Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Engineering Council


  1.  The Engineering Council welcomes the opportunity to present this statement and congratulates the Committee on undertaking this enquiry. Although science and engineering are distinct entities, scientific knowledge and understanding are among the principal attributes required by engineers. Engineers will bring this knowledge and understanding, together with a range of other intellectual qualities, to bear on the development of solutions to a wide range of technical problems. The continued supply of effective engineers, technologists, and technicians therefore depends in part upon science flourishing as a subject in the education of all young people, and being taught in a way which will enthuse them. The wide range of educational opportunities open to young people, and the success with which some other areas of study have been promoted and delivered, make this even more important. At present it is evident that science suffers from certain image problems as a subject for young people, and these need to be addressed.


  2.  The current prevalent approach of presenting science simply as "facts" leaves people unprepared for differing views or for formulating scientific-related ideas. There needs to be a fresh approach to the syllabus to equip people better to judge what they are seeing and reading (processes, history of science, proof and hypothesis). All young people should be equipped for scientific literacy—the curriculum must pull away from being geared to preparing 10 per cent of the population to be potential scientists, and direct itself instead to ensuring the scientific literacy of all, providing a basis for further study by those who are inclined and suited to it.

  3.  We commend to the Committee the recommendations in the Science 2000 report, most of which we strongly support. The thinking behind this report has already generated some encouraging developments. These include the development work now beginning on a GCSE course in science which would include what have previously been thought of as separate "academic" and "vocational" elements, and the development by the Nuffield Foundation of an AS level in Science for Public Understanding. Changes in the curriculum should be directed towards more teaching about science and less on content. This will require considerable professional development by teaching staff. There should be more in the curriculum to celebrate the success of science and illustrate its relevance to consumers.

  4.  The development of the science curriculum needs also to be linked to the development of a wide range of capabilities in students. These include the specified Key Skills, not only communication, numeracy, and ICT capability, but also what are sometimes misleadingly called the soft skills of improving one's own learning, working with others, and problem solving. Science teaching and learning also need to develop the following qualities:

    —  resilience (to handle ever-increasing expectations);

    —  adaptability (to respond confidently to change);

    —  discrimination (to select and evaluate information);

    —  connective thinking (to make creative decisions and devise new solutions to problems).

  5.  We should particularly like to draw the Committee's attention to the benefits to be gained from interaction between science, and design and technology. These are considered fully in the report "Interaction", by David Barlex and James Pitt, published by the Engineering Council in 2000. While emphasising the differences between the subjects, and rejecting the notion of integrating them fully within the curriculum, the report drew attention to the potential for collaborative working between teachers in the two areas. It observed that the structure of the National Curriculum had been a major factor in inhibiting this. The report recommended that collaborative partnerships should be encouraged to pilot shared working. A pilot project supported by the Engineering Council, Royal Society, Royal Academy of Engineering, DfES and the Engineering Employers' Federation, linked to a study by the York Science Group, is now in progress.

  6.  Any new approach to delivering the science curriculum must be flexible, allow fast-tracking, promote continuity and progression, and have science for all as a part of it. All young people should be engaged in the equivalent of an improved double award in science at GCSE, to include appropriate careers counselling. There should be more flexibility in the entry age for examinations and routes for progression to meet individual needs and acknowledge prior attainment. Specialist schools may offer good opportunities for developing these new approaches, but the results must be well disseminated to all schools.

  7.  There are many equal opportunities issues associated with the teaching of science, such as qualifications choices; styles of teaching; and methods of assessment. More positive inclusion/anti-racist and anti-sexist thinking/action needs to be built in to science provision—for growing problems generated by failing to do so see EOC report December 2001. The exec summary of "Science Policies in the European Union" [A report from the ETAN Expert Working Group on Women and Science; 2000] states:

  "Attracting more young people into science poses challenges for education. The sex-stereotyping of science and scientists needs to be tackled through the curriculum, through pedagogy and through the media. Various strategies to encourage women to enter and remain in science are commended."

  8.  There is no shortage of curriculum materials to support science teaching. The focus now needs to be not on these but upon professional development for teachers. Currently this is insufficient and not focused on specific needs. As the curriculum changes so teachers' professional development to match these changes will be crucial. The role of a National Centre for Excellence in Science Teaching will be crucial. However it is important that all practitioners associated with the teaching of science should be involved in developing and implementing change.

  9.  There should be a Professional Development framework for technicians and an increase in their number:

  "A move to establish a national career structure for science technicians (supported by an investment in CPD) would not only be universally welcomed, but would improve pupil attitudes towards, and performance in, school science".

  [The Royal Society 20 Dec 2001—cover letter to Royal Society/ASE working group report]


  10.  Although the Committee's focus is upon the science curriculum, it is appropriate to point out perceived shortcomings in the current mathematical attainment of school-leavers which militate against their ability to progress in science-related education. The former Further Education Funding Council's final survey of engineering in colleges (2000) noted problems for engineering students:

  "The mathematical ability of many engineering students continues to be a weakness. Students often lack confidence in the manipulation of equations and formulae. The number and range of examples provided for students are not always sufficient to develop their mathematical competence. Mathematical principles need to be linked more often to engineering applications to promote the relevance and understanding of mathematics. Numeracy, literacy, and information technology (IT) are key skills which all engineering departments develop, but not always systematically. The further application of computers to aid engineering processes is usually well taught. Few engineering departments have extended the development of key skills to cover problem-solving, working with others, and improving own learning and performance, as requested by industry."

  11.  Similar problems have been noted by many in higher education. The report "Mathematics Matters" published by the Engineering Council in 2000, highlighted the declining performance of many engineering graduates in mathematical diagnostic tests carried out at the beginning of their degree courses. To some extent this is a function both of the changes which have taken place in the nature and purpose of the Maths curriculum up to A level, and of the rapid expansion of higher education. Most universities recognise that they need to adjust their approaches, to deal with this. However, there are widespread fears about the decline in the numbers of students undertaking mathematical studies beyond the age of 16. The fiasco which occurred with the new Maths AS level in 2001 will lead to a sharp reduction in the number of A level Maths candidates in 2002 and 2003, and we have no confidence that the matter is being properly addressed by Government and its agencies.


  12.  The current problem could be summarised as "if it doesn't appear in the test teachers don't teach it". Assessment should be strengthened to improve its quality and relevance. We understand that QCA is developing more open questions, to focus on investigative process skills. We welcome this development. Accrediting teachers as assessors would go some way towards focusing assessment on relevant activities.


  13.  With the demise of the FEFC and its inspectorate last March up to date information on science provision in colleges of FE should be obtainable from the LSC, Ofsted and ALI. Ofsted should shortly be able to provide an overview of the comparison of science provision in schools and FE colleges. Most Sixth Form Colleges in the FE sector offer GCE A levels in the Sciences and D&T. In General FE colleges GNVQ Science and GCSE in Science are widely offered. There has been continued growth in both types of college in the number of modular GCE A level courses. Enrolments on computer and information technology (IT) courses remain high, although there is an increased demand for alternative qualifications to GCE A level. Enrolments on computer literacy and information technology (CLAIT) courses are high; many hundreds in a substantial number of colleges. In the majority of general further education colleges, the number of students studying science subjects is static or falling. The situation is healthier in sixth form colleges. Few students opt for general national vocational qualification (GNVQ) science programmes. In some colleges, recruitment to GCE A level mathematics courses is falling. Although colleges offer alternative courses to GCSE mathematics, too many students continue to take GCSE mathematics without a realistic chance of success.

  14.  Recent inspection reports on Science from the FE sector (to be found at have shown that:

    —  a good balance between theoretical work and practical activities needs to be maintained.

    —  teachers do not encourage students to work enough on their own.

    —  A common weakness is that teachers do not take enough account of the differing levels of student ability when planning their lessons. More able students are not challenged sufficiently, particularly on GNVQ and other vocational courses. Despite examples of good practice, much mathematics teaching fails to deal effectively with the difficulties which many students experience in mathematics. Some teachers pay insufficient attention to the development of key skills.

    —  Teachers set imaginative assignments which reflect the practical demands of vocational courses.

    —  Science students develop good practical, laboratory skills and follow health and safety requirements, though some do not understand the theoretical principles on which their work is based.

    —  Teachers are usually well qualified. Most are graduates with teaching qualifications and many have relevant industrial experience. It is difficult for IT teachers to keep their subject knowledge up to date, however, and, in some colleges, mathematics teachers are required to teach the subject at foundation level without appropriate training. There is a great deal of valuable staff development activity, much of it focused on curriculum 2000.

    —  Specialist resources and accommodation in colleges are generally good. Colleges continue to improve their science facilities. The laboratories in many colleges are well equipped. The quality of computing facilities continues to improve. In some cases, students have access to excellent, state-of-the-art equipment housed in spacious, well-designed accommodation.

  15.c.  The conclusions from the Mathematics in FE survey undertaken in 1999-2000 (to be found at reveal the following:

    (i)  The strengths of the provision of mathematics in further education are:

    —  the wide range of qualifications in mathematics and numeracy;

    —  challenging activities to stimulate students' interest and encourage discussion, particularly in GCE A/AS level lessons;

    —  good use of practical tasks on vocational courses to support the development of mathematical skills;

    —  widespread assessment of numerical skills on entry to further education;

    —  readily accessible support for individual students through well-organised and well-managed mathematics workshops.

    (ii)  In order to improve the quality of mathematics provision the report advised that colleges should address the following issues:

    —  widely differing levels of mathematical attainment by students on courses of the same level;

    —  the lack of basic arithmetical and algebraic skills amongst students;

    —  insufficient guidance on the choice of courses for students seeking foundation and intermediate level qualifications in mathematics;

    —  poor GCSE examination results in mathematics in further education colleges;

    —  the narrow range of teaching and learning activities which takes insufficient account of students' learning needs;

    —  unclear learning objectives for application of number lessons within vocational courses;

    —  lack of staff development to support the teaching of mathematics.

  16.  Clearly there are strengths and weaknesses in both sectors. While suggesting that the Committee may wish to follow up some of the points made here about colleges, we should like to comment briefly on possibilities which may be offered by the forthcoming Green Paper on 14-19 education. As trailed, this seems to offer the possibility of a more integrated approach to education and development of young people in this age range. We believe that the opportunities which this offers for science should be seized. In particular it may help to break down the destructive separation of so-called academic and vocational routes. This will require schools and colleges to co-operate more closely than is often the case at present on curriculum management. Full advantage should be taken of the strengths which each can offer. In particular, students in schools should be able to have access to the often superior facilities available in colleges, and to make the most of the links the latter generally have with industry. The development in the FE sector of Centres of Vocational Excellence may offer particular opportunities here.

February 2002

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