strange. Do you have experience of working in the public sector?
  (Ms Strange) Yes I do.

  239. What are the differences in terms of resources between teaching science in a private school compared with a comprehensive?
  (Ms Strange) I have experience but I ought to say quickly that it is fairly old experience now so I probably ought not to say too much. I think the perception is that private schools are better funded and that inevitably, to a certain extent, is true, and they are perhaps better resourced in terms of teacher contact time with pupils.


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