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15 Jan 2008 : Column 210WH—continued

Hon. Members should note the lack of dates in the second of those two commitments. Together with others I have questioned successive Education Ministers on the state of school science laboratories, but we have always been told that the building schools for the future programme is addressing those commitments. However, progress is just too slow, and none of the money that is currently allocated is ring-fenced for laboratory provision.

Sadly, even when refurbishment does take place, the quality of the work is not always good. There are reports of furniture that falls apart in a few years and bench tops that are not designed for the purpose, along with inadequate utilities and information and communications technology provision. The lessons to be learned are that school science staff must be involved in the design of new facilities and that adequate advice must be available from the local education authority or others to guarantee a good-to-excellent standard of provision.

In October 2006, with the support of the Royal Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry published the results of a survey of school science laboratories carried
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out by CLEAPSS. The survey estimated that there were 26,000 laboratories in secondary schools in England in 2005. At the time, the average cost of refurbishment—I should add that that was to an unspecified standard—was £38,000 per laboratory, with costs ranging from £2,000 to £125,000. The average cost for a newly built laboratory was £120,000, with costs ranging from £11,000 to £375,000. Those are high costs indeed. With only 34 per cent. of school laboratories in the sample surveyed rated as good or excellent, 41 per cent. rated as basic and uninspiring and a massive 25 per cent. rated as unsafe or unsatisfactory, the survey did not make good reading for the Government.

In addition, 13 per cent. of science classes are not even taught in a school laboratory, and teachers reported that an extra science laboratory was needed in each school, which equates to an estimated 3,500 extra science laboratories. Even when the laboratory space in schools has improved, the areas used by the technicians to prepare the science classes have often been ignored

The bottom line is that upgrading school science provision all round to a good standard in England alone would require an estimated £1.38 billion at 2005 prices. Indeed, a recent published estimate suggests that £2 billion would be required across Great Britain to upgrade school science laboratories that have not already been upgraded.

Bob Spink: This is a most important debate, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing it. May I help him to set the scene and to explain why it is so necessary to improve our laboratories? Industry in this country relies heavily on scientists from abroad, but the supply of such science-qualified graduates, particularly from the sub-continent and China, may start to dry up as the economies there develop and mature. It is therefore essential for us to fill the planning gap by ensuring that we have decent science teaching, that we encourage women into science teaching and that we have good-quality science labs that will encourage students and teachers in schools and support science teaching in our economy.

Dr. Iddon: Indeed. I agree and I shall produce some figures in conclusion to underline what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Let me turn now to another aspect of science teaching that has been on the wane in recent decades—field trips. Unfortunately, initial teacher education does not show fledgling teachers how to exploit the wealth of knowledge in the outside laboratory. I pay tribute to the Field Studies Council for the work that it does in that respect. It not only promotes outdoor education through its publications and lobbying, but walks the talk, too, by running 17 field centres in some outstanding parts of the country, such as Malham Tarn, in north Yorkshire, Brockhole, near Windermere in the Lake district, and Flatford Mill, which was made famous by Constable’s painting.

I still remember being taken into the countryside by my primary school teachers, who helped me to identify wild flowers, insects, birds, wild animals and trees. For a
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while, I was the proud owner of a flower press and I had quite a good collection of dried and pressed wild flowers, which I was able to identify.

An education officer at the London outdoor education centre has remarked:

The Government have argued that outdoor education is thriving in our schools, but the FSC’s evidence suggests otherwise. More than 96 per cent. of GCSE science pupils will not experience a residential field trip, while nearly half of all A-level biology students will do no field work, with the possible exception of half a day’s experience near their school.

Last year, the FSC and the ASE jointly published a report on the training of pre-service teachers to support the development of outdoor teaching in secondary science education. The report contains nine recommendations on how to halt the decline in the use of field trips to teach science outdoors and, inter alia, lists the barriers to such teaching, such as the lack of minimum requirements, the failure to recognise the potential of fieldwork, the lack of training among initial teacher education tutors and teacher mentors, the lack of a communication and organisational structure to promote fieldwork, the low status awarded to fieldwork by Ofsted inspectors and, inevitably, the cost of field trips. Let us hope that the new standards set by the Training and Development Agency for Schools will be fully implemented by those responsible for initial teacher education, and that the Malham protocol, a set of minimum standards for teaching science outdoors within ITE, will be adopted by the TDA.

In May the Institute of Biology published “Dissection in Schools”, a survey funded by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry. Eighty-five per cent. of the respondents believe that less dissection work has been carried out in schools since 1986, when the new national curriculum and compulsory science at GCSE were introduced. Time pressures because of the current nature of the curriculum, costs, doubt about what activities are permissible, difficulties in acquisition of materials, a shortage of skilled technicians and the need for a resource handbook were commonly cited reasons for that decline. Again, there appear to be problems with ITE. If dissection is not a minimum requirement of the curriculum, it will not be carried out by the teachers.

There are, again, incorrect perceptions of health and safety regulations. For example, contrary to a commonly held belief, cheek cell and saliva sampling is permitted, as long as students work only with their own cheek cell and saliva samples, the cotton buds and disposable cups are disposed of appropriately, and the glass slides are sterilised in a chlorine-based disinfectant. The taking of blood samples is not ruled out either, providing that the COSHH regulations are adhered to. Dissections of eyes can be carried out, but there are some rather complicated restrictions. There can be regional differences. Unlike those in the rest of Britain, pupils in Northern Ireland cannot take samples of their own cheek cells, saliva or blood. Dissection was encouraged in only 69 per cent. of the institutions surveyed. Only 17 per cent. of respondents cited dissections as a cause of students being turned off science. There appear to be increasing concerns, too, about animal welfare. The Department
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for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has recently introduced requirements about the disposal of live material, which has caused biology teachers some concern.

Dissection is, however, regarded as bringing science to life. It enhances a student’s knowledge and understanding, makes it possible to understand the complexity and efficiency of animal anatomy and engenders an appreciation of the fragility of tissues. Students can relate animal anatomy to an understanding of how their own bodies work and dissection improves hand-eye co-ordination. Ethical issues about the use of live animals in research can of course be discussed in the context of dissection.

When the Connexions service was established, its staff concentrated, unfortunately, more on those with learning difficulties than on the most able pupils. Consequently, high-quality schools career advice failed to reach many of the most gifted pupils, who were unable to realise the breadth and excitement of the careers that can be pursued with a science, technology, engineering or mathematics background. Regrettably, according to the report of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, “Science Teaching in Schools”, few careers advisers have a STEM background. In any case, the sciences are perceived to be difficult by teachers and pupils alike, and schools consequently adopt “softer” options to take their schools high in the league tables, which now seem to determine which schools are good or bad. In “Next Steps”, the Government largely neglected careers advice, and it has now become urgent that they address the deficit in good careers advice for the most able students.

By 2014, according to the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, the demand for science and technology professionals will increase by 20 per cent. compared to an increase in demand for all other occupations of only 4 per cent. That is the point that the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) was making. A recent study of our 15 year-olds’ ability by the programme for international student assessment of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development revealed that British teenagers have slipped 10 places in six years to a lowly 14th place in the world’s most prestigious league table charting scientific knowledge among schoolchildren.

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): It is worth reading out what the OECD said in its report on PISA 2006:

Dr. Iddon: I am glad that the Minister has made that point, because I did not know that, and neither, obviously, did many people who have made the comparison.

In The Guardian of 3 December 2007, Dr Richard Pike, who is the chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said:

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which is what I have tried to do this morning.

I have tried to highlight the decline in what are regarded as important aspects of science teaching, and give possible reasons for that decline, which I hope that the Minister will address in future planning of science education. There is a lot of good will out there, in industry and commerce and in the teaching fraternity, and we need to tap it to the advantage of all those students who show an interest in pursuing a science career. Let us make science teaching exciting again in the classroom, as it once was, in my day.

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Three hon. Members wish to participate and I intend to start the wind-ups at 11.55, so if they have done their science and mathematics they will know how much time they each have.

11.26 am

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): I am delighted to take part in this debate once again. We have pushed this issue half a dozen times, because it is recognised as important, and I shall quote something from the Sainsbury report about why that is. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on once more bringing the matter into the arena of debate. We have similar backgrounds, except that I was in Scotland and he was in England. We always get more money in Scotland, for some reason—or perhaps we use it better; who knows? That is another argument, for another time and place. Nevertheless, Scottish science has produced some excellence, as has English science, and we compete well in the world.

Lord David Sainsbury has just produced a document entitled “The Race to the Top: A Review of Government’s Science and Innovation Policies”, in which he talks first about the need for a

including raising the number of qualified science teachers, increasing the number of young people studying triple science, improving careers advice, establishing a national science competition and rationalising the many schemes to inspire young people to take up careers in science and engineering. Indeed, although we are worried about the future, there is much going on in different localities, about which I shall say something in a minute.

Lord Sainsbury also points out in his review that although it is not clear where in the future the jobs will necessarily come for scientists, there will be many opportunities for UK companies, and therefore there is a need for science education and research. New industries will appear in

That is not a bad challenge for a small island and we play, I think, quite a hard-hitting role in those fields internationally now. We are of course worried about what will happen in the future, as we watch the emerging
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economies of other countries, such as China, with a university in every street, everyone getting a degree and large numbers of people flooding through. One need only go to Singapore to see scientific excellence being developed. The journey to such developments starts with early school days and continues through university and into the job market, whether the jobs are in research or industry.

I want particularly to mention the field of cancer. In the 10 years I have been in the House, that has been a major commitment for me. I have seen how well things have developed through Government support. There is now a cancer reform strategy, which recognises that science is moving on and driving a need for new policies. That is very important. We know that more will happen in that context. For example, personalised medicine will be a key factor in a world in which we target drugs to people to the advantage of their genetics, around which are many issues, such as how drugs are produced and paid for, the reaction of companies, the kind of partnerships that we adopt and how academia and the industry can merge, in which regional development agencies and many other organisations will have a role to play.

I am told that in the cancer field—this comes from anecdotes from a dinner party on Saturday night with consultant oncologists—many medics now have never seen a tumour. They might see one on a video screen, but they will not see one for real until they are thrust into their oncology work. In many ways I think that that is true across science. Many people no longer learn the kind of hard science that I had to do. I do not want to be too crude—I must watch my parliamentary language—but there is nothing like seeing a real heart throbbing, and operating or working on it, to get a feel for handling the job. It is no use just seeing it on the screen and saying, “It will be all right on the night.”

Furthermore, as my hon. Friend said, it is no use students thinking that they know how things work in the world outside without actually seeing it. A generation of young people has been brought up watching Attenborough programmes, which I find fascinating. I watch big cat programmes and am amazed at how lions get chased by creatures that they fancied eating. Those educational relationships are good for young people and allow them to pick up on, and try to understand, the behavioural patterns of animals and plants, which they can reflect on to themselves. That is somewhat anthropomorphic, but is important because it gets them asking questions.

Young people are stimulated by all sorts of things at a very early age. We have been talking about how different people are not working together or united, and about various initiatives and publications. I know of a nice book for young people, called “Have a Nice DNA”, by a friend of mine, Professor Balkwill, at Queen Mary’s college. I also know of the school garden which is pupils’ new classroom project, which has helped pupils to build a willow tunnel, research life forms in the pond, and build a bird hide to watch wildlife, giving them first-hand experience of ecology. That project was not set up by a teacher, but by a science technician—a dying breed. A Committee that I used to chair once looked into patterns in schools on either side of the Scotland-England border and found that, in Scotland, technicians
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are still valued. They are the backroom people who prepare the experimental classes, ensure that the equipment is available and make noises if it is not. In a way, that also aids young people’s education when experimenting in laboratories.

I sometimes joke about a school in my area—Sprowston high school—that produces good drummers. In fact, one is marrying KT Tunstall, although I doubt if any Member here knows who she is—

Jim Knight indicated assent.

Dr. Gibson: The Minister obviously does.

I would much rather that the person marrying her was a scientist than a drummer—but there we go. It reflects the education in that school; the music department is well run, has all the necessary equipment and attracts young people. The science department could do the same, but its laboratories use those dull brown-topped wooden desks with “Tony loves Cherie” and other such messages scratched on them, because young bored people spend time listening but not really taking anything in.

The school garden in Norwich that I mentioned is important and is really developing. One young person said of it:

My Committee found the same thing. That is the kind of experimentation that we want.

Young people are also fascinated by boiling things and get a kick out of making colours in test tubes, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East said. I had a chemistry set as a child and remember applying to a medical school and saying, “Ever since the days of my first chemistry set, I have been interested in understanding how the world works.” However, that argument did not wash with the great deans of Edinburgh university, where applicants needed parents who went to the right school. But that is another story; hopefully those days are over, but I doubt it.

Professor Balkwill is also developing, at Queen Mary’s college, an outfit where a cell will be manufactured architecturally so that people can come in off the streets and get involved. I have always wondered why science and art museums do not mix. However, I shall come on to the interaction between science and the arts later. I do not have to tell Members about the fascination with dinosaurs and the Natural History museum, where people can learn what a dinosaur was and discuss, until the cows come home, how and why they died out.

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