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


Memorandum submitted by the CBI

  1.  The CBI welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Parliamentary Committee's inquiry into science education. It is encouraging that the science curriculum is evaluated as part of the ongoing work on 14-19 education more generally.

  2.  The priority should be that all young people leave school with the basics, ie functionally literate and numerate and with adequate knowledge in the other core curriculum subjects of science and IT. Science education should provide a good foundation in science for all young people, aiding the development of transferable skills and ensuring general public understanding of science. It also needs to be a suitably challenging experience for students who wish to pursue science at higher levels. These young people need the capability to accrue high-level knowledge and skills required by science, technology and engineering employers.

  3.  Science education needs to improve for both groups—all young people and future scientists. First, more young people need to achieve a grade C or above in science at GCSE level. Under-achievement often stems from poor performance between ages 11-14. Science must remain a core subject, and a more relevant curriculum would help stimulate interest among all young people. Second, the scientists of the future also need a curriculum that is relevant to their future employment and their life. Teaching of cutting-edge issues and the role of education business links are key. These must go hand-in-hand with impartial, high quality careers advice.

  4.  The CBI recommends:

    —  science should remain a core curriculum subject for all 14-16 year olds;

    —  the priority should be raising standards in science GCSE grades. It is unacceptable that 48 per cent of 16 year olds do not get at least a grade C;

    —  more teacher placements in industry and education business links in order to encourage up-to-date teaching;

    —  high quality careers information and guidance for young people considering science careers.


  5.  The CBI recommends that science should remain a compulsory subject at key stage 4, as this is the final opportunity for many students to engage in science education. A central aim of science education should therefore be to develop every young person to a level where they have the basic scientific understanding and knowledge necessary to function in society. This "science literacy" includes:

    —  the ability to understand the basics of scientific news in television, radio and newspapers;

    —  the capacity to engage in mature political debate about advances in science and technology;

    —  the ability to adapt to new technologies, for example electrical products;

    —  the ability to make informed decisions based on scientific information;

    —  knowledge of everyday tasks, such as rewiring a plug, cooking, DIY, checking calculations in utility bills, using chemicals, energy efficiency.

  6.  Science education can play a role in the development of several key skills—especially problem solving, working with others, application of number and IT. These skills benefit later learning in both scientific and non-scientific fields. More directly, skills such as hypothesis testing are key techniques in many occupations. Indeed a major financial services recruiter targets young people with engineering qualifications for a range of non-engineering jobs due to the value of the transferable skills they had developed.


  7.  A cohort has now gone through the whole National Curriculum studying science throughout their primary and secondary education. Logically this should imply a major improvement in standards. But while standards have been raised further improvements are needed.

Poor performance of 11-14 year olds is hindering progress at key stage 4

  8.  Science performance in primary schools has improved significantly in recent years. The numbers reaching or exceeding the expected standard in science at age 11 rose from 69 per cent to 87 per cent between 1997 and 2001. There has been some improvement in key stage 3 performance, but this has been from a low base. Pupils' progress between 11 and 14 is still too slow, with the per centage reaching or exceeding the expected standard at 14 increasing from 55 per cent to 66 per cent between 1999 and 2001. This means that 14-year-olds are still entering key stage 4 at too low a level. The 14-16 curriculum therefore has a dual role at present: to remedy poor performance at key stage 3 and to develop young people's knowledge further. The Government must maintain the momentum of learning at all points—key stage 4 should not have to redress prior failings.

  9.  Too many young people who perform poorly at 14 do not improve by 16. The expected level of attainment at age 14 is a level five or six. Only 8 per cent of pupils who average level four in English, Maths and Science (just below the expected level) at 14 achieve five or more good GCSE at 16.

Not enough young people achieve grades A*-C in science GCSEs

  10.  Only 52 per cent of school leavers achieved a grade C or above in science GCSEs in 2001 (averaged over entries to science double award, science single award, and individual science subjects) compared to 57 per cent across all subjects. It is unacceptable that 48 per cent of 16 year olds do not get a grade C in science GCSE. Recent progress in key stage 3 grades should work through the system, but year-on-year improvement is needed at both key stage 3 and key stage 4 to ensure many more young people have an adequate level of scientific understanding.

  11.  A variety of science qualifications is available to GCSE students, and results vary widely across these qualifications (Exhibit 1). Around 10 per cent of students take exams in each individual science subject and a high proportion of these attain A*-C grades. Around 80 per cent of students take science double award, but GCSE results are below the average for all subjects. Underachievement is demonstrated by only 12 per cent of entrants in 2001 gaining an A or A*, compared to 16 per cent in all subjects. The final 10 per cent take single award science, but only one in five achieve a grade C or above, significantly less than in any other GCSE available. The reasons for this poor performance should be explored further. An effective way of tackling underachievement in general would be to target motivation through a more relevant curriculum—for all young people and future scientists in particular.

  12.  The curriculum needs to be flexible to stimulate interest in science and technology careers for high achievers. The variety in the science options available is good, insofar as individual subject GCSEs stretch the more able students. It should also be made easier for those who wish to specialise in science to take GCSE science options early and study for A-level modules in key stage 4.

  Source: DfES

Performance at A-level is better but there are significant gender inequalities in the volumes of entrants

  13.  Science subjects are relatively popular at A-level, with biology entered by more students than chemistry and physics. Action is needed to reverse these inequalities. Overall science grades are relatively good. 62 per cent of all A-level entries achieve grades A-C, compared to 68 per cent in chemistry, 66 per cent in physics and 59 per cent in biology. However, gender inequalities in volumes of entrants are particularly acute in biology (63 per cent of entrants are females) and physics (76 per cent of entrants are males). In all three subjects more females get grades A-C than males.


  14.  Our discussion with science, engineering and technology firms indicate that many employers believe the curriculum inadequately prepares young people for employment. These employer perceptions clearly need to be addressed. Typical comments focus on underachievement:

    —  "our company runs a Year in Industry scheme for post-A level students. The UK students perform consistently below the standards of their German counterparts";

    —  "a problem is the ability to use Maths software and mental estimations of mathematical problems";

    —  "curriculum reforms at A/AS level may spread young people's efforts too thinly across a broader range of subjects, leaving them less able to develop the high-level specialist knowledge in areas like science where they are considering careers";

    —  "there is little relevant careers advice about science and technology careers available at school level";

    —  "standards in science have been lowered and improved grades indicate nothing more than `grade inflation'";

    —  "I need to receive a consistent message over a number of years as to what a grade A or B represents in terms of knowledge, skills and competencies";

    —  "we need more and more young people with high-level technical skills, but too many do not have these skills even when they have top GCSEs, A-levels and degrees".

The science curriculum needs to teach up-to-date issues, be integrated with teaching of other subjects and be relevant to the contemporary needs of business

  15.  In order for science education to appeal to young people it needs to be both relevant and contemporary. Employers want recruits to be more knowledgeable about cutting-edge issues. This has three implications for the curriculum and teaching:

    —  Subject matter in the curriculum needs to follow scientific issues, innovations and developments of public interest. For example, young people should learn about the arguments surrounding genetic modification, animal testing, and climate change. OFSTED reports of science teaching in secondary schools highlight how using topical material from newspapers and other media can "provide relevant up-to-date illustration to develop pupils' understanding"[63].

    —  Science and technology should be integrated where possible with other subjects to foster mutual enthusiasm, for example, climate change with geography and the history of science with history. Research by the Wellcome Trust highlights the importance of interconnected teaching of science with social, moral and ethical issues[64]. Of concern is that "a large proportion of teachers across the curriculum perceive the teaching of science to be about the delivery of facts, and not about values, opinions or ethics. Almost half of all science teachers interviewed felt that their teaching of science should be `value free'—that it does not yield issues that have social or ethical implications. Others inferred that considering the ethical and social concerns raised by science might undermine the integrity of the subject overall."

    —  The curriculum should be constantly updated and made more relevant to science careers in order to grow future scientists and engineers. While there will always be a short time lag before "new science" is integrated into the curriculum, education business links can improve teachers' awareness of science in industry including the skills that employers demand (Exhibit 2). OFSTED reports comment that, "the most effective science teaching very often extends the application of scientific ideas to human, industrial and environmental situations".

Exhibit 2: GlaxoSmithKline education business links

  GlaxoSmithKline, a multinational pharmaceutical company with over 100,000 employees, have local, national and international education business links. The aim of these links is to develop young people's knowledge, understanding and skills in areas relevant to the business. Science education is therefore a primary area of focus. At the Harlow Research and Development site there are links with 60 local schools of students aged 5-19. The programmes for younger students are designed to stimulate interest in science generally, while those for older students focus on those considering science careers or degrees. These include work experience and Young Scientist Days for 16-17 year olds, where students take part in a business game based on the pharmaceutical industry and experience lab work one-to-one with a supervisor. These schemes give students an insight into how a new drug is developed, leaving them more informed about the nature of work in the industry.

  Modern teaching resources and equipment are loaned and donated to local schools from a Resource Centre. One week's work experience in laboratory projects is also organised for local teachers. Feedback is very positive and stresses the new material that can be integrated into teaching. Examples from the world of work can add interest by illustrating the application of theory and informing children of future career opportunities.

The role of teachers is key to taking advantage of education business links—greater opportunities for development are needed

  16.  While many science employers are prepared to engage in links, teachers' time is often considered a limiting factor precluding take-up. OFSTED reports show that there are clear benefits to schools where teachers have recent industrial or commercial experience, yet only one in 10 schools have staff development focused on improving teachers' understanding of business and industry. OFSTED findings also show that "teacher placement schemes generally have a positive impact on those involved and lead to enhanced curricular provision for the pupils."

  17.  The CBI welcomes the commitment in the recent Schools White Paper to provide "placement and exchange opportunities for teachers at certain points in their career such as passing the threshold". The White Paper also recommends opportunities for teachers to spend time in another school or with a business providing training in a specific subject or theme area. This is a step in the right direction. But take up of the current teacher placement scheme has fallen and teacher placements in industry have dropped over the last six years from around 10 per cent of teachers a year to about 6 per cent per year; the length of such placements has fallen from five to three days. Targets have not been met and there are no targets for this year.

  18.  Teachers need these opportunities to develop their knowledge about the application of science beyond the classroom. When teachers undertake training they do so during term time and in school hours, which undermines pupils' schooling. It is also costly for the school, and can be a deterrent to professional development.

  19.  In the CBI response to the Howard Davies Review of Enterprise and the Economy in Education we recommended:

    —  there should be a major expansion of teacher placements with targets set by the Learning and Skills Council;

    —  a national quality centre should be set up to ensure high quality placements for teachers;

    —  the opportunities for placements must be open, rather than prescribed and placements should be a core element in initial teacher training;

    —  a placement should be normal procedure for heads of department and headteachers;

    —  teachers' continuous professional development should be part of their contracts, with time for training outside term-time. Inset days could be grouped together and used for placements.

Impartial careers advice is needed for the scientists of the future

  20.  OFSTED evidence on careers advice highlights an important discrepancy. OFSTED reports that three out of four schools have satisfactory or better careers provision, but almost all the 25 joint OFSTED and Adult Learning Inspectorate area reports on 16-19 highlight concerns with provision. Three common themes are that careers advice is poor, insufficient and partial. It is hoped that the large investment in the Connexions Service will enable all pupils to access advice about careers, including science, technology and engineering. The service should ensure:

    —  greater awareness of the needs of science and technology employers;

    —  better advice on science and technology career prospects;

    —  better advice on subject choice at GCSE and A-level to prepare students for science and technology degree and career options, with due consideration to redressing gender inequalities in biology and physics A-levels;

    —  overall more encouragement for high-flyers to consider studying science and engineering to graduate level and beyond.

February 2002

63   OFSTED, "Good teaching, effective departments: Findings from a HMI survey of subject teaching in secondary schools, 2000-01". Back

64   The Wellcome Trust (2001),"Valuable Lessons: Engaging with the social context of science in schools". Back

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