Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report


The Foreign and Commonwealth Office Science and Technology Unit has provided us with information about science education in 11 countries overseas: Canada (SED 91), Denmark (SED88), France (SED 104), Germany (SED 99), Iceland (SED 93), Italy (SED 105), Japan (SED 103), Netherlands (SED 86), Sweden (SED 89), Switzerland (SED 87), and USA (SED 90).

We asked posts the following questions:

1. What proportion of 14­19 year olds follow science courses including biology, chemistry and physics? Has this changed significantly over the last ten years?

2. What are the primary aims of the science curriculum for this age group (eg to provide a grounding for future scientists, to prepare students to engage with science as citizens etc)?

3. Do all students follow the same curriculum? Or are there, for example, academic and vocational options?

4. Is there perceived to be a problem regarding the relevance of the science curriculum? If so, is this regarded to be a particular problem for certain groups of pupils?

5. What is the place of practical work within the science curriculum? How is the practical work assessed?

6. How are pupils assessed on their knowledge and understanding? Is there perceived to be a problem with the assessment system?

Extracts from the responses are given below. The full submissions are available on request.


Education in Canada is a provincial responsibility. Curricula change from province to province, as do methods of assessment and school structure.

To graduate from school (aged 18, and seemingly most - around 86% in Ontario - students graduate from school), it seems most provinces require students to have at least two science credits, so most students take science until at least 16 (winning those credits in years 9 and 10).

In years 11 and 12, students have greater choice in the subjects they follow. Science is no longer a general course, but broken down into biology, chemistry, physics and earth sciences. Students in some provinces can graduate from school without taking a science subject in years 11 and 12. However, it seems that to qualify for a university course, even to read arts, a specific subject science course needs to be done in the senior years (many seem to opt for biology).

In some provinces (British Columbia, Ontario, for example), some schools appear to offer in years 11 and 12, a general science course. This is mostly directed at those not planning on an academic career and is often broad ranging, promoting science literacy. A general science course appears also to be available in Alberta in year 12. This was apparently designed to be more academic and suitable for university entrance­level students. However, take up is apparently low due partly to stigma and the fact it is also perceived to be very difficult.

As for numbers taking these subjects, according to Alan Taylor of Applied Research and Evaluation Services at the University of British Columbia, best estimates are about 14% of age cohort enrolled in grade 12 physics (he suggests this is about 20% of the grade cohort). He suggests a similar number for chemistry, but considerably greater numbers for biology.

According to the Education Quarterly Review, 2001, from Statistics Canada (vol 8, no 1), in 1995, 42% of students were taking both maths and at least one science in their last year of school. However, just over a fifth (20.8%) of all upper secondary students were enrolled in neither maths nor science. 18.6% were taking maths but not science, 18.4% science not maths.

In 1995, education ministers from across Canada (except Quebec) adopted the Pan Canadian Protocol for Collaboration in School Curriculum. The Pan­Canadian Science Project was the first project under the protocol, and aimed at producing a framework of general and specific science learning outcomes for kindergarten to grade 12. The framework is to assist curriculum development in each jurisdiction.[270]

The second page (titled, A vision for scientific literacy in Canada) states:

    "The framework is guided by the vision that all Canadian students, regardless of gender or cultural background, will have an opportunity to develop scientific literacy. Scientific literacy is an evolving combination of the science­related attitudes, skills, and knowledge students need to develop inquiry, problem­solving, and decision­making abilities, to become lifelong learners, and to maintain a sense of wonder about the world around them".

Hence science literacy seems to play a crucial role in Canada's science education vision.

Julia Hinde

First Secretary (Science and Technology)

British High Commission, Ottawa


There is a belief in Denmark that it is lagging behind other countries on the science front, and certainly the latest PISA survey has shown that Danish students (age 15) are far behind in natural science subjects (only 7 countries do worse than Denmark). Other surveys for students at age 19 however have shown that students are above average in science at this age. But there is a general feeling that more needs to be done to improve the Danish students' science record and generally engage more students in the subjects, although no policy initiatives that we are aware of are planned at present.

Statistics show that during the last ten years interest in science subjects have dropped. This is true both if one looks at the age group 15/16­19, but also if one looks at the number of students enrolling at university courses such as natural science. The trend is a steady decrease.

The Danish Employers' Federation has recently completed some research relating to education of the 15­19 year age group. Some of this looks at science education in broad terms.

The Danish Employers' Federation's research also included an analysis of the subjects taught at the Danish 'Gymnasium'. This showed that the level at which students choose to study the subjects are dropping whether it be in the maths or the language line. A student can choose either level A, B or C. Students must take some subjects at level A, but it is a problem if the subjects chosen at level A are not what might be called core subjects ie maths, physics etc. According to the Danish Employers' Federation, the choices at Gymnasium have become too wide, the maths or language lines have consequently become diluted, students are not strong enough in the core subjects, and subsequently find it difficult when starting higher education.

The survey done by the Danish Employers' Federation suggests that there is a discrepancy between what is taught and what is required at the exam. Across the board the marks given at exams are lower than those given by the teachers at end of year assessment.

The Federation would like to see more linking with industry also in the hope that this could make the teaching more interesting and thus attract more students. A summary of a pilot project which aims to make science more interesting is available on the internet. [271]

There are no surveys or analysis which looks at science education at lower secondary schools, but the PISA study suggests science is not given a high enough priority. Physics and chemistry is taught from 7th grade (age 13) and teaching is at many schools to a large degree practical exercises. The students also have to do a practical test at the exam (there is no written examination). In maths, students have both a written and an oral test where the oral test includes a practical test. There is no examination in biology or geography.

British Embassy, Copenhagen


Key Points

  • Even for those taking "Bac L" (literature), science and maths remain compulsory subjects and will continue to be taught until at least the lower sixth.

  • Despite a slight weakening in its position, mathematics remains the cock of the roost. Performance in maths is regarded as a key yardstick of academic excellence.

  • Main problem is recruitment for science­based courses at university. Physics and chemistry have seen particularly sharp drop in numbers.

  • Substantial growth in vocational courses over past twenty years. Around half of all those obtaining Baccalauréat now come from vocational streams ("Bac technologique" or "Bac professionnel").

  • Efforts have been made to liven up school curriculum and make science teaching more "hands­on"; but criticism of theoretical bias persists.

At collège [11-15], all pupils study science. In terms of the number of hours devoted to science teaching at collège, France is slightly above the average of OECD countries for the 12­14 year old age group. The principal aim of the science curriculum at this level is to equip pupils with an adequate scientific grounding ("culture scientifique") to allow them to make sense of the world around them; a subsidiary objective concerns familiarisation with the experimental method.

Science is divided into two main subject blocks: biology/environmental science and physics/chemistry. The former is taught from the sixième, whilst the latter is introduced in cinquième. 14­15 year olds (troisième) in a biology class, for example, will learn about genetics and the basics of cell metabolism. In physics, they will learn about electricity.

In the lycée [15-18], all pupils studying academic courses leading to the general baccalauréat (S, L or ES) will study a core science curriculum in seconde. This comprises 3.5 hours per week of physics/chemistry and 2 hours per week of biology/environmental sciences. In addition, pupils choose two optional subjects from a list of seventeen which will help to determine their specialisation for the Baccalauréat in première and terminale. A pupil expecting to do a Baccalauréat S is advised to choose one science option (eg introduction to engineering) plus a second foreign language. In their final two years, pupils following the Baccalauréat S can expect to spend around 16 hours per week on maths and sciences combined, from a total timetable of 26 hours. Those opting for additional maths can expect to divide their time roughly equally between maths and science; but even those specialising in one of the science subjects will find maths taking up around 6 hours per week.

The additional maths option remains the most prestigious choice. Figures for the Lille Académie in 2001 show that around 30% of pupils in this option went on to obtain a place in the "classes préparatoires" - two­year courses preparing for the highly competitive entrance exams for the Grandes Ecoles. This figure is significantly lower for the physics/chemistry (16%) and life sciences/environmental sciences (6%) options.

Teaching methods are less open to objective analysis than curriculum content. There appears, however, to be a feeling that science teaching has tended to err on the side of the theoretical at the expense of the practical, setting too high a premium on rote­learning and too little store by practical/experimental work. In short, a fact­based, teacher­centred style of learning has taken precedence over discovery­based, pupil­centred style of learning. Some weight for this view would appear to be lent by the findings of international surveys of pupils' performance, where French children habitually produce their best scores in solving theoretical problems rather than applied ones.

Andrew Holt

British Embassy, Paris


The Federal Republic of German comprises sixteen Laender (states), which have exclusive jurisdiction in the educational sphere.

Compulsory schooling commences at the age of six and finishes at 18. Nine (or ten) of these years have to be spent in full-time schooling: the following years either in full-time schooling or part-time vocational schools, eg in connection with an apprenticeship.

Secondary education is divided into:

(A) Lower secondary level education (10 to 16) is differentiated according to young people's ability, talent and inclination:

-  the Hauptschule (grades 5- 9/10) which provides a sound basis for vocational training

-  the Realschule (grades 5 or 7-10) which prepares students for careers with higher demands

-  the Gymnasium (grades 5-10) which prepares its students for higher education;

(B) Upper secondary level education (16 to 19 year old pupils).

14 to 16 year pupils: the subjects are taught separately as biology, chemistry and physics. The three science subjects are part of the core curriculum, and all students must study them.

The extent to which the three subjects are taught varies according to the type of school as well as the Laender. Biology and physics are not normally taught in every grade, and chemistry teaching is usually begun later than the other two sciences.

16 to 19 year old pupils: Two of the three sciences are compulsory in the first year of upper secondary. At least one of the chosen science subjects must be contained in year two and three.[272]

Dr Kurt Riquarts

Institut für die Pädagogik der Naturwissenschaften (Institute for Science Education)

University of Kiel


All pupils in Japan take science education courses at lower secondary schools (ages 12 - 15).

The Ministry of Education, Sports, Culture, Science and Technology (MEXT) stipulates the educational objectives, goals, curricula, school week and subject types taught at different school levels based on the School Education Law. Contents of all subjects are also stipulated in Courses of Study. Courses of Study were comprehensively revised in 1998 and will be effective from April 2002 for lower secondary schools and from April 2003 for upper secondary schools, respectively.

Primary aims are:

To develop scientific investigation ability and deepen their understanding of matters and phenomena in nature by arousing interest in nature and through observations and experiments, thereby developing scientific views and thinking.

To master methods for discovering and explaining natural phenomena through the process of investigating problems among matters and phenomena concerning substances and energy.

To acquire skills in observation and experiment through observations and experiments of chemical matters and phenomena, and to understand familiar substances and their changes, and chemical changes, atoms, molecules, ions, etc, thereby developing a scientific way of viewing and thinking about these phenomena.

To acquire skills in observation and experiment through observation and experiments of physical matters and phenomena, and understand familiar physical phenomena, electric current, motions, energy, etc, thereby developing scientific ways of viewing and thinking about these phenomena

To arouse their interest in matters and phenomena concerning subsistence and energy, and positively undertake activities of investigation, thereby developing an attitude to consider these phenomena in relation with daily life.

Through these measures MEXT is developing "easy­to­understand classes, where students are able to experience the joy of learning and a sense of achievement, and cultivating "a zest of living" (Ikiru chikara in Japanese) in children".

All pupils at lower secondary school follow the same curriculum. After a standarised first year, pupils at upper secondary schools can choose their study courses. Upper secondary school courses are classified into three categories: general, specialized and integrated courses. The specialized courses are further classified into agriculture, engineering (mechanical, electric, electronics and information technology) commerce, fishery, home economics, nursing, science­mathematics, physical education, music, art and English language. Curricula of upper secondary schools are based on the Course of Study, issued by MEXT.

In recent years courses have become more relevant with such issues as environmental pollution and global warming being emphasised more. In addition to the course material, there are science clubs which can be well utilised.

The Science Education & Research Association has pointed out that the importance of science in the curriculum has been decreasing as reflected in the number of credits for science education at upper secondary schools (ages between 15­18). The reduction in time available for science is also leading to a reduction in the time available for experiments and other practical work for pupils between 12 and 18.

Assessment of science, including practical work, is conducted by individual schoolteachers.

Pupils' knowledge and skills are assessed on their interest, desire for, and attitude to science matters; their judgement, and observation ability; their ability to conduct experiments, presentation knowledge and understanding.

The Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports Science and Technology (MEXT) has recently announced proposals to launch a "Science Literacy Enhancement Initiative" including a scheme to create "Super Science High Schools"


There are eight initiatives under the Science Literacy Enhancement initiative with a total budget of around ¥5.6 billion (£31 million) this financial year.

MEXT are designating 26 schools as "Super Science High Schools" each of which will receive an additional subsidy this year of ¥25 million (about £136,000) out of a total allocation of ¥727 million (around £4 million) to run the scheme this financial year. The scheme will run for three years. It is not yet clear whether there will be additional subsidies in future years as this will depend on the budget available to MEXT.

The aim of the scheme is:

Brian Ferrar

First Secretary, Science & Technology

British Embassy, Tokyo


The Dutch education system comprises primary, secondary and higher education. Primary education is compulsory from the age of five and lasts for eight years. Pupils' performance in the upper years of this phase determines the type of secondary school they should attend. Secondary education, which starts at the age of 12 and is compulsory until the age of 16, is divided into two consecutive vocational programmes, VMBO [junior secondary pre­vocational education] and MBO [secondary vocational education] and two parallel programmes, HAVO [senior general secondary education] and VWO [integrated pre­university education]. The programmes vary both in length - from four to six years - and in the difficulty of their respective curricula, ie from vocational training (MBO) to university preparatory education (VWO). In general, students in Higher Professional Education will have graduated from a HAVO, VWO or MBO programme.

The 15 - 19 year age bracket starts somewhere during the last two years of HAVO and VWO, which are described in educational terms as the "Tweede Fase", (Second Phase). Pupils can make a choice as to how they wish to continue their study according to four profiles: Nature and Technology; Nature and Health; Culture and Society and Economy and Society. The latest available statistics from the Ministry of Education show that 15.8% selected Nature and Technology; 16.7% Nature and Health; 5.4% a combination of both; 17.9% Culture and Society; 36.9% Economy and Society; 4.9% a combination of both and 2.4% were still undecided at the time of measurement.

In spite of all the promotional campaigns, fewer and fewer young people are choosing technical careers. The figures for new entrants to all technical sectors and all education levels have been falling for years, from metalworking to chemistry, from pre­vocational secondary education to university. It is felt by many that young people see science and technology as too narrow an option; they associate it with dull research and manufacturing jobs in laboratories or factories, with no opportunity for promotion to management posts or progression to running their own business. Technology, as they believe, offers far fewer opportunities on the jobs market than, for example, economics or a general education.

The Dutch Government recognized that the shortage of people trained in the sciences and technology began to become a problem around 1998. It instituted Axis, an organisation which has a project portfolio to stimulate young people into science and technology studies. Co­funding of Axis activities is currently more than 50% - now just under euros 18 million - providing good evidence of Axis' ability to mobilise parties in the market. More than euros 4.6 million of this co­funding comes from the business community. Two studies commissioned by Axis (Technomonitor, 2000 and Bèta/Techniek uit Balans, 2000 (Science & Technology out of Balance) indicate that the problem needs to be tackled at a more fundamental level than in the past.

The creation of challenging study design modules is the central plank of the national project Technology 15­plus, an Axis activity. It creates practical assignments and projects in the second cycle of secondary education. Support is being provided for the design activities in four regions (Eindhoven, Rotterdam, Groningen, Enschede) by regional networks in collaboration with providers of technical education and the regional business community. The aim of the project is to encourage senior general secondary (HAVO) and integrated pre­university (VWO) students to choose science and technology by embedding 'custom education' in the second cycle of their secondary education.

Leo Zonneveld

Science & Technology Officer

British Embassy, The Hague


All subjects in the Compulsory school [7-16] are mandatory. A total of 12% of the Compulsory school curriculum is devoted to Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Technology. All science subjects aim to describe and explain nature and living organisms from a scientific perspective. Developing pupils' curiosity about, and fascination for, nature in general terms as well as their interest in everyday phenomena is also an aim common to the science subjects at this level.[273]

Upper Secondary Schools [16-19]: In the academic year 2000/2001 50.9% of students on National Programmes followed vocational programmes. Of those following academic studies, 40.8% followed the Natural Science programme and 59.2% chose Social Science.

All the Upper Secondary School national programmes, including the vocational ones, cover a broad variety of subjects. A basic course of science, the Science studies A course, is included on all national programmes. Students studying the academically oriented Social Science Programme also follow the Science studies B course. Both these courses are interdisciplinary subjects. On the academically oriented Natural Science Programme Biology, Chemistry and Physics are taught separately in addition to Science studies A.

Science studies A aims to provide the knowledge of science necessary for people to engage with it as citizens. This includes knowledge of the growth of scientific world­views and the history of the universe and the earth as well as the capability of distinguishing facts from value viewpoints in a debate. Understanding of the connection between lifestyle and sustainable ecological development is also stressed. Pupils should be able to carry out simple experiments and analyse and interpret the results of these. Science studies A accounts for 2% of the total Upper Secondary School curriculum in all programmes.

Science studies B is the course common to the Social Science Programme. Goals to attain include having knowledge of the theories of the natural sciences concerning the origins, conditions, development and diversity of life. Pupils should be able to describe the structure and function of the living organism, from the molecular level to the level of the organism. Knowledge of modern genetics and genetic engineering, as well as the capability to discuss the application of these from an ethical perspective is another goal. Time is also devoted to teaching the importance of lifestyle to promote health. Science B accounts for 4% of the total Social Science Programme curriculum.

The Natural Science Programme is intended to lead to Higher Education studies in Science or Technology. Students can choose from a variety of 'orientations'. All orientations include Biology, Chemistry and Physics A, which each account for 4% of the total curriculum of the programme. Depending on which specific orientation students choose they may also study some or all of Biology, Chemistry and Physics B, as well as different courses particular to each specific programme (Environmental studies, Computer Studies etc) In total science subjects related to the specific programme account for 12% of the programme curriculum, making a total science content of 26% (including Science studies A).

The Natural Science Programme aims to provide scientifically based knowledge of the conditions of life and of nature and also aims to develop the ability to use mathematics in the natural sciences and in other areas. Courses in the programme involve a combination of experiments and the studying of different theories within the field. Environmental and resource issues are an important part of the programme. Students are also expected to be able to take an active part in debates related to the particular subjects of their orientation by the time they have completed the programme.

Compulsory school includes national tests in Mathematics at age 12 and 16 but not of the other science oriented subjects. In Upper secondary school the Natural Science Programme includes national tests in Mathematics and Physics. Contacts at the National Agency for Education explain the lack of national testing in Sweden as a result of the emphasis placed on acquiring knowledge that can be used in everyday situations or in future working life, i.e. on applying knowledge achieved, rather than on memorising exact facts. This priority makes it more difficult to carry out national tests.

Contacts at the Swedish Ministry for Education say there is a clear political ambition in Sweden to increase interest in science and technology among pupils. A number of actions have been taken to meet this goal, including:

  • New curriculum - Ever since new curricula and syllabuses were introduced in Sweden by the middle of the 1990s, the amount of time devoted to scientifically oriented subjects and technology has significantly increased in Compulsory school. In Upper secondary school Mathematics A and Science A are, as a consequence of the new curricula, taken by all pupils.

  • Bridging courses - One­year science courses designed to allow students with insufficient science background to qualify for science studies at university. This is thought of as a very successful way of recruiting more students for studying science and technology at university. It is also deemed to be a good way of recruiting more students to teacher training within science and technology.

  • The NOT (Science and Technology) Project - In 1993 the Swedish government tasked the National Board of Education and the National Agency for Higher Education with running a project aimed at increasing interest in science and technology. The mandate was renewed in 1998 with instructions for special emphasis to be put on change of attitudes towards science and technology among pupils and methods used for teaching these subjects at school and university.[274]

  • Resource Centres - The Swedish government has established special Resource Centres within the fields of chemistry, physics, technology, mathematics and most recently within biology and biotechnology at different universities around the country. These centres are responsible for supporting development of the subjects mentioned within schools and for supporting teachers and teacher trainers working within this field.

  • Science centres - Economic support is given to a number of science centres across Sweden. These centres contribute to science education in different ways, for instance by arranging school visits and by designing experiments for classroom teaching.

  • Raising of teachers' competence - Financial support of 75 million SEK (around £5 million) has been given to raising Compulsory schools' teachers' competence within the fields of science, technology and environmental issues. This was due to an assessment that the majority of teachers teaching at Compulsory school are considered to lack both sufficient theoretical and pedagogical knowledge of these subjects.

Jenny Norrmén

Assistant Political/Economic Officer

British Embassy, Stockholm


Science teaching is the focus of continual but low­level attention amongst US policy­makers, both in Washington and State capitols, driven by concern in universities and industry who worry that not enough high school students are opting to do science. However, there is no fully national agenda or national philosophy on the teaching of science in schools and it is important to appreciate that individual States have much discretion over the curriculum, teaching, student assessment and funding.

In Washington, the focus tends to be on standard­setting and assessment. There is a also general concern about the supply of scientists and engineers, thrown into sharper relief following the events of September 11th and the October anthrax crisis, which highlighted the large numbers of foreign science and engineering students. As a result more attention is being paid to improve the flow of scientists and engineers from US schools. Last summer, the National Science Foundation was asked by Congress to manage an initiative to enhance the teaching of maths and science in schools from Kindergarten through to 12th Grade (K­12 Math­Science Partnerships). The program invites school districts, universities and other organisations to bid for funds to create a partnership to support local science teaching and has generated much interest. The first round of applications is to be sifted over the summer.

The teaching of science in individual states is overseen by State School Boards, and often influenced by local political considerations. In many States, the attention given to science teaching is driven by the nature of the local economy. In states where hi­tech clusters, entrepreneurship and basic R&D are seen as major drivers of growth - such as California, Massachusetts and Maryland - there is a strong focus on teaching science in schools, often supplemented by the activities of private or non­profit organisations. The interfaces between school and higher education, and between higher education and industry are of much interest. In other states, the debate on science teaching can occasionally be hijacked by strong views on the teaching of evolution, with creationism and intelligent design competing for attention alongside Darwinian theory.

There are two general features of science teaching in the US which differ from the UK and are worth highlighting. Firstly, from an early age there is much emphasis on individual science projects, with a tradition of presenting the results at school science fairs - from local school districts up through to County, State and National levels. From my own experience (visiting local elementary schools and the AAAS young scientist poster fair) the projects can be impressive. They range from home-built apparatus set up in the garage at home through to high school students working out of hours on projects with research groups at local universities or institutes.

Secondly, the long school summer holidays provide ample opportunity for summer camps - another US tradition. Frequently these camps offer students the opportunity to focus on a particular speciality (eg sports) or to build on specific elements of the school curriculum. The Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University, for example, offers a program of maths, science and writing camps for gifted children across the US; others offer to help improve the performance of students who are slipping behind.

Horizon Research conducted a study on practical science work which further illuminates the role of science projects. 71% of science classes for secondary school age students involve practical work at least once a week, with an average of 22% of class time spent on practical work. In the UK practical work tends to be conducted within one science lesson, but in the US, in addition to short classroom experiments, American high school students participate in long­term science projects, completed over a period of several weeks. Unlike practical work in the UK, these long projects are conducted entirely out of school time. Students decide what the project will be based on, which fosters creative thinking and an interest in science. The project apparatus is usually displayed alongside a written report in a science fair, attended by parents, and graded by a panel of science teachers. Students are required to briefly discuss their work with an assessor, and prizes are awarded. Class practical work assessment is similar to that in the UK, with the emphasis on a written report using the scientific method.

But what does the system achieve? There is some evidence that the assessment system in the US, particularly for science subjects, is failing to highlight students' underachievement. Although US students are among the most proficient in science internationally aged 10, by 18 they have dropped to become one of the worst performing countries. The longer American school students study science, it seems, the worse their grasp of it . This suggests that either the methods of instruction or the assessment system, or both, are not serving US students effectively. As testing is often infrequent in American high schools, recent standards­based reforms, supported by President Bush, encourage more regular testing. Hence debates currently focus on the fundamental issue of providing assessment, rather than improving the types of assessment used.

Chris Pook         Rosie Milner

Science Attaché     Research Assistant

British Embassy, Washington

270 Back

271   See Back

272   Details are available in English in Riquarts K and Wadewitz C, Framework for Science Education in Germany, IPN 2001. Back

273   See Back

274 Back

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