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


Memorandum submitted by The Wellcome Trust


  1.  The Wellcome Trust (the "Trust") welcomes this opportunity to respond to the questions and issues raised by the Science and Technology Committee, in Parliament's first major inquiry into the science curriculum for 14 to 19 year olds.

  2.  The focus of the Trust's response is on two of the terms of reference set out in the call for evidence, specifically (a) and (c):

    (a)  to examine the science curriculum: what should be taught, how, why and to whom (encompassing subject content, the role of practical work and "science for citizenship" while considering the needs of pupils with different abilities, aptitudes and aspirations in relation to science);

    (c)  to consider assessment: what should be assessed and how (considering, for example, the emphasis on factual recall, interpretation of data, the role of coursework and practical work).


  3.  The Trust is an independent, biomedical research-funding charity, established under the will of Sir Henry Wellcome and funded from a private endowment, which is managed with long-term stability and growth in mind. Its mission is to foster and promote research with the aim of improving human and animal health. One way the Trust seeks to meet its mission is by stimulating an informed dialogue to raise awareness and understanding of biomedical science, its achievements, applications and implications.

  4.  It is the Trust's view that the future of science in the UK depends on the continual supply of highly trained and competent researchers, who can work in a climate in which innovative research can flourish.

  5.  We also believe that science education should offer the highest quality and relevant educational experience, to all. An increase in science literacy for all is essential in order to ensure that discussion of the issues is from an informed perspective, that an ethical framework exists and that there is critical appraisal of scientific sources of information.

  6.  The Trust has funded a range of activities in this area, which have included educational research. Details are included in the Annex[55] to this response.


  7.  We would wish to make three key points in our response, which draw upon evidence from research that we have funded, as well as other major reports. The points are:

    (a)  If science is to flourish in schools it must be taught by teachers who are confident in the material they are teaching.

    (b)  The science curriculum needs to be enhanced to include more contemporary science and practical work to inspire future generations of scientists.

    (c)  The science curriculum should foster wider scientific literacy and the capacity to evaluate and consider issues of scientific controversy for all pupils, regardless of their intention to become future scientists.

  8.  We consider each of these points more fully below.

  9.  First, the Trust is concerned about the quality of science teaching in the UK. The report from the Council of Science and Technology[56] (CST) shows that many teachers are teaching science subjects in which they have no qualification at A-level or first degree. For example:

    —  One teacher in three teaches physics and biology without an A-level in the subject.

    —  Over half of teachers teach physics and biology without a related degree.

  10.  This is then compounded by the limited amount of continuing professional development (CPD) that is undertaken by teachers. All teachers in state schools currently have five In Service Education and Training (INSET) days per year. However, the CST report identified that teachers:

    (a)  have little say in their individual CPD or in the courses that they attend;

    (b)  have difficulty in identifying suitable products and service;

    (c)  are constrained by time and money—the average amount of money available for INSET per teacher was £445 in primary schools and £304 in secondary schools; and

    (d)  spend most of their in-service training on whole school issues, national issues and administration rather than science.

  11.  Therefore, any change to the science curriculum should go hand in hand with assistance to the teachers to ensure that they are confident to teach stimulating and relevant science to pupils.

  12.  Second, we believe that any changes to the curriculum should enhance and not compromise the rigour of existing science education. In a study funded by the Trust[57] (Osborne and Collins), pupils believed that there was a need for more contemporary science examples. There was also a call from pupils for more practical work and extended investigations. Meaningful experimentation and practical work are key elements in getting young people interested and excited about science. It is important that this element of the curriculum is enhanced.

  13.  We are also aware of considerable concern about the inflexibility and content-loaded science curriculum for secondary pupils. The Osborne and Collins study revealed that pupils considered too much of the latter years of science education was a rushed experience; dominated by content, repeating too much of material that they had previously encountered; provided no opportunity for discussion and was fragmented leaving them without an overview of the subject. Teachers, too, considered the science curriculum to be content-dominated and overloaded. The lack of flexibility in the curriculum was engendered by the heavy requirement for assessment—both of the pupils and the teacher.

  14.  Third, the Trust believes that the science curriculum should develop scientific literacy notably, the capacity to evaluate and consider issues of scientific controversy for all pupils, regardless of their intention to become future scientists. The Osborne and Collins study showed that pupils found it hard to make connections between school, science and their everyday lives but valued school science for the insights it provided and contribution it made to their own self-esteem as educated individuals.

  15.  We followed up these concerns in research conducted by the Institute of Education to understand the extent to which discussion about the impact of science on society is a part of young people's education. The resulting report, Valuable Lessons[58], revealed that the majority of teachers believed that there as too little coverage of the social issues related to science, yet that students should have an opportunity to explore such issues. Teachers view this kind of exploration as vital in building self-confidence, developing lines of critical thinking and enabling students to deal with issues of socio-scientific issues in a balanced way.

  16.  The recommendations of the report were discussed by key players at a follow up "stakeholders'" workshop held in December 2001. As part of the discussion, eight groups of stakeholders (80 people) with a close interest in science education were asked to consider which part of the curriculum lends itself to debating about science and society. What exactly could be done to make it happen? From the discussion, the majority of the participants called for greater flexibility of the curriculum to allow consideration of the issues regarding the impact of science on society. They considered that this could be done by:

    (a)  Teaching controversial scientific issues as part of a science class, yet enhanced by supporting cross-curricular work;

    (b)  developing methods of formal assessment and more teacher support through professional development and educational support materials.

  17.  The cross-curriculum strategy was recommended to help science teachers and non-science teachers to share their skills in ensuring evidence based arguments are developed. In general, science teachers feel they lack the confidence and the time to initiate and manage classroom discussion. Much could be learned from their colleagues in humanities who demonstrably promote student discussions of ethical and social issues. Education for Citizenship may offer an opportunity to introduce the study of the impact of science on society into the school curriculum.

  18.  If an increased level of scientific literacy is to be achieved, novel methods of assessment must be developed. The Valuable Lessons Report revealed that many science teachers are uncomfortable assessing discursive essays and other mechanisms for communicating ideas. In order to facilitate true scientific literacy, science teachers and examiners will need to draw upon the assessment models and expertise of their colleagues in the arts and humanities, since they have experience of evaluating their students' ability to develop reasoned argument. Unless this element of the curriculum is formally assessed, teachers and students will accord this aspect of the curriculum lower status than the examined elements and may, indeed, not cover these issues at all.

February 2002

55   Not printed. Back

56   Council for Science and Technology, A report on supporting and developing the profession of science teaching in primary and secondary schools, OST, February 2000. Back

57   J Osborne & S. Collins, Pupils' & Parents' Views of the School Science Curriculum, King's College London, January 2000. Back

58   Valuable Lessons, Engaging with the social context of science in schools, 2001. Back

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