Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 520-539)




  520.  I told you they got easier as we went along.
  (Mr Timms) Right; yes, okay. Science Year, first of all. I think a lot has been achieved in Science Year, because the real aim of Science Year was to build enthusiasm, and we are only halfway, or whatever it is, a little bit over halfway, through, and it is a little bit early to quantify the benefits. But there is lots we can point to, in terms of very large numbers of people involved, the Giant Jump. I think the biggest science experiment, when lots of children jumped up at the same time and their jump registered on a seismograph; we have had lots of contributions of equipment and financial donations, free Intel electronic microscopes to all maintained schools in England.

  521.  There was more noise at Carrow Road yesterday, when Norwich beat Wolves?
  (Mr Timms) Yes. I do not think it was very noisy, that is true. A free Intel electronic microscope to every maintained school in England; we have ensured that every school that had an advanced skills teacher in science was given an electronic whiteboard for them to use. So there has been a lot of progress of that kind, and I think a good deal of progress in building enthusiasm as well, but we will need to see, at the end of the year, what the evaluation points to. But I think it is a good example of us focusing a lot of attention on a very important area, and hopefully building the enthusiasm for it. I entirely take your point about the importance of good laboratory facilities; you have mentioned the 60 million that has been set aside for this purpose, which I think allows something like 400 schools to benefit. Of course, we are very greatly increasing the amount of capital being invested in the fabric of schools across the board, the annual amount has trebled since 1997, and it will increase by about half as much again by next year. But the direction that we are moving in is very much towards giving schools the decision about where that capital should be invested, and away from ring-fencing; so I do not envisage another initiative like the 60 million initiative but I do envisage that schools will have much more resources to make progress on labs, and other issues, in terms of capital investment.

  522.  You mean, this is the hundred thousand, or whatever, that they have offered the headteacher to spend, within that budget?
  (Mr Timms) That is right, and the formula capital that is devolved to schools, and the amounts given to LEAs as well.

  523.  How much is that budget, Stephen, do you remember what it totals?
  (Mr Timms) The total budget, total capital investment last year, was just over 2 billion, up from rather less than 700 million in 1997, and that will increase to 3.5 billion next year, so it is a very, very big increase; but what we are wanting to do is to devolve the decision about how that money is spent to the schools and LEAs. Now, of course, we have just seen, in December 2001, the completion of the recent round of Asset Management Plans, where every local education authority has had to review the state of its education assets, including looking at every teaching space and every laboratory. We recently started the process, we have received those plans, we assessed them and that will be very important in guiding LEAs about where their capital is deployed in the future. The report on technicians has been very useful, I am going to ask Janet to come in on this as well, because she mentioned the report a moment ago. I just want to make the point that the figures last week about increased numbers of teachers also showed that the number of support staff in schools increased by 14 per cent last year, a huge increase, over 26,000 extra support staff of all kinds; so I think that does show that we are able to bring in support staff. There are particular issues around the skilled people that we need as technicians, and I think the report that you referred to from the Royal Society and ASE highlighted a number of those. But let me ask Janet to comment on our reaction to their recommendations.
  (Ms Dallas) Our initial reaction is to have a working group, involving the ASE and the Royal Society, to look through both their reports. They did a first report on survey findings and a second report including recommendations. We need to look at the very big amount of information that they gathered whilst they were doing that. But something else which I should mention is that, as part of the consultation on the National Centre for Excellence in Science Teaching, one of the proposals is that, as well as providing continuing professional development for teachers, the Centre should also provide professional development for technicians, which, in turn, hints at a kind of progression and career structure, which I know is lacking at the moment.

  Mr Dhanda: Certainly, in the schools that we visited, it included one where I think they were relying on Australian tourists, who are having a gap year, doing a bit of work.

  Chairman: Between beer festivals.

Mr Dhanda

  524.  Yes, and between beer festivals, effectively.
  (Mr Timms) I am glad they were between beer festivals.

  525.  They were not brewing it in the labs, apparently. But one of the things that was also suggested in the report was, in terms of preserving the status of science, perhaps ring-fencing some of that money for technicians. Now is that one of the things that will be considered?
  (Mr Timms) Sorry; ring-fencing which money?

  Mr Dhanda: Ring-fencing some of that money for technicians and technicians' salaries, to ensure that schools are recruiting, in fact, the number that they require?


  526.  I thought you said that there would not be ring-fencing of money for labs, and presumably technicians, that what you are going to do is leave it to the headteacher, and perhaps the board of governors, to decide how it is devolved?
  (Mr Timms) That is very much the direction that we want to go in.

  527.  But we are talking billions, millions, here, to refurbish labs; you have done a grand job with 400, I would like to know just what they did with that money, we have seen some examples of it. But most headteachers are not orientated to scientific labs, it is big bucks, you know, and it is much easier to put up a partition, or employ classroom assistants, or somebody like that; in fact, I have never met a headteacher yet who has used the money for anything scientific?
  (Mr Timms) The capital money cannot be used for taking on assistants, it does need to be used for capital investment in the fabric of schools, and I think we are looking to LEAs and LEA advisers to ensure that science does have the sort of priority that it should have, and, I agree with you, it is very important. There is a lot of concern on the part of schools and LEAs that we should take away some of the strings that, in the past, have tended to be attached to money, and give them greater freedom to decide how those resources can best be used; and we think, on the whole, that is right, that those decisions should best be made locally, but it is going to be important that we are reassured that science is getting the attention that it deserves. One particular point I should make is that we have now received the first bids for Science Specialist status in schools, and, I think I am right in saying, we have received about 37 bids, which is a good number for the first round for us to have received, and, on top of that, some maths and computing specialist applications and some engineering applications as well. And I hope that Science Specialist schools will act as beacons, reminding other schools in the area of what should be being done in this area, and encouraging a higher priority for science than we have seen in some instances over the last few years.

  528.  Just to finalise this, I can tell you, there is some public-private stuff goes on, as well, with Pfizer and SmithKline, who, actually, because they are science-based industries, pharmaceutical industries, put money into school laboratories, along with deals with the local LEA; so there is quite a lot going on in that area, too.
  (Mr Timms) And the Wellcome Trust, of course, have been very, very supportive, yes.

  Chairman: And perhaps more of it, yes, there is going to be.

Bob Spink

  529.  On the specialist school bids, you said you had received a not insignificant but a not great number of bids; will the majority of those bids be successful, or are you going to be limited in the cash that you have got to give out to support bids for science, maths, IT specialisations?
  (Mr Timms) There is a very rigorous process which all the applications go through, and I would expect us to be able to fund all of the bids that successfully get through the assessment process. Now, from what I have seen so far of the 37 Science Specialist bids, I would expect something like 25 of those to be short-listed; what then happens is that an assessor visits the school and there is further consideration, and so on. But I do not think that funding is going to mean that some of those cannot proceed.

Mr Hoban

  530.  What difference do you expect Science Specialist schools to make, both in the school itself and in the local sub-cluster of schools?
  (Mr Timms) I think, potentially, they will be very important, for a number of reasons, and, of course, we do have a good deal of experience of the benefits of technology colleges, the longest established of the specialisms, language colleges, sports colleges as well. What we have seen, with specialist schools, is that taking on a specialism helps a school to raise its standards, not only in the area of the specialism but across the curriculum as well, and that is the reason for our encouragement for a significant increase in the number of specialist schools with a target, that at least 1,500 specialist schools should be up and running by 2005.  So the first benefit I expect is an improvement in standards in those schools. Secondly, there is, in every specialist school plan, an element for working with other schools, the primary feeder schools, most often, but also another secondary school as well, and so I will expect the establishment of Science Specialist schools to be able to strengthen the provision of science in some primary and secondary schools in the area where the school is located. And I hope that, over time, we will be able to see the establishment of a growing number of really excellent Science Specialist establishments that will have very good links with science industry, for example, have good links with universities, acting as beacons for science amongst the secondary schools in their area. And we have had a lot of support for Science Specialist schools from the industry, where Glaxo smith Kline has made a substantial contribution towards the sponsorship sums that are needed for the establishment of the schools, Imperial College has been very, very supportive. So I think we can be quite optimistic about the benefits that we will see from the programme as it unfolds.

Bob Spink

  531.  I am delighted to hear that, and I think that this initiative is a good initiative from the Government; it is not often I say that, as you know, Minister. You mentioned earlier about inputs since 1997, we are more interested, in this Committee, in outputs than in inputs, and we were looking at the post-16 take-up in the science subjects, like maths, chemistry, physics, biology, and these have been falling, year on year, for some time now, and I just wondered if you were disappointed in that? And, in view of this Science Year and all the things you are doing in education, if you believe that, next year, all of these will turn round and we will see an increase in the number of A levels for these four subjects; would you make that commitment now, Minister?
  (Mr Timms) I do not think the characterisation you have given is entirely accurate.

  532.  Let me then put some meat on it. Physics, from the mid 1990s to today, has fallen by 25 per cent. I think that is disappointing, I do not think we can take any pleasure in that, and I think, if it continued, that trend, it would be disastrous for our economy?
  (Mr Timms) I do not think that is accurate. That has been the reduction, as I understand it, since the early 1990s; the reduction since the mid 1990s has been much less significant, down by 5.5 per cent since between 1995 and 2000.  At the same time, total maths and science A level entries rose by 11.4 per cent, maths went up by 5.6 per cent, biology by 8.1 per cent, chemistry by 1.4 per cent, other sciences by 22.7 per cent. So, I think, while you are right, if one looks back to the beginning of the nineties, the picture is a less attractive one, if one looks at what has happened since the mid 1990s, the picture is actually rather better. Of course, the other point that we just need to bear in mind here is that there has been—

  533.  Just to get the stance right, if we drew a line down 1998 and we looked at what had happened since 1998, maths, biology, chemistry and physics have all fallen significantly, according to the chart that I have in front of me?
  (Mr Timms) Unfortunately, I do not have your chart in front of me; the figures that I have are from 1995 to 2000.  I think it is also important here just to set alongside this the remarkable, well perhaps not remarkable, growth of computing and ICT, which, of course, has influenced what has happened on something else I have just—biology, I think in Sir Gareth Roberts' report, biology is shown as having grown substantially since 1990.  So I think it is a rather more mixed picture than you were suggesting.

  534.  The recent trend is very poor, since 1998, it is showing a downward trend; do you think that we will turn that round this year, do you think it will be going up next year?
  (Mr Timms) I am not sure which subjects we are talking about, and I would be reluctant to forecast what the number of applications might be.

  535.  Let us talk about biology, chemistry and physics; will we start to see an increase in the numbers of take-ups in those three subjects?
  (Mr Timms) I am going to ask Janet to help me out here. Biological sciences has grown very substantially since—

  Bob Spink: I am talking about since 1998.

  Dr Iddon: Can I add a rider to that as well, Minister, and that is, we have had some criticism across the board, as we have done this investigation, that there are a decreasing number of specialist scientists teaching science in schools, and that people are trying to teach a broad range of science which they are not capable of teaching, frankly, and some schools feel that they would like to go back to the single subjects rather than try to teach across the board. I would like your views on that as well, if it is permissible, Chairman?


  536.  Perhaps the way to resolve this is to give you time to get the figures together, okay, so that what we talk about here reflects really the accuracy, as you see it, and we have our figures, and so on, and we can put them together in our report; or come back to you by exchange, yes.
  (Mr Timms) I would be happy to do that.

Bob Spink

  537.  But I still put it to the Minister now that the subjects of biology, chemistry and physics have fallen over the recent few years, the numbers of people taking up A level entries in those three subjects has fallen over the last few years; it is a phenomenon that is happening worldwide, not just in this country, so I do not make a political point of it, it is a fact. Why is it happening, what can we do to stop it happening and turn it round?
  (Ms Dallas) I think that, just going back to look at Sir Gareth Roberts' report, using the figures which were over a decade, as opposed to the last few years, I think maybe you get a kind of longer-trend picture there; the most phenomenal increase in subjects at A level has been in computer science, there has been a 128 per cent increase.

  538.  I am very grateful for that, but I am interested in biology, chemistry and physics.
  (Ms Dallas) And I think the reason probably is that young people have chosen computer science who might otherwise have been choosing biology, chemistry and physics.

  539.  I accept that. Do you accept that there is a problem, that young children are not choosing now to do at A level biology, chemistry and physics?
  (Mr Timms) To begin with biology, I have not got the figures that you are referring to in front of me. The figures that I have for biology—


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