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


Memorandum submitted by the National Union of Teachers (NUT)

  1.  The National Union of Teachers (NUT) is an independent trade union representing over 200,000 qualified teachers in England and Wales.

  2.  The NUT welcomes the opportunity to make a contribution to the Science and Technology Committee's inquiry into the Science Curriculum for 14-19 education.

  3.  The NUT has welcomed in principle the intention of Government and its agencies to develop a more coherent stage of education for students aged 14-19. Advocacy of such a curricular model is the established policy of the NUT.

  4.  The question of "what should be taught [and] how" should be addressed taking full account of the training and development needs of teachers both through initial teacher education and opportunities for continuing professional development as an entitlement for all teachers of science. This should be on the basis of a dual approach focusing both on developing teachers' pedagogical skills and ensuring that teachers are able to remain updated in terms of subject knowledge within often rapidly changing subject disciplines.

  5.  Within this context of providing opportunities for teachers to ensure that they are fully equipped in terms of knowledge and teaching skills, there is a need to reconsider the trend over recent years for subject content and teaching practice in science, as in all subjects, to be increasingly determined at the level of Central Government.

  6.  While organisations such as the Department for Education and Skills and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority are often well placed to identify and disseminate exemplification materials and models of good practice, the experience of teachers as identified by the NUT and Demos within the research document, Classroom Assistance — why teachers must transfer teaching and learning (Horne, 2001) has been dominated by "externally imposed, randomly timed and badly managed initiatives that they had little constructive role in helping to shape." There is now an urgent need to re-engage teachers in the process of determining curricula, assessment instruments and teaching and learning methods, utilising fully their professional and practical knowledge and experience. This is particularly true in the context that it is teachers who are best placed to help to identify, develop, and meet the "needs of pupils with different abilities, aptitudes and aspirations an relation to science".

  7.  Moreover, evidence collated by the NUT from its members suggests that an education service dominated by prescriptive, centrally produced directives can contribute negatively to students' disengagement from learning and a propensity to engage in disruptive behaviour liable to impact on students' willingness or ability to continue their science education beyond 16.

  8.  It is also necessary to take into account the fact that difficulties of teacher supply have markedly impacted upon science education. The effect of this has been not only a shortage of science teachers in general but also the degree to which it has become necessary for teachers to teach individual disciplines in which they do not hold a specialism.

  9.  The difficulties of recruiting and retaining sufficient numbers of science teachers need to be addressed within the context of national negotiations on teachers' contracts, bureaucratic burdens and levels of pay.

  10.  The ability of teachers of science to teach science most effectively is also heavily influenced by issues of the teaching and learning environment and the levels of support available.

  11.  While the NUT has maintained consistently that teaching should properly be undertaken only by fully qualified graduate teachers, there is a particular need within science education for teachers to be supported fully by appropriately trained and skilled technical support staff. The NUT would advocate that the issue of recruitment and retention of such staff be evaluated, including in terms of salary, conditions of service, professional development opportunities and opportunities for career progression. This should include all appropriate interested parties and might take place as part of a wider review of the role of non teaching staff in schools.

  12.  The learning environment, particularly where practical science is taught, must be appropriate to facilitate the effective teaching and learning of science. This is likely to require a considerable investment in some cases to address the complaints of many science teachers that laboratories in the schools in which they work are old and insufficiently well equipped.

  13.  There are important health and safety implications surrounding science education also. Not least of these is the issue of class size where practical work is taking place. The NUT would recommend strongly that consideration be given to the establishment of a nationally agreed and enforced upper class size limit for practical science lessons which is both realistic and manageable. Many laboratories have been designed to accommodate 21 individuals, and class sizes for practical activities should be appropriate to these circumstances.

  14.  The NUT supports the Committee's intention to consider links between the science curriculum and other relevant National Curriculum subject areas.

  15.  The Committee would benefit however from taking a still broader view of the Curriculum than that outlined in the terms of reference. For example, the Citizenship and PHSE curricula could make available opportunities to build on students' entitlement to science education and to build upon "scientific literacy" or "science for citizenship" through the consideration of the impact and social and ethical implications of scientific developments and practice such as human embryology, cloning, or genetic engineering.

  16.  Similarly, the geography curriculum provides opportunities to consider the implications of science in application, for example in relation to developing students' knowledge and understanding through environmental education and education for sustainable development, and through considering specific issues such as the possible causes and effects of global warming. Through the history curriculum students have opportunities to consider the impact of scientific advancement and achievement on societies and the course of world events.

  17.  As a longer term development, therefore, the NUT would welcome the initiation of a full debate, in which teachers and their representatives should be fully involved, to reconsider the secondary school curriculum in an holistic way in order to guarantee a meaningful entitlement to a curriculum defined in terms of balance and breadth. Presently, there is a counter-productive "hierarchy" of subjects at Key Stage 4 in particular, whereby some subjects such as humanities subjects cease to form part of a young person's guaranteed curricular entitlement regardless of their merits individually or in terms of their capacity to contextualise and reinforce learning within the broader curriculum.

January 2002

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