Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report



126. In most schools all science lessons are taught in laboratories, allowing teachers to introduce practical work flexibly as and when they wish. The Royal Society estimate that, on average, a secondary school would have six laboratories.[230] This could mean two for each of biology, chemistry and physics but, as most schools will aim to allocate each teacher their own laboratory, many of whom will teach more than one scientific discipline, there may only be dedicated subject laboratories for post-16 sciences. Schools often store basic equipment such as bunsen burners in each laboratory but most equipment is likely to be kept in a separate "prep room". The prep room is also where technicians work, preparing materials for teachers to use in their practical lessons.

127. Good laboratory and prep room facilities are important because they enable high quality practical work to be carried out in a pleasant environment, motivating and inspiring staff and students alike. In 1999 Ofsted estimated that the science accommodation in 20% of secondary schools, some 750 schools, was of such poor quality that teaching was being affected directly.[231] Since then, the figure has risen to 26% - some 905 secondary schools.[232] It is appalling that the laboratories in one quarter of England's secondary schools are in such a poor state that the quality of teaching is being directly affected.

128. DfES responded to Ofsted's 1999 report by committing £60 million over the two financial years 2000/01 and 2001/02 to laboratory refurbishment and rebuilding.[233] The funds were allocated to LEAs to spend with their schools as appropriate; LEAs have until the end of August 2002 to spend their allocations. Stephen Timms, the then DfES Schools Minister, told us that the money was expected to reach 400 of the then estimated 750 schools with unsatisfactory science accommodation.[234] Both the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry estimate that modest refurbishment, including the supply of new furniture, would cost a minimum of £20,000 per laboratory. Refurbishment of a prep room would cost a minimum of £13,000.[235] If the £60 million was distributed evenly to 400 schools each with six laboratories and one prep room (which is unlikely, of course), this would have allowed £23,000 for the refurbishment of each laboratory and £13,000 for the prep room - sufficient to make a significant impact. Frome College in Somerset, which was visited in the course of this inquiry, has recently opened new science labs. The Royal Society has carried out a survey which tells us of "teachers and pupils being overjoyed and genuinely enthused by the modern and bright appearance of their new labs" in those schools that had benefited from the additional funds.[236] Government has not carried out an evaluation of its own. DfES tell us that "the precise format of the evaluation is yet to be finalised, and we anticipate the report will be completed by next summer".[237] We find it astonishing that, more than two years after announcing the investment of a significant sum of public money in school laboratories, DfES has not even decided how to evaluate the impact of these additional funds. We fail to see how DfES can make informed decisions about what further investment is needed without such evaluation. We welcome the £60 million committed to laboratory refurbishment by DfES; this should have made a significant impact. We are very surprised that DfES has not evaluated what impact this substantial sum of public money has had on those schools most in need.

129. The £60 million committed by DfES was only ever expected to meet half the need. On the basis of their survey, the Royal Society estimate that additional funds of between £60 million and £120 million are required to bring all school laboratories in England up to an adequate standard. Taking Ofsted's most recent estimate of 905 schools with science accommodation so poor that it is affecting teaching, the amount needed is nearer £120 million.[238] Considerably more investment would be needed to bring all school laboratories up to a good or very good standard.

130. It is not the intention of DfES to provide another tranche of money specifically for laboratories. Mr Timms told us that in 2002-03 there would be approaching £3 billion available for capital investment in schools. He said "we are moving...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".[239] We recognise that the quality of school laboratories varies widely and some schools do have excellent facilities and will want to focus resources in other areas.[240] We also agree that in general it is best to give schools the freedom to decide their own priorities. However, we are concerned that in those schools with poor facilities, the costs associated with laboratory refurbishment are so high that schools will be reluctant to place this as a high priority. Additional funding would need to be targeted at these schools. We would not want to see a bureaucratic arrangement introduced where schools would have to bid for funds. DfES's decision to allocate the initial £60 million investment in laboratories to LEAs, who could then target the funding at those schools most in need, seems to us the most sensible way of allocating further funds. Once all schools have appropriate facilities for teaching science, funding for ongoing maintenance and refurbishment should not need to be ringfenced. We recommend that, over the next three years, the Government ringfence a minimum of £120 million to bring all school laboratories and prep rooms up to at least adequate standard. This money should be allocated direct to LEAs so that it can be targeted at those schools most in need.

Equipment and consumables

131. Some teachers have told us that their practical work is limited by the availability of consumable resources such as chemicals. Even more significant is the need to replace large and expensive pieces of equipment, such as microscopes and centrifuges, many of which are now reaching the end of their useful life.[241] These items can be very costly to replace. The Royal Society carried out a detailed study in 1997 which, by allocating a cost and lifespan to each piece of equipment needed for teaching national curriculum science, calculated the cost per student per year.[242] In 1997, they estimated that schools were underspending by about £2 per student per year and they believe that this is still likely to be the case now. They now estimate that schools in England need to spend an additional £6 million each year if their laboratories are to remain adequately stocked with functioning equipment and resources required to teach national curriculum science.[243] While we are persuaded that funding for capital investment in science should be ringfenced, we do not believe that this is practical, or desirable, for revenue funding in science. Schools should retain the autonomy over the allocation of their resources but should be provided with information on which to base their decisions on funding for science departments. It would be helpful if the Royal Society were to update their 1997 publication "Science teaching resources: 11-16 year olds". This would provide invaluable guidance for schools on the costs associated with equipping their science department. DfES should ensure that schools are properly informed of the importance and costs of maintaining expenditure on science equipment.


132. Technicians are non-teaching staff, employed by schools primarily to support practical work. This is likely to include preparing equipment and solutions for use in lessons, stock control, maintenance of equipment and health and safety. Some technicians support practical lessons in the classroom. Like all other non-teaching staff, pay scales are determined by local authorities; the school decides where on the pay scale each post should lie. The Royal Society and the Association for Science Education recently published a report on the action required to strengthen technician support in schools and colleges.[244] This report concludes that technicians have a vital role to play in the provision of high quality science education but that the number of technicians employed by schools and colleges is inadequate. The report estimates that schools and colleges in England need to create an additional 4,000 science technician posts in order to provide adequate technical support to all science departments.

133. Nigel Thomas of the Royal Society told us that "you would see a dramatic rise in the standard, say, of practical work if there was a vital investment in the support structure, in technicians".[245] Gillian Halton, a technician at the Institute of Education at Manchester Metropolitan University, reinforced this view: "If you are going to do good quality practical work then a good quality technician is vital".[246] She pointed out that technicians provide important support both for teachers and students. We have been told that the biggest problem for technicians in schools and colleges "is the lack of technician resource".[247] Chris Peel, a technician at City and Islington Sixth Form College said that this was because "schools historically do not employ enough [technicians] for the science curriculum they offer".[248] Catherine Crocker, a technician at Esher Sixth Form College, told us that they were having problems recruiting technicians when vacancies arose because "it is not a very attractive career".[249] Pay is low; we are told that salaries average £9,000, many technicians are paid during the term time only and typically work 30 hours per week.[250] There is no career structure and the RS/ASE report found that "many [technicians] were disillusioned because of their inability to progress as they gained experience and qualifications". Catherine Crocker told us that a senior technician earns little more than a trainee technician.[251]

134. There are few training opportunities for technicians. This is partly because courses are not available at convenient locations or times and partly because funding is not available.[252] Technicians in Bolton reported that, although NVQ courses were available through local colleges, they could not attend because they were only run during the day.[253] Further, there is little motivation to undertake training when it will not be linked to career progression. Under these circumstances it is no surprise that Chris Peel, a technician at City and Islington Sixth Form College, told us that it is difficult to "promote the idea of being a technician as a professional occupation; it is more of a stopgap job".[254]

135. The pay and conditions under which technicians are employed strike us as downright exploitation. We can see no reason why technicians should be paid during the term time only. Those technicians who prefer not to work during the holidays, carrying out essential tasks such as equipment maintenance, should be employed on part-time contracts; others should be treated like teachers and paid an annual full-time salary. The lack of opportunities for career or pay progression needs to be addressed. We welcome the report from the Royal Society and the Association for Science Education and compliment them on raising the profile of these issues. We recognise that similar issues are likely to apply to other support staff throughout schools and that there may be significant resources implications if these are to properly addressed. We are pleased that the DfES is in dialogue with the Royal Society and the Association for Science Education to discuss the recommendations of their report on science technicians.[255] We expect to see action taken within the next year to address the appalling pay and conditions of science technicians and to create a career structure that will attract skilled and dedicated people to work as technicians.

136. Unless technicians are given the opportunity to develop their skills, they will not be able to provide teachers and students with the level of support that they need to carry out high quality practical work. DfES are in the process of establishing a National Centre for Excellence in Science Teaching. We are pleased that DfES have proposed that this Centre should provide support for technicians as well as teachers.[256] It is essential that technicians have opportunities for professional development. This will mean not only making appropriate courses available but also ensuring that technicians have the time and funding to be able to participate.

Health and safety

137. There is a widely held belief that practical work in schools is now constrained by health and safety regulations. This is simply not true. Indeed, we have heard that the introduction of risk assessment as standard practice enables a wider range of experimental work to be carried out than previously.[257] Advice on health and safety is available to schools from the CLEAPSS School Science Service and the Association for Science Education (ASE).[258] However, it may well be the case that some teachers believe inaccurately that certain experiments are banned. It has also been suggested to us that supposed regulations may be used as an excuse by teachers not to do practical work where other health and safety issues are the real concern. This may apply in particular where teachers lack confidence when teaching outside their scientific discipline, where there is a lack of technical support or where classes are too large.[259]


138. The scientific learned societies and the ASE highlighted large class sizes in secondary science as making it difficult for teachers to manage practical classes.[260] James Salmon from the Anglo-European School, Essex described teaching classes of "30-32 [students] in labs that were designed for 24".[261] Catherine Crocker said that "if there are 30 pupils most teachers would like to have somebody else in there in practicals, but it does not happen".[262] Data provided by Ofsted, based on inspections carried out in the 2000/01 academic year, shows class sizes in double science GCSE ranging from 6 to 34 students, with a median of 24. A small survey carried out by the ASE suggest that it is the top sets in science that tend to be larger so that it is the most able students who are being most directly affected.[263] In contrast, legislation limits practical science lessons to 20 students in Scottish schools and to 24 in Northern Ireland.[264] The ASE do not believe that it is currently possible to impose a size limit in England. We recognise the difficulty of implementing smaller class sizes in science given the existing teacher shortage but feel that, in the interests of health and safety, this should be a priority. The longer term aim should be to reduce secondary school practical science classes to no more that 20 students.

230   Science teaching resources: 11-16 year olds. Royal Society. 1997. Back

231   Ofsted Annual report 1997/98, published February 1999. Back

232   Data from Ofsted reported in the Roberts Review, figure 2.18 Back

233   DfES press notice 2000/0171, April 18, 2000. Available via Back

234   Q521 Back

235   Ev 86, para 6 and ev 87, Appendix 4. Upper estimates of cost laboratory refurbishment range from £55,000-£70,000, which would include building work to remodel or renew services such as gas, electricity, water and drainage. Back

236   Ev 86, para 3. Back

237   Ev 205, Appendix 50 Back

238   Refurbishing 6 laboratories at £20,000 each and one prep room at £13,000 in 905 schools would cost £121 million. Back

239   Q521 Back

240   Q44 Back

241   Q237 Back

242   Science Teaching Resources:11-16 year olds. Published by the Royal Society, October 1997. Back

243   Ev 86, para 9. See also Ev 182, Appendix 40 Back

244   Supporting success: science technicians in school and colleges. 2002. Available via Back

245   Q22 Back

246   Q281 Back

247   Q283 Back

248   Q285 Back

249   Q283 Back

250   Q286 Back

251   Q283 Back

252   Q308 Back

253   SED 96 Ev 201 Back

254   Q285 Back

255   Ev 125, para 45 Back

256   Q523 Back

257   Q295. See also Ev 93, para 7.2; Ev 165, paras 47; Ev 183 Back

258   See and . CLEAPSS is the Consortium of Local Education Authorities for the Provision of Science Services. See Ev 182, Appendix 40  Back

259   Q20 Back

260   Ev 93, para 7.4 and Ev 84, para 9. See also Ev 181, para 13 Back

261   Q242 Back

262   Q303 Back

263   Ev 93, para 7.4 Back

264   The Schools Scotland Code 1956, regulation 15(2), specifies a maximum of 20 students in a class for "practical instruction in science, art, art crafts, mechanics, benchwork, technical drawing, typewriting, cookery, laundry­work, dressmaking, housewifery, agriculture, gardening, dairying, navigation and seamanship". The Secondary Schools (Grant Conditions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1973, regulation 15, specifies that practical classes should be restricted to 20 students unless the Department of Education approves otherwise. Subsequently, circular 2001/14, issued in 2001 by the Department of Education, gave blanket approval for science classes to be increased to 26 students at key stage 3 and 24 at key stage 4. Back

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