Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 312-319)



  Chairman: Thank you very much. If you top up your glasses we can start the party. I will pass you over to Andrew Murrison and Tony McWalter.

Dr Murrison

  312. I wonder if you could let the Committee know what you consider to be the three key issues for FE lecturers teaching science to 14-19 year olds?
  (Mr Roberts) Okay. Just by way of a little of background, my college is an inner city college, Bradford in West Yorkshire. We have 35,000 students. My department has 2,000 students studying science. One of the hallmarks of my department is that we offer a terrific range of courses, so some of the courses you have already heard about, GCSE, A levels, AVCE, but we also offer a great swathe of vocational courses: pharmacy, ophthalmic, dispensing, sports science, access for mature students and so on. We also run courses across a great range of levels from level one to degree level. I think it is quite important to establish that, that is the hallmark of FE. I suppose in terms of the key messages that I would like to bring with me, when we talk to our students when they come to us many of them feel that science is not for them, that actually science they have come from in school is only to the benefit of a fairly small proportion of pupils who want to go on into higher education. They come to us trying to establish greater relevance really for what science interest they have. That is one message. The second message is vocational science can hook the interest of young people who may be able to see the relevance earlier on in their education and when we talk to our students what they like is contextualised science, they like to get involved in issues, they want to do practical work, they want to do investigations, they like working with other students, they do not like being talked at, they like the social aspect of working in groups. For me this means that the third message is if we are going to respond to the needs of young people and get greater participation we need to widen the opportunities for vocational education, not just in terms of the vocations that are on offer to students but also in terms of the teaching strategies, the way we recognise that young people have a terrific range of motivation, of commitment, of preferred learning styles. I think we need to move towards a curriculum that offers that richness of opportunity so at the end of the day we can actually say we have met the needs of all rather than the needs of the minority.
  (Ms Clifford) I would reiterate all of that.


  313. You can disagree.
  (Ms Clifford) I am not going to disagree with any of it. I think what you have to remember about FE is that we take in students from schools, 50 per cent who very often have failed their GCSEs and who very often feel that science is hard and it is not a subject that they want to do. We offer a range of other qualifications and I think very often those other qualifications can actually hook the students. They are applied, they relate to the students' lives. If you take children in primary school, primary science is innovative, it relates to other topics, the children like it, but somewhere in the middle of their school education they get turned off science and I think it is because science is very theoretical, it is very focused on theory and there is less and less practical, as we have been hearing from our colleagues in the schools, and it has no relevance to the students' lives. So we have vocational or applied qualifications in which they are interested. It could be health and social care, it could be beauty therapy, sports studies. There is a whole raft of science within those qualifications which can be integrated into the qualification itself. I think the other thing I should say is that we often get students who have good GCSEs, GCSEs in a double science award where the sciences have all been integrated, and a GCSE C grade in their maths, and very often that does not give them a good foundation to move on into something like an AS or an A2 in science. In the area I come from, which is Surrey, there is an enormous amount of parental pressure for students to do the academic qualifications. We allow students with good GCSEs to do that but very often they are struggling. We have put on courses. For example, we have put on maths for science courses and chemistry for biology so that the students can actually find their way into the sciences. My message is about the curriculum, the way in which the curriculum is structured, I think it needs to have more relevance to students' lives. I have also got problems with resource issues too but I will leave you to ask the questions.

Mr McWalter

  314. You both get these pupils in, many of whom are quite switched off, but how do they get back? Are they required to study some science even though they are at an FE college? You say they have come in and they have failed in school and they no longer want to do it, well, fine they do not do it, they just do English or—
  (Ms Clifford) They come in to do more vocational qualifications. Our message to students who have failed their GCSEs or who have got very poor GCSE grades is that you do not retake them because you have failed once and we do not want you to fail twice, therefore our message would be to come in and do something which is more applied which they are interested in.

  315. Like beauty therapy or something?
  (Ms Clifford) It could be beauty therapy, it could be pharmaceuticals, ophthalmic.

  316. They are not learning a lot of science that way, are they?
  (Mr Roberts) They may have an interest in science but they have not got to where they wanted to get so they may choose subjects that have a scientific ring to them.

  317. I am struck because even though you have got a huge operation here, 2,000 students doing science, that is out of 35,000, so 33,000 are not, the proportion seems to be quite small. Secondly, if of those 2,000 there are a lot doing courses, whether they are called sports science or something, where the science content is not that great, out of those 2,000 how many are doing A level physics, say?
  (Mr Roberts) I think that is a misunderstanding about some of the vocational courses. I will give you an example. The Beauty Therapy National Diploma has in it microbiology, dermatology, anatomy, physiology, nutrition. Out of a 16 module programme, five of those modules will be hard science. What attracts the students is all the stereotypes about the science are not there to be battled with, they are engaging with something that they are interested in and the science is there as well. The other thing I would like to add to that is I think we should dismiss the notion that vocational science is for students who cannot hack it with the A levels. Vocational science is often quite a perfectly good way of getting into a career area. I will give you another example. Students of mine who have come wanting to do physiotherapy, which normally requires three Bs at A level, will choose to come on a sports science course because in many ways it is more relevant from a practical and theoretical point of view and they will go on and achieve the goal. Vocational education is not second ranking education, I think it is a perfectly good and sound separate pathway which students should have available.
  (Ms Clifford) I think we should remember that our students who have vocational qualifications often will have a skills based knowledge and resource which they can use in the employment market, very often better than an A level student or very often better than a student who is coming out of a university with a science degree. I am seeing somebody tomorrow from a national company very close to us which has decided not to take science graduates because they do not have the skills that they require in their business.


  318. What kind of skills?
  (Ms Clifford) They want more hands-on, practical, relevant skills and they want to be able to focus those skills on the work that they are doing in their industry.

Dr Turner

  319. Periodically I spend Friday afternoons with my local FE principals. I would like to ask you whether you are having any difficulty in recruiting staff and how much the differentials in pay scales between the FE sector and the schools' sector is impinging on your colleges?
  (Ms Clifford) We have enormous difficulties recruiting staff, yes, all staff across the board in FE but particularly with science and with maths. I have got a maths post which has been outstanding for a year now which I cannot fill. I cannot fill it partly because of the area in which we are geographically located because of the housing position in the South East and we do not pay enough in FE and partly because there are these differentials between schools and FE salary structures. That makes it much more difficult. The reason I have got a maths post available is that the schools have poached my maths staff.


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