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


Memorandum submitted by UMIST


  Pupils' perceptions of maths and science at secondary level may be influenced by their experience at earlier stages in the education process, for example in primary school. In order to offer students an excellent all-round education at an early age, the enthusiasm of teachers is paramount. The pressures exerted on primary schools to improve league table positions may result in less enthused teaching and a more blackboard-based style. Pressure on pupils at this stage may affect their enthusiasm towards subjects considered difficult at a later stage.

  The maths and science curricula are now taught in a practical rather than theoretical style at primary level in order to enthuse and encourage pupils. Maths and science weeks are offered by local education authorities to those teachers keen to improve skills in those areas. Teachers at primary level are subject to the same pressures as those in secondary schools with lack of funding, large class sizes and constant pressure to improve performance. Additional pressures are exerted with mixed ability classes where students with a range of abilities are taught at one time.

  Primary teachers have found that their students lose enthusiasm for subjects upon transferring to secondary level. This may be due to a change in teaching style from more practical based learning with greater pupil involvement, to theoretical teaching. In addition, there is some overlap in the subject material studied in the final year of primary school and the first year of secondary school. Those students enthused by a certain subject at primary level may lose motivation if they encounter a high level of repetition.


  Feedback from secondary schools has indicated that the pass rate for students taking three separate science subjects is lower than for those taking combined science at GCSE. It is generally understood that, when studied separately, science GCSEs are considered difficult. As a consequence it is possible that schools may introduce streaming for pre GCSE students in order to encourage only the most able students to continue to study three separate subjects. Those achieving good grades in a combined science GCSE may then be encouraged to go on to study science at "A" Level, but there is a risk that the gap in skills may result in lower examination performance and decreased motivation on the part of the student.

  Pressure to maintain or increase league table status may result in fewer students being encouraged to study science, which is considered a more difficult subject and may also have a lower pass rate than other subjects.

  Science is an expensive subject to teach. Lack of funding results in lack of decent equipment and ill-equipped laboratories, which has a direct impact on the teaching and learning process. It has also been suggested that the amount of time spent teaching science is far less than for other subjects.


Range of subjects

  It was felt by more than one tutor that the number and range of new subjects introduced to the school curriculum has introduced greater competition between subjects. Traditional science subjects have suffered as fewer pupils have opted for them, the majority choosing the more "exciting" subjects such as psychology and IT.


    —  Specifically in chemistry, there appears to have been a lack of teaching in terms of basic knowledge, with too much emphasis on the ability to systematically name organic compounds, and very little teaching of chemistry fundamentals.

    —  From a practical point of view, there does not appear to be much in the way of laboratory classes at "A" level or before. Whether or not this is a cost or safety measure, it effects recruitment, as students feel that chemistry is a "dry" subject. Feedback indicates that practical work is probably the most interesting part of the curriculum and as this diminishes, the number of students choosing to study science will also diminish.

    —  Many members of staff in higher education have suggested that the standard of "A" level students is slipping generally. Assuming that the population is not becoming less able, the curriculum and examination systems must be the root of the problem.

    —  For biology examinations, different boards and biology classifications cover very different topics within biology to differing depths. This makes it very difficult to pitch teaching levels for first year undergraduates. Inevitably some students will be bored by repetition, but the material must be presented in order to include those who have not studied it previously.

    —  Students often show a lack depth of understanding in maths and related subjects. The choices and distribution of modules for AS and "A" level may be such that some students will not have studied modules directly relevant to their courses of study for periods of up to 21 months.


    —  The placing of a qualification in the penultimate year of school is a laudable aim and the principle has been seen to work (eg in Scotland). However, it seems necessary to take advantage of all available time including the period immediately following the GCSE examinations.

    —  The GCSE and "A" level syllabus have been brought up to date considerably in the past few years. The problem lies with the fact that teachers themselves may not have been taught the most recently discovered areas and therefore have problems teaching the more up to date material to a satisfactory standard.

    —  In general, GCSE and "A" level material is far too focussed on passing examinations and providing students with the information required for the student to pass their examinations, rather than fostering and satisfying a spirit of curiosity and enquiry in them.

    —  Science teaching in schools is largely carried out by non-specialists.



  In the short term, issues are dominated by curriculum 2000 and the new "A" levels. The situation for mathematics is crucial for many other subjects where maths is a required pre-requisite. It would appear that many pupils have been dissuaded from progressing to the A2 stage by problems experienced in the AS stage.

  For many students, maths is considered a "difficult" "A" level, particularly when compared with other "A" level subjects. The content of AS maths is as voluminous as "A" level Maths and therefore attracts fewer students.


  The approach to the problem differs for the two groups of students involved. The most able and interested pupils will probably need different treatment from the competent "average" student.

    —  The most able and interested students are able to work out for themselves the links between the various scientific subjects and the world in which they live. They will be able to think in terms of the basic principles of the subject and any attempt to make a subject more "accessible" may involve a lack of proper communication between the fundamentals of what is taught and what is explained.

    —  For the "average" student, introducing some special sections showing the relevance of the subject in the real world may have some merit. However, introducing an extra topic leaves less time in the curriculum for other things. It is felt that combining the two approaches would prove a challenge.

    —  The general academic standard of students appears to have dropped steadily over the past 10 years. The greatest change noted coincided with the implementation of GCSEs.

    —  The problem solving ability and the ability to think laterally is all but non-existent in the majority of students.

    —  In mathematics, the problems are well documented1, 2. Students with reasonable "A" level grades are experiencing difficulty with calculus and statistics. Simple mathematical operations such as rearranging or simplifying equations are also a problem for an increasing number of students. A study carried out recently by the admissions officer for the maths Department at Leeds University indicated that the skill level of someone with an A Grade at "A" level Maths in 2000 is equivalent to a D in 1990.

    —  As courses in mathematics are demanding in content, time constraints induced by additional workloads can mean that students miss out on extra curricular activities. This makes the subject more of a burden and therefore less enjoyable.


  Science is perceived to be hard and irrelevant to daily life, and scientists are seen as poorly paid in comparison to investment bankers.

February 2002


1 London Mathematical Society, 1995, Report: Tackling the Mathematics Problem.

2 Engineering Council, 2000, Report: Measuring the Mathematics Problem.

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