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15 Jan 2008 : Column 216WH—continued

I have some other books with me. One is “Why Can’t I... Jump up to the Moon?: And Other Questions about Energy”—perhaps the Minister will tell me why he cannot jump up to the moon—and another is “Why Can’t I... Sleep on a Bed of Bubbles?: And Other Questions about Materials”. They have been written for young people, but do not seem to have got into the classroom to the extent that I think that they should have. I know, too, about an anthology of poetry and artwork around science by children from Rockland St Mary county primary school and Framingham Earl high school, which is just outside Norwich. It is quite brilliant how they developed poems around scientific structures seen down an electron microscope and so on.
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It is wonderful to see the interest in the questions and the enthusiasm that it generates. That happened because a young woman doing a post-doctoral fellowship at the John Innes centre decided to do it. She is a high-flyer in her research field, but wanted to put something back into the community because she could see that there was a need for it.

We often talk about the shortage of teachers, but sometimes we could use people in universities, such as post-doctoral and PhD students, who are the lifeblood of research in this country. I learned that first-hand from Paul Nurse, who is one of our Nobel prize winners. They do all the work; they stimulate ideas, lecture among undergraduates and help them in practicals and so on. We should use that force, until we get the numbers that we need in physics, chemistry and biology. I speak from practical experience. I once went on a course to Murray house in Scotland for three months. I think that I passed, although I was told off for not wearing a tie—such is rebellion in Scotland. However, instead of teaching religion to a class, when I visited a school, I took the children outside to show them how to take corner and penalty kicks. I do not think that the two of us doing it were sacked, but we were moved on. Nevertheless, many stimulating activities can be undertaken.

I shall move on from the enthusiasm in practical school classes to postgraduate and undergraduate students, who to some extent get a rough deal. They cannot always see a career in front of them, because of the limited number of grants, which can be for one or three years, but not for five years. That is changing gradually; bright young people who want to stay in science are being given a career structure, which is necessary in that field.

Finally, one of the reasons why those students are giving up is that they cannot do exciting experiments on a Friday afternoon after they have been to the pub—hopefully not for too long. Nevertheless, they try things out—“I wonder what would happen if...?”. Science is about asking such questions. To a large extent, that has been taken out of their training. Research assessment exercises now require a safe pair of hands and safe experiments so that they can get the paper out. Much of the paper work is done by postgraduate students—although their names still appear last, after the senior professor and so on. They are not recognised properly in our society for their value to science education. We could do much more with them. Hopefully, at last, something will happen, because we have been talking about these things for some years. Things are happening in certain places—I gave a few examples—but not nationally.

11.38 am

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): I intend to make the briefest of contributions. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing this very valuable debate and pay tribute to him for his lifetime’s contribution to the world of science, which was reflected in his speech. I was delighted to be with him when the Royal Society of Chemistry presented him with the president’s award for a lifetime’s contribution to science. That was very well deserved.

I declare an interest as a parliamentary adviser to the Royal Society of Chemistry. When I first came to this House, I thought that I had the honour of being the
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first Member of Parliament who was also a fireworks maker, which is rather appropriate on the 400th anniversary of Guy Fawkes’ execution. However, I then discovered that the hon. Gentleman had beaten me to it; I understand that back in 1997 he dressed up as Guy Fawkes and blew up gunpowder in the Jubilee Room. I am not sure whether the Serjeant at Arms would let me do that, but I certainly intend to try. My plea to the Minister is, simply, let us make science fun again. It is certainly not his fault, but there has been a general decline for various reasons that I shall consider shortly. Science is not as fun as it used to be, and that has to be a crying shame.

I am a lucky chap. We have discussed having chemistry sets when we were young, and my set was probably the best in the world. It was a firework factory. One of my earliest memories is as a young lad, pecking over my father’s work bench to see him mixing wonderful coloured chemicals, and with a glint in his eye, he would take me with him to blow them up in the garden. We would bury them to see how big a hole we could create. My mother would be absolutely horrified when my father got slightly bored on a Friday afternoon, because he would give me the nod and we would creep out and blow holes in the garden. It was a wonderful way to start.

I shall never forget doing Nuffield physics as an A-level student and being able to do practical experiments. Much of my A-level was practical, and that was the joy of Nuffield—going out into the school fields and firing tennis balls out of 3-in mortar tubes to investigate the optimum firing angle. I was very lucky, because the Lancaster household is a strange one, and all I had to do to get hold of gunpowder was to go the bread bin, where my father used to keep it. I also discovered through that practical process that although 45° was the optimum angle to send one’s tennis ball across the fields, it would go just as far if one put it at 60° or 30°. If one put it at 60°, it went much higher and one could dislodge the tiles from the headmaster’s roof. If one put it at 30°, one could get it under the trees and bounce it off the windows. Those are the lessons that only practical science can teach us.

There are no barriers preventing such experiments in the classroom, although I always remember the advice about pipettes and burettes and not to suck too hard because it might take the enamel off one’s teeth, but it is important that we educate people. That is why the Royal Society of Chemistry’s publication “Surely that’s Banned” is so valuable. I encourage the Minister to try to get it to as broad an audience as possible.

There are, however, practical barriers. The hon. Members for Bolton, South-East and for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) referred to the importance of having more or better laboratories in schools, and although I recognise that the Minister will probably tell us that the Government’s building schools for the future initiative may go some way to address that concern, that better schools programme will not hit my constituency until 2013. He knows that my constituency faces considerable financial challenges already, and I am delighted that he has promised to do something about it. Generally, however, more must be done sooner.

I ask the Minister to recognise also that science is a changing subject. It is vital that teachers receive the opportunity constantly to retrain, which is why it is slightly disappointing to discover that science teachers are not entitled to science-related continual professional
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development. That is another area for the Minister to examine. Indeed, I should tie that issue to the debate last week about equivalent or lower qualifications, about which the Minister knows I feel strongly because of its impact on the Open university. I ask him to talk to his ministerial colleagues and press the point that if the Government pursue the policy of withdrawing ELQ funding, it will have a significant impact on science teaching.

11.43 am

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak, although as I fear that I may not be able to stay for the closing speeches the Minister will be relieved to hear that I shall not ask too many questions of him. There is science business in the House of Lords today, and it may take me away.

Instead of going on the trip by the Select Committee on Innovation, Universities and Skills to a seminar, I wanted to attend today’s debate in order to support the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) and congratulate him on his work on the subject under discussion. This is one of a series of tributes that I have paid to him for his efforts in raising the profile of important science issues—not just chemistry and teaching—in the House. I agree with almost everything that he said today, so I shall stress just a couple of points.

There is a fundamental problem: the shortage of specialist teachers. It creates a vicious circle; if students are not inspired to study science subjects at university because they have not had an inspiring specialist teacher, they will not graduate in that subject and at least consider the option of a teaching career—in the state sector especially. The real issue is that the Government have to break that vicious circle. We must recognise that numerate graduates who understand science and are well trained in its methods are attractive not only to industry and teaching, but also in the City and in jobs that pay far better than public sector jobs such as teaching.

The Government must consider whether the huge burden of student debt imposed as a result of their student funding policies is a factor in the career choices of well-qualified science graduates. There is evidence of that, and although the Minister is quite right to point out that some statistics are misleading—as he claimed about the programme for international student assessment studies—one rarely hears the Government point out misleading statistics when it is not in their favour to do so. The Minister is smiling. I suspect that all political parties are guilty of such practice, so I accept that point, if it is the point he makes, but I campaign within my party to ensure that we improve our performance in that regard. There is, none the less, an undoubted impact when people are burdened with debt and have either the opportunity of a golden hello or the prospect of not being able to afford to buy their own house because they are in a less well-paid public sector job.

There are also issues about women in science teaching, women in science careers and female science graduates staying in science. There is clear evidence that debt has a
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particular impact on female graduates, and we will not solve the problem until we address the issues for women in science.

The Minister ought to consider the impact of the closure of science centres, which are an inspiration to many students, and indeed, to teaching staff, but are not Government-funded. The centres have an uncertain future because their business plans were approved without adequate scrutiny during the millennium handouts, and unlike museums that promote arts subjects, they do not receive Government funding, whether or not they have collections. I look forward to the Government’s response to the report by the Select Committee on Science and Technology on science centres.

There is an anti-science culture, and it may have an impact on the willingness of students—particularly the brighter ones with many options before them—to take up or at least to be enthusiastic about science. There is an anti-rational movement in this country. Today, there is a demonstration outside the House of Lords against certain aspects of embryo research, where people will wear rabbit and cow costumes or masks to imply that early-stage, inter-species embryos, which will be needed to study embryological and genetic matters, are somehow equivalent to the creation of chimerical monsters. That is ridiculous, but it is the sort of idea that the media promote, and we must ensure that in schools there is a fight against such anti-genetic modification propaganda and, for that matter, against some of the anti-vivisection material that gets into schools.

The Government must draw a line in the sand and say that they will not accept the teaching of creationism in schools, either in science lessons—as they and the official Opposition have said—or as fact in religious education lessons. In RE lessons, it might be taught that some people believe in creationism, because it is a sincere belief, albeit one that I think is wrong, but there should be no instruction that creationism is equivalent to evolution, only that it is a belief. It is not science, and it is not knowledge in that sense.

The hon. Members for Bolton, South-East and for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) mentioned the need to ensure that dissection can be performed in schools. Even if it puts off a few, it can encourage others, and the Government have a challenge to reintroduce such measures in schools.

I know that the Minister is interested in these matters, and I was delighted that he held his seat at the last election. He is one of my favourite Ministers, and I hope that he will look favourably on the subject of the debate.

11.49 am

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing the debate. I have found it incredibly interesting, and it has been a great privilege to share the enthusiasm for science that has been expressed. It is a strong indication that we can and should do better.

There has been growing concern recently about the decline in the number of pupils taking up science at A-level and university and the high number of pupils failing to achieve the required standard in GCSE sciences. It must be recognised that that is a symptom of a long-term decline. The latest Government figures show that at more than 1,500 state schools—about half the
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schools in England—fewer than 50 per cent. of pupils reach the required standard of two grade Cs or above in science. An accompanying downturn in the number of state education pupils taking science A-levels has been reported by the Cambridge Assessment exam board: although 33.3 per cent. of grammar school and 27.7 per cent. of independent school pupils go on to study chemistry A-level, only 14.8 per cent. of pupils at comprehensives do so.

The falling number of pupils coming through science A-levels has meant that many universities have cut science courses. The University and College Union revealed last August that 10 per cent. of UK science and maths degree courses had been axed in the past decade. The sharpest decline has been in chemistry, sadly, in which 31 per cent. of courses have been cut. The continuing downward trend in the number of science graduates threatens our status as a leading knowledge economy, leaves us vulnerable to emerging economies and is having a direct impact on the number of specialist science teachers in schools.

I should like to mention the vicious circle described by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). Way back in a debate in 2004 I used a little equation: unqualified teachers plus uninterested students equals a drop in the number of people taking A-level science; fewer science graduates equals fewer qualified teachers; and round and round we go. I am sad to say that the trend has not been reversed since that debate, and we are still struggling to recruit the teachers whom we need to inspire children and encourage them to study science and maths at higher levels. I believe fundamentally that all children have a right to be taught by a teacher who is qualified in the subject or area being taught. In conjunction with that, all teachers should have a right to professional development, in which they should be supported. That is important, and it is coming to the fore at last, but it is still a long way down the line.

Lord Sainsbury’s review of science and innovation, published last October, warned that Britain would be involved in a race to the bottom of the global economy unless more was done to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics—STEM—development. Similarly, the Confederation of British Industry estimates that more than 2 million graduates in STEM subjects will be needed by 2014 to avoid jobs going abroad. The Government have responded belatedly with the announcement of conversion courses for teachers to retrain as science specialists, and there is a £5,000 incentive. We also need supply cover if teachers are to be released for such important continuing professional development courses.

The Government are moving in the right direction, but it is too little, too late. We are four years on from the Treasury’s original proposals to increase investment in science and technology, and only a handful of teachers are being retrained. It is time that the Government understood the principle of compound interest: start small and early and the target is attainable, leave it late and it becomes unachievable. That is what is in danger of happening to their target for science teachers.

Crucially, the Government are still failing to make teaching a more universally attractive profession that is valued in society. Instead of one-off financial incentives and differential pay scales, which cause resentment and unhappiness and even risk some teachers facing salary
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cuts after their incentives have run out, teachers’ salaries in general should be addressed and consideration given to the many reasons why so many are demotivated—teaching to targets and so on, and being unable to carry out practical work. That would help to tackle the poor retention rates as well as aid recruitment. After all, about one in five science teachers who find a job in a maintained school have left the profession after three years, according to the Government’s own figures. We must work on generating enthusiasm at primary school level, and consider extra training for primary school teachers. Has the Minister made particular reference to science in the primary review that will be undertaken by Professor Rose?

Although the Government have made a lot of noise about curriculum changes designed to make science more accessible and attractive, movement has been slow. We have heard this morning about the new GCSE syllabus, and I hope that it enthuses students, but it will not be enough just to have exciting topics: there must be practical work. The Royal Society has congratulated the Government on the new syllabus, but we must consider that against the fact that it is still not possible for many pupils to take three separate science GCSEs—68 per cent. of state comprehensives do not even offer three sciences at GCSE, and the science diploma will not be introduced until 2011. Diplomas have been trumpeted as

but their staggered deployment, with science to be one of the last available, seems to continue the undervaluing of the subject.

The Government have also been slow to invest the £2 billion needed to upgrade school laboratories, about which we have heard a lot this morning. That investment is absolutely essential. Taking part in experiments and going on school trips are widely recognised as both engaging children in science and aiding their learning, a fact clearly recognised in the revamped gallery recently opened at the Science museum. Sadly, high levels of bureaucracy and a lack of resources mean that more and more teachers are cutting back on such activities. As has been said, a lot of attention needs to be given to making it easier for field trips to take place safely, and to initial teacher training.

Pupil engagement with science through more innovative teaching practice is still only part of the battle. We must get careers advice right. Again belatedly, initiatives are coming through, but I can only plead that much more needs to be done. The science ambassadors are of great importance, and I might mention that a retired scientist came to me recently and asked why we in Dorset were not making more of the Olympics and the sailing school through science and technology projects. I have suggested that to the county council but not had much of a response. We need governors and local education authorities to be engaged in the mission to make science more relevant and, most of all, more exciting.

Data management is still woefully inadequate. The Royal Society’s state of the nation report last year on the UK’s science and teaching work force concluded that

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and that

We must have good data on the supply of, and demand for, specialist teachers before we can have policies that work.

If data management is bad in the schools sector, with the new staffing survey overdue like its predecessor, it is effectively non-existent in further education. We worry about the loss through retirement of the physicists who entered teaching in the 1970s, but what about their colleagues who went into the FE sector? Does anyone in Government know the state of STEM subjects there? Does there need to be a retraining programme to match the one in schools, or are pupils studying in schools without sixth forms, who progress to FE post-16, of no importance to our economy? In light of the Education and Skills Bill, we need urgently to ensure that we provide parity in the FE sector. Many colleges will provide the technicians to support our future Nobel prize winners and their needs, and it is important to take them into account.

Time is running out, with even selective schools unable to recruit physicists when they advertise in The Times Educational Supplement. There is so much more for the Government to do, and they would do well not to ignore the warning signs from such august bodies as the Royal Society.

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