Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280 - 299)



  Q280  Chris Mole: Looking at the support that teachers of science get, we asked for some views locally and we got some comments that the teaching of science could be quite dull unless the right resources were available. Could I ask all of you who you think is responsible for providing space educational materials for teachers, how are they advertised and how might they be improved? Do not all rush!

  Paul Spencer: My findings were that the majority of resources used in this country emanate from NASA because NASA has a very well developed, very easily accessible website with a whole host of high-quality resource so it is quite evident that most of the stuff that is around comes from there. The European Space Agency are quite keen (because the UK is a member of that organisation) that we should use more European resources and hence their initiative to set up the ESERO offices, the European Space Educational Resource Offices, to make their material more accessible to teachers as well. In answer to the last part of your question what should be done, I think the things they have done in Scotland with the resources that are around are an example of what should be done. In other words, the teacher does not have to look through the NASA resource and the ESA resource and all the others and think, "How could I use this and how could I use this," but rather the other way round so they mapped it against the aspects of the national curriculum and a teacher will say, "I want to cover this bit of the national curriculum," and they will then be pointed towards bits of the NASA resource or ESA resource that will fulfil that. What needs to be done is a more thorough mapping that way round rather than expecting teachers to wade their way through a mass of material and then say, "Oh yes, I could use that for this bit of the national curriculum," so it is a kind of reverse mapping.

  Professor Wells: I could give you a local view on that. You heard this morning from Martin Barstow that the Department of Physics and Astronomy has had an active outreach programme and that has included preparing and developing material that matches into the syllabus and connections with the regional science learning centres as part of that process and that, of course, is work that is linked first of all to the direct research output from the universities but then distilling that down to the age groups and support for teachers, so we certainly have contributed in that way and then here at the National Space Centre there is a somewhat similar activity. I would mention for example all the material that is used to support the Challenger Learning Centre missions here initially was NASA-related material from Challenger which was then adapted and modified to match to the UK syllabus by people in schools and universities and that is a process that continues to occur here as we roll out education programmes that are run from the National Space Centre. I agree with Paul that there is a plethora of information that is available on the NASA website. Not much of it—and this is an American experience as well—is actually very user friendly. It is there and it is put out on the back of a space mission. NASA has assigned something like 2% of its mission costs to outreach and education programmes, but it is an open-ended activity of pushing out material into schools and they have space ambassadors that do that. The feedback from that is very minimal and if we are going to do more of that (and we do some of it) then the feedback from the use of those resources is an important metric which we do not have at the moment.

  Ms Bramman: I think I would agree that the issue really is one of signposting of what is useful and what is not for teachers in that aspect. One of the actions in the STEM report is for the National Science Learning Centre to become what is described in the report as the British Library for STEM—CSR permitting, I have to say that at this point in the cycle—but I think that there is clearly a job to be done in seeing how we can quality assure and pointing teachers in the right direction. The science learning centres are already doing some of this stuff. They do for instance run courses on how to use the Faulkes telescope and how to introduce that into your teaching and learning, just as one example, but there is more that could be done.

  Q281  Chris Mole: Before Dr Clegg gives an answer he might also want to suggest how PPARC assesses the effectiveness of its own educational materials.

  Dr Clegg: On your first question, a variety of providers produce educational resources. That does seem reasonable to me because it allows for innovation and creativity in the educational market place and, as Julie says, it would be advantageous to help teachers find the best resources, and I hope that the coming Space Education Office will be able to have a good one-stop shop website to give teachers the clearest information on what is available. PPARC has concentrated, given its remit, on linking current space science activities with schools and the curriculum. For example, we produce or commission schools resources on Mars Express, Beagle, Cassini-Huygens and so on. To develop, design and market those we work with educational partner organisations such as the Institute of Physics, the National Science Teachers Organisation, the Association for Science Education (ASE) and we are very keen indeed on these national partnerships. When we produce or invest in a resource we do insist on evaluation. That does however tend to produce an immediate evaluation—the effect of the event at the time or teacher satisfaction questionnaires, methods like that. I would say that it is extremely difficult to assess the ultimate long-term impact on students on their attainment or their subject choice. Can I just note in that regard a new initiative funded by one of our sister research councils, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) who have a £3 million scheme for key research questions in science and maths at schools and it is hoped that that would be a sufficient amount of money to fund some very deep and more sociological long-term studies on what is effective in the STEM support area, including hopefully some longitudinal tracking studies that may last five years. That is a gap in the evidence base so I think the ESRC proposal (of which PPARC is part although not a significant funder) should be able to help us in a few years' time.

  Q282  Chairman: Just before you move off this question, Julie, were you saying there that you thought the science learning centres should have this key role of co-ordinating these materials?

  Ms Bramman: I said the National Science Learning Centre.

  Q283  Chairman: So the National Centre at York should have that key responsibility?

  Ms Bramman: That is one of the recommendations in the STEM report that came out last autumn.

  Paul Spencer: Could I add, Chairman, in case you think that separate initiatives are developing around science learning centres and the ESERO offices, that is not the case at all.

  Q284  Chairman: I was thinking that.

  Paul Spencer: We are in very close communication with the Science Learning Centre and at the moment there is a six-month consultation phase taking place about the best arrangement in this country for the ESERO office, as it were, and it is looking almost likely that the Science Learning Centre will be very much the solution to that. They are very keen to be heavily involved in it. It is not two separate initiatives going along; they are very much going along in partnership.

  Q285  Chris Mole: Professor Wells, how does the BNSC work with the National Space Centre in its outreach work in schools and what are the challenges facing those doing outreach work in schools?

  Professor Wells: On our relationship with BNSC I would mention first of all the Director General of the BNSC is a trustee of the National Space Centre and so through that connection we have communication on issues of policy. The BNSC also has contributed substantially in the past in the proposal from here to establish the Beagle 2 lander operation control centre in this place and to put it in the public domain, so we are very much a partner in that activity. I would say their involvement in the day-to-day week-to-week delivery of education and outreach from here is quite minimal actually. We do consult with the Space Communication Group but we are not represented on that group so we are essentially freewheeling on that.

  Q286  Chris Mole: Miss Bramman touched earlier on CPD. Do any of you have any views on what improvements can be made to current arrangements for continuing professional development for science teachers?

  Ms Bramman: I think I explained the department is already funding quite a lot of CPD for science teachers and is aiming to introduce new diplomas in subject specialism to ensure that people are not just getting sound bites of CPD but are really engaging with deep subject knowledge which I think is an area where if we are going to have the proportions of physics and chemistry teachers alongside generalists and biologists in our schools that we know we need in order to give all pupils a rounded education, that is where we see the gap at the moment. Between what is on offer in the science learning centres in the cutting edge inspirational courses and also the tailored general support the national strategy has given, I think generally the department has a very good story to tell on CPD in science.

  Dr Clegg: May I add that from the point of view of BNSC partners and especially the research councils, again not reinventing the wheel, we are very keen indeed to help offer CPD through the science learning centres. We have run some pilot courses in collaboration with them with strong evaluation on the basis of that. There is a bid going to Government as part of the CSR for a much larger national programme of science-related CPD courses including space.

  Professor Wells: Having consulted my colleague for further detail, again the National Space Centre is very much a hands-on organisation in that respect and Gareth tells me that we are involved in something like 20 to 25 CPD courses in a typical year.

  Paul Spencer: In addition to the specialist teachers of science in secondary education, there is a big need around CPD for Key Stage 2 teachers. It is at Key Stage 2 when young people first encounter space opportunities in the national curriculum and there is a lot of enthusiasm for it but there is sometimes less confidence on the part of primary teachers to deal with that topic, so that is one area where a lot of the centres that are dealing with space education focus initially at Key Stage 2 and the teachers of that age group.

  Q287  Chris Mole: Miss Bramman, with the introduction of the new science GCSEs is there going to be an increased opportunity for space science to be introduced into teaching?

  Ms Bramman: I think more interesting, more relevant and more up-to-date space and I do not think there is anything in these specifications that would lead to less about space being taught.

  Q288  Chris Mole: That is a qualified yes, is it?

  Ms Bramman: Yes.

  Professor Wells: I would turn the answer round the other way. I believe personally that there are many examples of space-related topics that illuminate conventional elements of the programme, so in for example the teaching of something boring like heat, you might look at it from the point of view of the satellite in orbit and how heat affects how you control the temperature in space. I think there are many examples like that where with imagination and with insight the existing syllabus can be expanded in its interpretation where space has got something different to say. We all know about rockets and you saw that this afternoon, and they are the obvious things but there are others.

  Paul Spencer: If we take our lesson in that one from other parts of the United Kingdom that have different curriculum arrangements, certainly in Northern Ireland space is being very much more firmly embedded into their new syllabuses, and that is not only into science, they use it around spiritual awareness, they use it across geography, art, music, all aspects of the curriculum. In Scotland as well, space is much more evident in their curriculum experience than it has been in the past.

  Q289  Dr Spink: We all know how inspirational and exciting space is especially for kids with their imaginations, it is fantastic. At Key Stage 3 is the science curriculum going to have that flexibility to enable teachers to actually bring space into the syllabus and actually use that excitement?

  Ms Bramman: A lot is about the way the curriculum is delivered but it is really important to get the words right on the statutory page of the curriculum. The QCA have been reviewing the Key Stage 3 curriculum for science for the last 18 months or so and they will be going out to public consultation on 5 February. My Secretary of State has signed off those drafts and I think I can reassure the Committee in two things, firstly there is a lot less prescription in the new Key Stage 3 science programme study, but on the other hand space/the universe is still there in the range of content, so it is being captured as a broad area of study without having to go through the detailed points that are in the current programme of study.

  Q290  Dr Spink: So do you think then that we will see more teachers feeling that they have got that flexibility to take the initiative and to use this exciting field to bring kids on board?

  Ms Bramman: That is one of the key aims of review that we are actually signalling to teachers to use the flexibilities that are there in the curriculum. We all know that good teachers do that anyway but this is a real opportunity to make a step change difference.

  Dr Spink: Thank you, that is good news.

  Q291  Chairman: Does intelligent design have a place in this?

  Ms Bramman: No, intelligent design does not have a place in this.

  Dr Turner: The only place for intelligent design is Harrogate!

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. I take serious abuse from my colleagues. Des?

  Q292  Dr Turner: Of course this Committee conducted a report a few years ago into science education and we found that the general criticism of science syllabuses, to paraphrase it, was that they had been reduced to teaching by numbers, were totally flair free, and turning kids off by the thousand, and I can only hope that your new syllabuses will allow scope for flair and variety because that is what has been missing for so long. So if all the bright ideas that have come forward in space education can be allowed just a little free rein then it will make a big contribution. Paul, you have produced a report The Education and Skills Case for Space. How has that been received by your BNSC partners and which recommendations have been accepted and what action has been taken?

  Paul Spencer: I will need to look at what the recommendations were. They are not billed as recommendations particularly, they are billed as consultants' suggestions.

  Q293  Dr Turner: That is just a nice way of putting it.

  Paul Spencer: There is no particular onus on anybody having commissioned the report necessarily to take specific points forward.

  Q294  Chairman: So none of them was followed up?

  Paul Spencer: I cannot even answer which ones PPARC have decided to take up but I think some of them have been taken up, yes. The first one is about government noting that investment in space brings about significant educational advantage. Someone mentioned earlier that in all NASA's programmes a percentage of every programme is assigned specifically to the educational mission around that programme, so no programme at all is conceived of as just being a science programme or just being a technology programme; it always has its educational components. The difficulty with that, as Robin said, is the co-ordination across. I think that one is what we are talking about right now in the whole CSR thing. "The relationship more clearly with emerging curriculum requirements"—I think that is the point you have raised in any case. At the moment there is lot of space out there and there is a lot of curriculum requirement here; it just needs putting together more. That is happening so I see that one being taken up. "Evaluation of the benefits of using space in education"[1]—that is where this Committee started with its question should there be a more thorough evaluation of the benefits of space in education and whose responsibility should it be. So I think some of them are being taken up.

  Q295  Chairman: For clarity here because we need to have clarity for our report because it is important; in 2005 the BNSC launched the National Space Education Initiative. The Martin Barstow report Bringing Space into School Science made 10 recommendations. We are not aware that any of them have been followed up. In 2006 in your own report for Yorkshire Forward Education and Skills Case for Space, we do not know what recommendations, if any, have been followed up in that. The NSEI now seems to have died a death so we do not know what is happening with that. These are all warm words that have been coming through but we are not aware as a Committee of anything that gets followed up other than reports are prepared, recommendations are made and nothing happens.

  Paul Spencer: I am the wrong person to answer that.

  Q296  Chairman: I am just utterly confused.

  Dr Clegg: I did indicate very clearly that the initiative around co-ordination and coherence had arisen directly from Martin Barstow's report.

  Q297  Chairman: Now over to Robin and Julie.

  Dr Clegg: I will try to help unfog this.

  Q298  Chairman: Is it an unfair accusation?

  Dr Clegg: I would like to reply point-by-point, if I may. The BNSC partnership did try to get a coherent National Space Education Initiative going in partnership with the DfES. One of the first things was to commission the report from Professor Barstow who made 10 recommendations. The initiative as a whole was then overtaken by the arrival of the idea of the Space Education Office and that was a happy coincidence of two things, one the European Space Agency wanted to have a pilot Space Education Office in the UK as a Member State and secondly the implementing of almost all of the recommendations of the Barstow report, and the overlap of those two things is remarkable and we could achieve them both by supporting politically this development which is being run by Space Connections and will provide this co-ordinating centre. We believe that nearly all of the recommendations that Barstow made will be delivered by the Space Education Office. The thing called the National Space Education Initiative was overtaken by this development so we see that as the way forward.

  Q299  Chairman: Thank you very much.

  Dr Clegg: One more point and that is on the funding agencies that commissioned Paul Spencer's report. The primary purpose of it was to list the evidence that linking space activity with young people could affect attainment and subject choice. That was the only purpose of the report. We did actually let the consultants list some suggestions at the end, sorry, no offence Paul.

1   Note by the witness: This is a partial quote from my report. The recommendation was that "the UK space community should initiate the development of UK-based curriculum material directly relating to curriculum requirements". Back

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