Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240-259)



Bob Spink

  240. Is the motivation of children in private education different from that in publicly funded education?
  (Ms Strange) That is a fairly broad question.

  241. You can answer honestly. You do not have to be politically correct here.
  (Ms Strange) I think that perhaps one could see that because the parents are paying, there is more parental pressure to make sure that every ounce of worth is got out of the teachers and I think that reflects to a certain extent down to the children's level as well.

Mr McWalter

  242. I would like to query something that James said. The picture Michelle gave of teaching science sounded pretty awful to me. Indeed, many of the kids we spoke to also found it awful. James, you say the big problem is recruitment. Quite frankly, if you are asking people to do an awful job, at a heck of a rush, with no thinking time, with inadequate development of a sense of wonder that science should engender, it is not surprising that you cannot get people to go and do it when there are much more interesting jobs somewhere else.
  (Mr Salmon) It is not surprising at all. I love science teaching, I really enjoy doing it. I am so angry that I am spending my time doing stupid bureaucracy and coping with facilities that are not very good in classes that have, say, 30/32 in labs that were designed for 24. This is just silly.

  243. Should we get the exam boards in here and shoot them?
  (Mr Salmon) I beg your pardon?

  244. Should we get the exam boards in and shoot them?
  (Mr Salmon) Yes. Well, we phone up exam boards and it is like finding out what a rabbit looks like in front of the headlights, they do not seem to know what they are doing from our point of view.
  (Ms Ryan) I think the point I am making is if we want to make any changes the assessment needs to be changed because when it comes down to it, we will teach in a manner which will help our students pass exams and if it is a modular, get through everything quickly, do your course, be prescriptive, then that is what we will do and that needs to be considered. If we want awe and wonder and if we want more discussion and inference we need to have more open-ended assessments. I did a summer school last year where we did open-ended investigations like they do in America, like summer school things, where the students were allowed to choose what they wanted and some of them decided to do a variety of things which were of interest to them and it was proper scientific inquiry and that is what gets awe and wonder in things. That is the point I am making, we really need to consider that to get that back into the curriculum.
  (Ms Strange) I would like to add something to that. One of the proposals in the Green Paper is that brighter, more able children do not sit a GCSE exam and rush straight on to the AS and then to the A2 and I think there is a great danger in that because what could happen is one loses that enrichment, one loses the skills and pleasure felt both by the teacher and by the pupil in the exploration, the delivery of those extra things, and that is something that definitely ought to be guarded against. It would also mean that the GCSE stops being a universal exam and I think that would be a great shame, I think that every child should have GCSE in science. That is something which has been brought in and we should stick with that.


  245. The young people we met last week talked to us about the practical classes and how they really wanted to get their hands dirty and do things but they could not. Particularly they like cutting up pigs' hearts and that kind of thing. What kind of practical things do you see being eliminated which could be valuable to their education? What has happened in your time of teaching or what advice has been given about practicals that have disappeared for some reason? Can you give us some examples?
  (Ms Stevenson) I have to say that I think science has been a success story because from early years all the way through to 16 now students have an opportunity to study all the main aspects of science and they love it and they love doing the practical work. I think the problem is the exam boards, and to some extent the National Curriculum, require certain things to be taught—they will argue against this—in a specific time to jump the hoops to get the exam.

  246. What do you think drives that zeal that they have?
  (Ms Stevenson) Sorry?

  247. What drives that? What is the factor that makes them demand that kind of education?
  (Ms Stevenson) I think it is parental pressure, getting the results, SATs tests, reporting SATs tests in papers.

  248. What about league tables?
  (Ms Stevenson) That is what I am saying, league tables, all of those. I was thinking of the word. All these league tables, it drives it. Parents are literate in terms of what education means nowadays and that is what drives them, so the pressure is on the teachers to deliver that and do what my colleague said, which is drive—

  249. When they come to look at schools do they ask about what practicals are available? Do they look around the labs at the equipment or do you hide that away from them?
  (Ms Stevenson) I think they do look at the labs but I think they are more concerned about what grades the school produces in terms of SATs and GCSEs and A levels.

  250. That is the parents mainly?
  (Ms Stevenson) Yes, and the children to some extent because they perceive that as being successful.

Mr Harris

  251. Can I move on to just a slightly different issue. What are the differences between trying to enthuse girls specifically in science subjects? We have heard some talk that girls perhaps need more encouragement or different types of encouragement to study science. Have you found specific areas that are easier or more difficult to enthuse girls in?
  (Ms Ryan) I teach all girls and I think girls studying science in a single sex environment has been proven to be more successful. I think girls do tend to be more interested in biology topics, they are more interested in topics that they can personally relate to. I was talking to my colleagues earlier on and I was saying about the blast furnace which you have to learn in certain industrial processes and certain things they cannot relate to. You constantly get the questions "Why do we have to learn this? What is this about? What does this actually mean to me?" I think we need to take that into consideration with girls. I think girls have got different interests from boys.

  252. Do you think we should be happy with that situation or should we be finding ways to encourage girls to be interested in physics?
  (Ms Ryan) The nature of physics itself and I suppose the nature of what we study in physics, if there was more medical physics involved in it. I think a lot of studies have shown girls are more interested in the application of science while there is a view that boys are more knowledge for the sake of knowledge really. I think Salters syllabuses, which are more into application with science, have been a lot more successful with girls. I think it is looking at it from that point of view. Girls are getting more and more involved in science and the balance is being considered, particularly in GCSE results and things. When it comes to post-16 options, things like psychology they are interested in but not necessarily doing a study in pure physics.


  253. What do industrialists say to you when you meet them socially or professionally about the science that is being taught in schools? Have you picked up any feedback from them?
  (Mr Salmon) Not much, but I did get the impression from the ones I have talked to that they are much more interested in basic scientific skills: can they look at data, can they do basic—

  254. Can they cook the data?
  (Mr Salmon) Can they look at data. They probably cook it as well. Can they understand new scientific situations, can they apply their knowledge. They are not so much interested in the knowledge itself, so in that sense good practical ability really does matter.
  (Ms Ryan) In my school double science is an option to 16, so we have done quite a lot of work to encourage the girls to take it up and we have had some women scientists come in to talk to them about it. Strangely enough the first question they ask is how much do you earn and they tend to strike them off the list for that there. What they have said about it is a lot of the factual science that you learn is not of use but it is knowing the process, it is knowing how to do a scientific experiment, to know the difference between reliable data, extraordinary reliable data is of fabulous worth, but extraordinary unreliable data is for nothing, and it is for them to appreciate that process rather than all the little facts.

  255. Have you looked at any other countries, the systems that they have got, and said "Gosh, I wish we could do that here?" What experience have you got in Europe and the States?
  (Mr Salmon) I have got some experience of Germany because we are an international school and I go over there a lot. They tend to rely on demonstration rather than practical work. They tend to have marvellous equipment but not use it very much. Of course, the recent PISA Study has shown they do not do very well. I think our practical work, at least from German and French colleagues, is very much appreciated, they like that a lot. In that sense I think we are on the right track.

Bob Spink

  256. I am glad you mentioned the PISA Study. That showed Germany in the lower quartile and that surprised them greatly.
  (Mr Salmon) They were shocked.

  257. James, you mentioned earlier the examination boards. Have you any experience of the AVCE?
  (Mr Salmon) We are just starting it this year and I am not directly concerned with it but we are worried about the bureaucratic demands.

  258. Would you like to comment on the translation of what the exam board wants and what is being delivered in the classroom and, for those kids who are doing this first year, how their results are going to be and whether that is not betraying that whole cohort of children going through it?
  (Mr Salmon) We find it extraordinarily difficult to try and figure out what the exam boards really mean by the bureacracy that they deliver to us.

  259. What can we do about that?
  (Mr Salmon) Shoot them.

  Bob Spink: Thank you. I rest my case.


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