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13 Feb 2003 : Column 1096—continued

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have been informed by some Iraqis who live in this country that relatives in Baghdad have just contacted them, saying that the weapons inspectors are preparing to move out. Given the statement by the Secretary of State today, which seemed to some of us very warlike indeed, and given that Hans Blix reports back tomorrow on the inspections, would it be possible to get a Minister to the House to confirm or deny the rumours that are circulating?

Madam Deputy Speaker: Hon. Members are aware that the Foreign Secretary was in the House just over an hour ago to make a statement on Iraq. I have had no indication that any further statements will be made today.

4.10 pm

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): I associate myself with the point of order. The issue is serious and puts our debate in perspective.

I am heartened that we have having the debate, nevertheless. For some time, I have thought that science education in this country could do better. I am pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Minister say that the Government are addressing the problem. The need for that has been obvious to me as a chairman of governors at various schools in the Norwich area, and from informal discussions with teachers, technicians and

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students in my constituency, as well as from the report of the Science and Technology Committee, which rigorously examined science and technology education for 14 to 19-year-olds. I see that two of my colleagues on the Committee who participated in that report—the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter)—are present. We toured the country, talking to young people about their thoughts on the matter, so the issues that I am about to raise come from the grass roots.

It was clear that teachers were extremely frustrated with science teaching, technicians were demotivated, and students were bored to death. No wonder: the curriculum is far too prescriptive, the assessment is quite inflexible, and resources are lacking. The Government have recognised that all is not rosy in the world of science education, but I wonder whether they know what to do about it. We have had a ragbag of initiatives recently—a science year, Planet Science, a key stage 3 strategy, an applied science GCSE, science and engineering ambassadors, new professional development initiatives, one-off investment in science labs, a consultation on the roles of support staff, and a pilot of a new science GCSE. What is the strategy behind all these initiatives, where are they leading and where do we aim to be?

For all that, we produce some very bright young people who go into higher education, win Nobel prizes and succeed in developing great new ideas, which contribute significantly to the world of science and technology. My remarks may seem critical, but they are intended to show that we can do better if we sort out some of the problems at the grass roots.

My hon. Friend the Minister appeared before the Committee and participated in a debate there which made an Arsenal-Tottenham derby look like a vicar's tea party. I hear my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead laughing. When we asked about the Government's ideas about science teaching for young people, the answer was that we just have to give them the facts and everything will be all right. We said that about history some time ago, and history teaching has moved on quite a bit in the past 30 years.

Science is not about knowing facts. It is not about answering Jeremy Paxman's "University Challenge" questions on science, although I am very tempted to join the team so that I can be extremely brilliant and give all the answers about Ohm's law and equations. But that is not what science is about. It is just one peripheral aspect of science. Science is more properly about engaging in experimentation, getting the facts and knowing what questions to ask.

Science is a key part of our culture in this country. As Front Benchers on both sides of the House have pointed out, it is essential for our economic competitiveness and quality of life and it is part of our history and culture. It is just as important as Booker prizes, Nobel prizes and all the other prizes that demonstrate excellence in this country.

The problem is that we must consider other aspects of science teaching. It is essential that people be literate about science. There are no issues of more importance on today's front pages than genetically modified crops, triple MMRs—measles, mumps and rubella vaccines—and nuclear power. I do not want people to understand

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all the equations, but I want them to have some sort of understanding so that they can engage with the questions that are raised. I do not want them to react in an emotive way because The Sun and The Mirror tell them what the questions should be. They should have some sort of confidence and understanding. When we talk about public understanding of science, it often involves an arrogance about science and technologies on the part of those who say, "If only the public understood our language and what we are talking about, it would be all right." Those days are long past. I am talking about engaging at a level at which we can talk to each other and in a language that allows us to put the facts in front of the people and say "This is what we think is happening; we are not quite sure, but this is how it might develop."

When the space disaster occurred the other week, I was struck by all the science involved and how all the wonderful work that is done can go down in the public's estimation because of such a tragic event. The work must go on and we must engage people's brains throughout the world in ensuring that we make progress for humanity. That is not just about learning facts.

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I very much enjoyed my time working on the Select Committee on Science and Technology. One of the messages that I got from our discussions with teachers and pupils—he may be aware of this issue—was that our fact-driven approach to science teaching reduced the time that was available to debate the issues and gain an understanding that did not necessarily include every scientific issue, but enabled people to talk about such issues sensibly and rationally.

Dr. Gibson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. What he says is absolutely true. The young people to whom we talked said that they were put off when the headline news was all about issues such as GM and human cloning, but they could not talk about them. Instead, the teacher said, "There's no time; we must get on with the curriculum and pass exams" and so on. What a tragedy that is. Is it any wonder that that approach puts young people off carrying on and developing their ideas? Their being put off does not mean that they are not interested. Young women in particular were put off by such an approach. On asking young people what experiments they liked doing best, one saw that they did not want to cut up buttercups. We have all cut up buttercups in our time; it is dreadfully boring. Instead, they wanted to cut up a heart. They wanted to see how their bodies functioned and so on. I understand that. There are many hearts that I would like to cut up—[Laughter.] But that is for another time.

One of the other problems is the demands of the examination syllabuses. The awarding bodies say that they are constrained by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's requirements. The QCA says that it must safeguard standards. A great deal of buck-passing goes on in this area. Where will all the impetus for change come from? We need more flexibility in the assessment system. Coursework can provide students with the opportunity to show initiative and follow their interests. Last week, with the grace of the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), I opened a science laboratory in Clarendon grammar school in Ramsgate.

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Seeing the young women in the school engaged in experiments was stimulating and made me feel that it was worth banging on about the issues that they were concerned about, as we in government can contribute and make life better for them.

Jumping through hoops should happen not only in PE lessons, but in many other areas where we can engage young people to achieve excellence. I have always been against examinations. Having taught in university and continually assessed people day in, day out, I can say that exams were a boring process, as I could have predicted what 90 per cent. of students would get in their final exams. We had seen all the coursework, but we put the students through that dreadful wringer of higher exams and three or four days of trauma. Very few people move on from the marks that they attain in the coursework system. Although the Minister of State and I may share an office, and seats at the same football ground, we certainly do not always agree about what should happen in higher education. We do agree, however, that many of the higher examinations that produce the upper seconds, the first classes, and all that, are for the rubbish bin.

Mr. McWalter: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, although I am aware that he knows that he will get extra time for a second intervention, so I am intervening partly for the thrill of listening to him for longer. Is he saying that one of the results that he would like to see from this initiative is that science in some form—it has a huge number of forms, as he has said—should be present throughout the system all the way through to a qualification to be obtained at the age of 19?

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