Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 499-519)




  499.  Minister, how nice to see you.
  (Mr Timms) It is very nice to see you, too.

  500.  I think this is your first visit to this Committee, so we are very pleased. You will know that we are looking at science teaching in schools and all the ramifications of that, because we do realise that science underpins much of what our Government is trying to do, in terms of the knowledge-based economy, and so on. We have also been round lots of schools and talking to some really very bright young people, and we have talked to teachers as well, and we have just talked to exam boards and the curriculum-setters, and so on. So we are beginning to get a real feel for and our teeth into this subject, in this Committee, so we are very glad to have you here to tell us what your ideas are and the Government's; so we will start off with questions and finish by 6 o'clock, to let you get on to your next business.
  (Mr Timms) Can I make just a couple of remarks?

  501.  Yes, please do say something.
  (Mr Timms) First of all, thank you very much for your welcome, and for the Committee's interest in this subject, and I agree with you about the importance of it, and also about the enthusiasm one finds in schools around science, which I think is very important as well. I am accompanied by Janet Dallas, who is the Team Leader for science, maths and technology in the Department's Curriculum Division. A couple of points I wanted to make. You will know, Chairman, that we looked very carefully at the place of science for 14-16 year olds in the Green Paper on 14-19 Education, that we published in February, and concluded that science should remain a compulsory element in key stage 4 curriculum, as it is at present; we are consulting on that at the moment, but that is a firm view on our part. We have also recently, as you know again, had the opportunity to look at the report that Sir Gareth Roberts has compiled, which we have been studying with interest, and we expect to be able to respond to that formally, once spending review decisions are announced in the summer, and it certainly raises some very important issues for us. The Committee may well have seen the very encouraging figures on teacher recruitment that were announced last week, showing that the number of teachers increased last year by the biggest number in any year since the 1970s. Now that does not mean that the problems that Sir Gareth's report identifies are behind us, by any means, but it does mean that the measures that the Government has put in place are having the effect that we hoped they would, and I think that does give some grounds for optimism about the future, although there are certainly a lot of pressures around recruitment in science and maths at the moment. But I will be very glad to address any issues that the Committee may want to raise with me; and thank you again for giving me the opportunity to be here.

  502.  Thank you, Stephen, and thank you, Janet, you are very welcome, and just chip in as you like, when you want to, just indicate and we will move it forward. I am very glad about the science and the Green Paper, and so on. I cannot imagine there was any question about not including it. Was there a real, serious debate about this? These are the easy questions, I might add, at this stage.
  (Mr Timms) There certainly was a debate, we make that point in the Green Paper, we did look very carefully at it, because we did want to increase the amount of flexibility available at 14-16, and so, as you will know, we did conclude that modern foreign languages and design and technology should no longer be compulsory parts of the National Curriculum at 14-16, in order that we could realistically offer a wider range of choices, and particularly strengthen the vocational options. So we did have a discussion about it, but our conclusion was a very clear one, that science should remain, along with maths, English and ICT, as a compulsory part of the National Curriculum at 14-16.

  503.  Can I chase you on that. Was part of that debate trying to reconcile the problems that we have had on GMOs, MMR, and so on, where you have a public now who have to be scientifically literate? So you have to think about that, as part of the curriculum and the programme in schools, so that when the science emerges the public are not kept in ignorance, as it were, which they often are, for many reasons. And also, at the same time, the balance of producing a Nobel Prize-winner, like Paul Nurse, at one end, and all those other magnificent scientists that do all the basic stuff, that find the stuff that Paul Nurse has missed, and others. So we have got a real balance in schools; how are you going to resolve that, in terms of the teaching, and how much is that part of the discussions you have had, or are having?
  (Mr Timms) Those considerations certainly have been part of the discussions, although, of course, we want to continue to produce outstanding linguists; we have not inferred, from that, that a modern foreign language should be a compulsory part of the National Curriculum for every young person. But, in the case of science, I think the key consideration, in the end, was that science is such an important part of the work of and the employment prospects for a large and growing proportion of the population, and that an understanding of science is an important part of progression and a prerequisite for progression in other areas as well. That was the key consideration that we had in mind, whether the subject was a requirement for progression, and we concluded, in the end, that, just as maths, English and ICT clearly are, science was as well.

  504.  So Double GCSEs, are they going to remain with us, Science?

  (Mr Timms) I think they will, and the majority of young people, as you know, I think it is over 80 per cent, do take a Double Science GCSE, at the present, and I think that will continue. As you know, and I am sure you will have discussed this with QCA, we are looking at some innovations in this area; and applied science, as a GCSE, one of the vocational subjects, one of eight new GCSEs that will start from September, is an important innovation, we think, with a vocational emphasis. And we are also expecting that QCA will be piloting a new GCSE, which will also be a Double GCSE, from next year.

  505.  That is in sciences?
  (Mr Timms) That is in science.

  506.  What subject areas are we covering, astronomy, or what?
  (Mr Timms) I will ask Janet to give you the detail. I think the essence of it is a core that would be followed by all students, and then modules, which will be more specialised, following on from that; and between those two you will end up with the Double GCSE content.

  507.  So what is new, Janet, in the game, now, that is coming up, that is going to excite us?
  (Ms Dallas) I think it goes back to what you were saying before, about the need for scientific literacy in the population, but also the need to ensure that there is a supply of scientists who can do great things, and there has been debate for a number of years about whether what is taught presently in school does one or the other. And the aim of the GCSE is to provide a core which you could probably best describe as scientific literacy, although it has subject content as well, and then a range of other modules, which, if you added one or two of them to the core, you would end up with scientific literacy plus the subject knowledge that you need for a secure grounding to go on to study at higher levels.

  508.  When is all this going to be announced then, when is the Minister going to stand up in the House and say, "And, now, here are the new courses that we're going to teach," or do this, or that, and so on?
  (Ms Dallas) If it is not to be piloted until next year, you have got to allow at least two years for pupils to experience it, then you have to evaluate it; so I think the earliest would probably be 2006.

Bob Spink

  509.  These extra add-ons to the core, would that be things like energy studies and inheritance and genetics and chemistry, things like that?
  (Ms Dallas) I do not know necessarily that you would see them under those headings, but what we are talking about is supplying the content which exists presently in Double GCSE Science, which provides the secure basis for people to go on to A levels. We are not talking about chucking that kind of academic basis out of the window, but it is study beyond what might be described as scientific literacy.

Mr McWalter

  510.  We have found a lot of teachers, and indeed pupils, who are very enthusiastic about science, as indeed members of this Committee are ourselves, but most of them are not at all happy with the state of science education, particularly because they feel that, the way things are organised, it puts a massive emphasis upon the regurgitation of facts, and really the syllabus, in the end, is extremely enervating for many of those who actually are involved in it, be they those teaching it or learning from it. So that many pupils end up starting out perhaps enthusiastic, and wanting to drop the sciences as soon as they possibly can. Do you think that students should be asked to do different things and develop different kinds of skills, in terms of explanation, in terms of the understanding of science in the modern world, and do you think that the curriculum authorities and others have got the capacity for phasing out some elements of the syllabus, in order to give greater emphasis to those more discursive and conceptual skills?
  (Mr Timms) I do think it is important that those skills that you refer to should be gained by young people in schools. I think it is important there should be lots of excitement around science, as there certainly should be, and that has been one of the aims, which I think is being achieved, of Science Year, which, as you know, has been running since last September. I think, inevitably, there will always be an element of things that need to be learned, which are going to be sometimes quite hard work to get a grasp of, and we need to make sure that teachers have the skills to convey those successfully and well. But I think there is a good deal of scope for increasing the amount of enthusiasm that young people feel about science, with all sorts of benefits, as you have suggested. And that is one of the motivations for the new GCSE that Janet has just been talking about.

  511.  But there seems to be an imbalance between the number of things you have got to learn in order to get a physics qualification in GCSE, say, or whatever, and the number of things you might have to learn to get a qualification in some other subjects; and that is partly because it is difficult to phase things out. You know, you could say, "You mustn't leave out Ohm's law, or Newton's second law," or whatever, and the result is that the syllabus becomes piled up and excludes creative thinking and excludes the capacity of people to exercise judgements about something more important. Do you believe that, in the end, the exam system can somehow be adapted, to change, so that the enthusiasm that people have got for science is actually not extinguished through the educational process?
  (Mr Timms) Yes, I certainly hope that we will not be extinguishing enthusiasm.

  512.  You do at the moment, you must admit that?
  (Mr Timms) In some cases, I think, that is the case, but I would not want to overstate the extent of that, at the moment. But we are facing conflicting pressures here, which are very well brought out, I think, in Sir Gareth Roberts' report, where the point is made, specifically about A levels, and there is a sense that science A levels are harder to do, and therefore that young people are put off them.

  513.  True.
  (Mr Timms) But, at the same time, Sir Gareth's report also makes the point that universities complain that youngsters who come to university, having successfully completed science A level, do not have the level of scientific knowledge and skill that the universities are hoping for. So there are some conflicting pressures, and I think we are going to have to be quite creative to resolve those. Because, at first sight, those pressures actually push us in opposite directions, but we are going to need to address both of them, I think, and we will have to be quite imaginative to be successful in doing that.

Dr Iddon

  514.  Practical courses, Stephen, at key stage 4 level; as we have taken evidence, it has been quite clear to us that practical work is absolutely essential in creating enthusiasm among all the students that we have met, they really enjoy practical work, that is the message. But, at the same time, they have some criticisms, like they do not like the practicals where they know the outcome before they start the experiment, and they like the investigative element more, and they miss that in many of the practicals they do, which are rather mechanistic, and they feel they are geared to providing marks during the coursework, in order to get a high grade. And then there are the time pressures as well, I mean, a Select Committee visit, or something that happens in the school, backs up the teaching, and it is the practical work that always suffers, the teacher feels they have to do the theory, so that is another experiment gone; and all the time there are these tensions, which you have already referred to in another dimension. Is the Department aware of these tensions in schools, and the sort of backing-off of the practical work, set against the children's enthusiasm for it, and, if so, what is the Department attempting to do about that?
  (Mr Timms) I will ask Janet to comment on the nature of the practicals that children are being asked to do. One point I would like to make though is that there is a concern sometimes that the amount of practical work being done by children in England is less than is the case elsewhere. The evidence we have is that that is not the case, and the TIMSS assessment, which had no connection whatever with me, which was published in December 2000, indicated that the amount of practical being taken on in schools here is actually greater than is the case elsewhere. So the evidence is that, in terms of quantity, we are not doing too badly, but, in terms of the quality, I will ask Janet to comment on that.
  (Ms Dallas) I have heard the criticism about practical work being boring and you have to do it very quickly, and it is all a bit mechanistic; you need it for your coursework, I have heard that, and it is probably true in some places, but I do not think it is fair to suggest that it is true in all schools. There are inspirational science teachers who do wonderful things, but I do not suppose many people have come to tell you about those.

  Bob Spink: Yes, they have.

Mr McWalter

  515.  They have, actually.
  (Ms Dallas) That's good. But, as far as the Department doing something about practical work, I think that Science Year is making a very big contribution in generally raising the level of enthusiasm about science, through the large range of exciting resources that it is producing free for teachers, which are going directly into schools, something that does not normally happen, and I know that they have been very much welcomed; and one of those is the Little Book of Experiments, which is full of very interesting experiments. Something else that perhaps we ought to mentionm is the role that science technicians can play in either preparing practical work or helping the teacher in conducting practical work. And you probably know already about the Royal Society and ASE report into science technicians .This is something that the Department is taking seriously, and which we hope we will be working with them on in the future; and I think that could be quite an important contribution to improving practical work in schools.

Dr Iddon

  516.  If Science Year has been so successful, and I am very pleased to hear what you say, why cannot we make it a Science Decade?
  (Ms Dallas) Why not?
  (Mr Timms) We are certainly reflecting on the legacy of Science Year and how the benefits that have been gained, as Janet has been describing, can be built in, and we are reflecting on how most effectively to do that. But it is important, I think, that it is not just a one-off year of activity, but those benefits continue.

  Dr Iddon: That is the point I am making, yes.

Bob Spink

  517.  We have certainly met and we are aware of many inspirational science teachers, and what we want to do is find ways to encourage and facilitate them, because we see inspirational teachers as the key to success for young people in the subject; so I would make that point. While we are on the practical work side, and you have mentioned, Stephen, a number of times, strengthening vocational options for the 14-19, and we agree there, could I just put on record the Edexcel problems with the new vocational route, at the AVCE, in engineering and technology, and the difficulty that we saw in maths AS level last year. I just wonder if you were aware of the problems there. Because if a whole cohort of kids go through, find difficulties that are not of their making, and they suffer very poor exam results as a result, then (a) it becomes difficult for colleges and schools actually to fill those courses in subsequent years, it turns off, we betray a whole year cohort, and we make it more difficult to encourage other kids. I want my children to go into areas where they are going to be successful, not areas where we know they are going to be struggling. So are you aware of these problems and are you doing anything to try to resolve that specific issue? And if you could be very short, because this is an extra and the Committee are getting annoyed with me.
  (Mr Timms) Right. We certainly are aware of the problem. There was a low pass rate at AS level in maths last summer. QCA is looking at that, at the moment, and will be reporting to us shortly. But, of course, the reason that there was a rather more demanding specification for maths at AS level, the reason that was introduced, was because of concerns about maths, particularly from higher education. So we have addressed that, with the AS level specification, and the consequence was that there was a rather higher failure rate than for other subjects; and that does rather neatly illustrate, I think, the conflicting pressures that we are needing to address here.

  518.  We can anticipate that, this year, when the exams come forward, the AVCE examination, set by Edexcel, for instance, in engineering, and what have you, that is going to be a disaster; we have already taken evidence about that in this Committee. Are you anticipating that problem and setting about changing the way that they make assessments, and being flexible, so that we do not betray the cohort that will be sitting their exams in the next month or two and getting their results in September, and then, by trying to get on to university, to become young scientists or engineers?
  (Mr Timms) I am not expecting a disaster. As you know, there were concerns raised about Edexcel on a number of occasions earlier in the year. QCA has been working very closely with Edexcel to ensure that there will not be problems in the summer, and I have got every confidence that those measures will prove successful. So I am certainly not expecting a disaster.

  Chairman: Okay; if we could move on. I will throw in two questions and then Parmjit can join in too, and allow you to come back, all at the same time. What has been the success of Science Year, in your opinion, you may have seen things that have passed me by, and other members of the Committee, and if there is one thing, or several things, you could point up? Secondly, you will know that refurbishment of laboratories is a real, serious problem in schools, and the Government has put in 60 million, which is great, but what plans have you got to develop that; because there is nothing that will put people off doing science more than walking into an old, grotty laboratory, with a Kipps generator caked in chemicals in the corner, and nothing at all to excite them about the modern labs that they can see in some universities, or on telly, and so on? So, refurbishment of laboratories and Science Year; and then, Parmjit, could you throw your one in?

Mr Dhanda

  519.  Yes; also practical-based, really, but, before I say that, I should put on record my thanks to the Minister for doing a similar kind of Q and A, a few weeks ago, with my own secondary heads from Gloucester.
  (Mr Timms) I enjoyed it.

  Mr Dhanda: An issue they would have liked me to get across to you, that we could not on that particular day, was, the report that the Royal Society made with the ASE on technicians; we have heard a lot about inspirational teachers, but a lot of practical work cannot be done without technicians, and that report actually suggested that we are about 4,000 short, and there is not a real career structure, job description, or indeed a national pay structure for these technicians. What steps are the Government going to be taking to tackle that?


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