Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 231 - 239)



  Q231  Chairman: Could I first of all say how delighted the Science and Technology Select Committee is to be here at the Space Centre in Leicester and thank all our witnesses today for giving evidence to us. Can I introduce Dr Robin Clegg, the Head of Science and Society, at the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC); Ms Julie Bramman, the Divisional Manager for School Curriculum, Department for Education and Skills, I think we met in another guise some time ago; Paul Spencer, the Evaluator and Consultant for Space Connections; and Professor Alan Wells, the Emeritus Professor and Leverhulme Emeritus Fellow, University of Leicester, and the Non-Executive Director of the National Space Centre. Welcome to you all and thank you very much indeed for giving us evidence. Could I welcome also students and anyone else who has come along this afternoon. The inquiry that we are involved in is looking at Britain's role in space, looking at the space industry, and in particular looking at the way in which space and space policy inspires young people to become involved particularly in physics and astrophysics but also how it inspires them to learn. I wonder if I could perhaps start with you, Professor Wells, we have been told that space stimulates young people's interest in science; what evidence is there of that or is this just very nice equipment and ideas to look and engage with?

  Professor Wells: I do think we have got a bit more than just nice feelings about this. I will mention two pieces of data and I did actually provide some slides here that you could have a look at while I am talking. Firstly this morning you heard from Martin Barstow about the nature of the science programmes in space and astrophysics. We have been looking at the graduate output from that and over the past decade, where the overall number of physics students has stayed pretty constant at about 2,500, within that physics cadre the number of graduates studying astronomy, astrophysics and space has gone up four-fold. I think that first of all is a reflection of the attractiveness and the enthusiasm that this subject as a whole generates. At the other end of the scale here at the National Space Centre we have been operating now for about six years and during that time the education programmes have built up to the point where we are seeing some 50,000 young people mainly in the Key Stage 2 and 3 group coming through and having visits here. There is a small study that we have just concluded and the data is there in one of the charts for you. The Endeavour Learning Centre, which you visited this afternoon, have tracked the group of children who went through in 2004-05 and they have measured the change in their level of attainment going from Key Stage 2 to Key Stage 3 and the results have staggered me, frankly, because we are finding 91% of the group that went through the Endeavour Learning Centre activity have shown an increase in level of attainment of one level or more going from Key Stage 2 to Key Stage 3.

  Q232  Dr Spink: We are all totally sold on this, I am sure, it is a fantastic project, but what we need to make sure is that the project not only continues to the future but that we get projects in other parts of this country similar to this, and we need evidence to present to politicians. We need to know that these kids are not only increasing their ability and attitude towards science and engineering but they are actually taking it up and they are choosing those options for their education and careers later on. Are you tracking the kids that are going through at all stages so that we can get that evidence?

  Professor Wells: I have to say we are really only just starting to do that and we should have woken up to that a bit earlier, undoubtedly. There was a study done in 2002 by Tim Jarvis who is now the Director of the Science Learning Centre of kids who went through the Challenger Learning Centre and there again there was another strong indicator of an uptake of interest even among children who previously did not have an interest in science. I do take your point about continuity and we are trying to do something about that here. We have embarked on a new project which will be a pilot education project involving education workshops for kids coming up to GCSE, so the 14 to 16 age group, and then the 16 to 19 age group, and we have co-operation with the colleges of further education as well as the sixth form colleges who want to do this, so the thing that we have identified is that there actually is a gap between the Key Stage 2/3 support which is done in quite a lot of visitor science centres, and done very well I think, and this continuity through to the GCSE and the A level, and we are now going to do something about that. We are some nine months into the project to set that up and that will include courses and familiarisation for the teachers as well as the students. We are putting in place the process to track that but we have not, apart from the two studies I have mentioned, got very much data so far.

  Q233  Dr Turner: How narrowly focused was the improvement in Key Stage 2 performance that you have registered? How far did it spread across the children's curriculum? Was it confined to subjects that could be related specifically to space or was it wider than that? Did they show an improvement in maths and in language skills or whatever?

  Professor Wells: I think the improvements you can point to are in the physical sciences because that is where we are targeting, but you also get this added benefit of practice and achievements in team work and communication as well which are social skills that go with this. I make no apology for the fact that we are at the moment focusing mainly on the physical sciences because we identify that this is a Government target from the Science and Innovation Framework Report of last March and I think that space is an inspirational educative tool that will achieve results in time in that area.

  Q234  Chairman: But clearly this is a Space Centre here and I asked the question earlier as to what was the average distance of students who visited the centre and the answer was roughly about two hours' drive, an average of 65 miles, which means that people in my constituency, which is the very impoverished constituency of Harrogate, and north right through Newcastle and so on are not going to be able to access centres like this. What evidence is there in your experience that space is actually a turn-on to the physical sciences across the country? Can I ask Julie that question.

  Ms Bramman: The ROSE Review last year highlighted that there are quite important differences in what interests young girls and what interests young boys in terms of science with girls being interested in things mainly about self and about health, climate change and those sorts of things and boys are much more interested in robotics and destructive forces—gender stereotyping I know but those were the findings. They also found that both boys and girls were interested in space and its mysteries and in exploration, and so we are as convinced as Professor Wells is that this is a motivating area of the curriculum.

  Q235  Chairman: You see what worries us as a Committee—and it was really the question that both my colleagues picked up—is where is the quantity and quality of data which actually shows that investing in space is a good investment for education for turning young people on because there does not seem to be any quantitative data or qualitative data. Who should be doing that? Who should be pulling that together? It is surely not the job of the Space Centre here?

  Ms Bramman: Obviously they will want to evaluate their own programmes and that would be a sensible thing to do. More generally I think there obviously is a call for more evidence than we currently have about space or any other element of the curriculum.

  Q236  Chairman: Who should be doing it?

  Ms Bramman: I am not quite sure who should be doing it.

  Q237  Chairman: Have a guess.

  Ms Bramman: I take it you are thinking it is my department that should be doing that.

  Q238  Chairman: Yes. Would you agree with that though, that it should be the DfES?

  Ms Bramman: I think that it could well be the DfES.

  Chairman: That was very diplomatic.

  Q239  Chris Mole: Can I just follow that up. Would that be through somebody like the NFER?

  Ms Bramman: We would put it out to tender. The department has a research programme into education where its priorities are set on an annual basis and agreed by the Secretary of State and then those research programmes are put out to tender.

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