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


Memorandum submitted by the UK Deans of Science

  The UK Deans of Science has members in over 70 Higher Education Institutes across the full range of old and new universities and other higher education institutes. Whilst its core focus is on higher education it has a deep interest in all aspects of science and science education with a particular emphasis on science education in schools. Our members have become increasingly convinced that the secondary science curriculum should be fundamentally re-examined in the context of current needs and circumstances. We therefore welcome the opportunity to respond to the Science and Technology Committee Inquiry into Science Education from 14 to 19 which we believe is timely and relevant given the role which science and technology will play in the new century in inter alia

    —  the understanding of health and disease with the opportunities afforded by the human genome project;

    —  sustainable economic growth;

    —  energy policies and global warming;

    —  quality of life;

    —  informatics;

    —  health promotion and social inclusion.

  For the United Kingdom to ensure a world-class position it is essential that the school science curriculum produces students capable of further study to pursue the highest possible achievements in science as well as improving the general level of public understanding and appreciation of science and its potential for good.

  We note and welcome the fact that the terms of reference of the Inquiry are to examine the science curriculum, its content, how it should be taught, why and to whom. These are issues we have previously urged should be reviewed (see Appendix 1[24]). However, we would not wish to lose sight of one further issue not explicitly referred to in your terms of reference, namely the importance of who teaches science. Whatever the curriculum, it will not fully achieve its purpose unless it is delivered by well qualified, well trained, motivated and inspiring science teachers in all state as well as private schools and colleges. This will require much greater effort by DfES and others to ensure enough good candidates enter science teacher training and are retained in the teaching profession. It also needs a major change in the arrangements (including financial support) for CPD for science teachers who need to update their knowledge much more regularly than those teaching other subjects if they are to be able to engage students in discussion about recent exciting scientific discovery. It is also essential that they are properly qualified in the science subjects they teach. Whilst we doubt that a school would expect a history teacher to teach French Language, too often those without an appropriate qualification in a particular science are used to teach the subject.[25] This is a particular issue at the lower levels of the school curriculum.[26]

  Further comments on the specific terms of reference follow below referenced against the Inquiry's terms of reference.


  It is clear that the 14 to 19 science curriculum must fulfil two needs. Firstly, the curriculum needs to ensure that the small but significant minority who will go on to study science in higher education are attracted and adequately prepared for this. Secondly, it must transmit a broad basic knowledge and a stimulating level of understanding at an appropriate level. In science this includes ensuring that students take part in discussions about the past, present and future impact which science can and will have in their lives.

  We believe that this is a major challenge for curriculum design. However, we believe that it is possible through:

    —  making the curriculum a single one for all students regardless of ability (ie not having academic only and "non-academic"/GNVQ routes). This could be achieved using a mix of two types of modules (along the lines of the GCSE curriculum currently being considered by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) where students may do varying amounts of different types of modules depending partly on their abilities and progress.

    —  ensuring that the subject content:

    —  covers the relevant fundamentals of science. Whilst this response is not intended to define a complete new curriculum we would mention such aspects as (in no particular order):

            —  the building blocks of matter and life—atoms, electrons, molecules, structure underlying properties of materials, cells, organisms, etc;

            —  the universe—including its scale, historical time of world and universe;

            —  physical principles including relevant mathematical concepts;

            —  energy—gravitational, kinetic, thermal, electrical, chemical, nuclear (including electromagnetic radiation);

    —  gives opportunity for interesting and exciting laboratory and other practical work, carried out with appropriate teacher guidance, sometimes open-ended but always in facilities which are fit for purpose with modern equipment and involving the handling of data and errors

    —  delivers an understanding of science which is now becoming known as "scientific literacy" through interesting, thought provoking activities relating to contemporary issues. This would mean its being sufficiently flexible and adaptable that the science which forms part of current affairs (generally unpredictable years or even months in advance) can be easily integrated into the classroom. This part of the curriculum would need to:

            —  improve the ability to understand scientific data, including its statistical presentation;

            —  give an understanding of the process of science, the possibilities and limits of scientific method, risk, etc;

            —  assist comprehension of how natural events can cause human problems (eg volcanic activity, earthquakes, asteroid impacts);

            —  describe nature through mathematical and statistical methods;

            —  emphasises the good news of science and its application through technology (but allows for appropriate consideration of ethical issues);

            —  indicates how fundamental discoveries are turned into technological advances that meet the needs of society.

  As we have indicated there is a need to achieve a curriculum focused towards the broad vision of science appropriate for the modern adult population whilst providing for the full range of abilities and giving a base for the later educational pathways of students. One of the major difficulties in achieving this is the need for those who progress to higher education science to achieve a base of knowledge and understanding which allows them to complete an honours degree within a reasonable timescale. For this reason, we believe that the time may now come for a truly radical approach to the curriculum in England, Northern Ireland and Wales. This is to accept a broader curriculum up to the age of 17 at which point students would enter higher education.

  We are aware that in Scotland, education is a matter devolved to the authority of the Scottish Executive. Our Scottish members recognise exactly parallel needs for change in the secondary science curriculum. In spite of a higher uptake of science subjects in the upper school, the same problems exist of poor adult understanding and declining interest in science and engineering careers. We would welcome any encouragement which the House of Commons Inquiry could pass on, to encourage active discussion of these issues also.


  2.1  We would wish to clearly separate the question of the mathematics to be introduced in the science curriculum from that dealt with in mathematics courses. Thus the mathematical content within the science curriculum need be only that required for the understanding of the science taught. That said, it is important that a conscious aim of the science curriculum should be to build skills in examining, interpreting and manipulating quantitative information and comprehending statistics, error and risk. This underpinning is important for all students in reinforcing their scientific literacy but will also give more confidence in essential mathematical concepts to those who study science in higher education including those in the life sciences.

  The mathematics taught within the rest of the National Curriculum needs to take account of the science curriculum and be paced and timed accordingly. There is also something to be said for using scientific examples in the mathematics curriculum to illustrate the juxtaposition of the two.

  2.2.  Quite separately there is a serious need to examine both the curriculum and the teaching of mathematics. There are many surveys and bodies of anecdotal evidence to indicate that the school curriculum is failing students in mathematics (or students in significant numbers are failing the curriculum). We can do no more here than to quote the first two paragraphs of the Executive Summary of Measuring the Mathematics Problem[27]:

Measuring the Mathematics Problem

  "Mathematics matters more and more. It underpins much of modern life with key applications ranging for example, in medicine, from the interpretation of a body scan to the analysis of the human genome, in finance, from the assessment of the risk to the modelling of markets and in communications from the stability of mobile-phone networks to the security of credit-card shopping on the Internet.

  And on a grander scale, it reveals the mystery and the majesty of the Universe. Mathematics is not only the language of science and technology; it also develops the mindset of a clear thinker. The mathematics now being learnt in our schools, colleges and universities will provide the intellectual foundation for those who will fashion and safeguard our increasingly technological future. We cannot afford to get it wrong."

  2.3.  There may be an opportunity to integrate more science into the design and technology curriculum but this review should not be seen as a way of combining them and at the same time reducing the amount of time devoted to science in the National Curriculum.


  One of the criticisms which has been levelled at the current science curriculum is that it "can appear as a catalogue of discrete ideas, lacking coherence or relevance. There is an overemphasis on content that is often taught in isolation from the kinds of contexts that could provide essential relevance and meaning."[28] Current assessment styles in science greatly reinforce these difficulties, as examinations seeking the objectivity of closed and unique answers tend to focus on minutiae of syllabus detail and rather well-defined problem types of narrow perspective. A more open style of approach is needed to give much greater weight to encouraging understanding and interpretation of the more major ideas and concepts with a greater discursive content but without loss of appropriate rigour.

  There should be a range of assessment methods which include practical work, other coursework and unseen, time-constrained assessments. It is essential that all assessments which contribute to any form of decision about pass/fail and/or grades can be seen to be the student's own work. Assessment should measure the ability to apply knowledge to the solving of problems, marshalling an argument, presenting a clear analysis of experimental data, the opportunity to test memory, etc. It should also, through project or other appropriate means, give the opportunity for team working.


  Uptake of core sciences in the FE sector appears to have seriously declined. Those courses taught mainly in the FE sector which are alternatives to the normal school curriculum are bedevilled by the same kinds of curricular problems and would be usefully addressed alongside a review of the secondary school curriculum. There are special problems, however, in addressing science for adult returners to education. Currently, to develop study in any of the mainline areas of science, re-entrants to education are faced with an enormous staircase to catch up with the detailed factual content normally spread through the school years. Consequently, very few adult learners are attracted at all to science-based routes. There would be a great value in a concerted project involving practitioners from FE and from universities to design new routes which could benefit such individuals and the UK economy.

February 2002

24   Not printed. Back

25   See for example the Council for Science and Technology report "Science Teachers" (February 2000) that of those teaching physics Key Stage 4 in England 66 per cent do not have a degree and 29 per cent do not even have an A level in the subject. The equivalent data for biology and chemistry are 39 per cent/26 per cent and 51 per cent/13 per cent respectively. Back

26   There is evidence that the decline in the interest in science starts as low as the age of nine. See for example European Journal of Science Education, Hadden and Johnson, in which they indicate that "school [does] nothing for them in terms of stimulating their interest in science" and preamble to Key Stage 3 Strategy (Science) training material (DfES 20011) which states that in some secondary schools there is evidence of decreasing enthusiasm for science and attainment in science by age 14 lags behind that in English and mathematics. Back

27   Measuring the Mathematics Problem a report by The Engineering Council, The Learning and Teaching Support Network, The Institute of Mathematics and its Applications and The London Mathematical Society, published by The Engineering Council, June 2000. Back

28   Beyond 2000: Science Education for the Future, Miller and Osborne, 1999, King's College London. Back

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