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15 Jan 2008 : Column 223WH—continued

11.59 am

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing this important debate. He has contributed greatly to the discussion of science and maths in this place, and we have been privileged today to hear from parliamentarians from all parts of the House, who have brought into Parliament not just their expertise in science but their passion and enthusiasm for the future of science in our schools—none more so than my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster). He gave us an exciting insight into his own childhood, including the keeping of gunpowder in the bread bin—not something that I shall mention to my own son—and, more importantly, into the practical physics and science experiments that he undertook, such as firing tennis balls at 45° angles to see where they hit and how far they went. I am sure that he took a practical application of that into his career as a bomb disposal expert in the Army, and that his practical science experience came to good use in his military career.

The importance of science is not to be underestimated. It is an important part of education, in the same way as history or modern languages, equipping the next generation to think about and deal with some of the most important issues facing the country—whether biofuels, energy, climate change, genetic modification or mapping the human genome. Those are all science-related issues, and we need young people, whether they are budding scientists or destined for other careers, to appreciate the importance that science has in all our lives.

Of course, science also has a vital role in our economy. My constituency, in north Hampshire, has one of the largest centres of employment. The pharmaceutical industry
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is at the heart of the success of my constituency, so I know at first hand how important science is to local business employers. The Leitch report clearly says that the demand for science and technology professionals will increase by 18 to 30 per cent. between 2004 and 2014—far higher than for any other occupational group. As my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) has pointed out, we cannot rely on overseas expertise to ensure that business needs are met, because those people can too easily return home, taking their skills with them.

The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East focused on the importance of practical science, but the pathway to achieving high-quality practical science in our classrooms has to be through our teaching staff and teaching professionals within our schools. It will be difficult for the Minister to disagree that there is a crisis in science in our schools today. Many hon. Members have stated their concerns about science teaching in our schools and the ability of schools to secure specialist science teachers. We have heard figures on the shortfall in the number of specialist science teachers: only 19 per cent. of science teachers have specialisms in physics, and only 25 per cent. in chemistry. Indeed, one in four schools in the state sector do not have a specialist physics teacher. That is another issue of which I have first-hand experience of problems in my constituency.

The failure to attract new science teachers is worrying, particularly given that many science teachers are nearing retirement. We must also make international comparisons. When one considers that 90 per cent. of teachers in China have some sort of science degree, one realises that, in this country, science simply is not as ingrained in the teaching of our young people as it is in our economic competitor countries. It is important for us to examine that issue and to hear from the Minister what he intends to do about it.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) spoke about the impact that the situation has had on the results achieved in schools, and on GCSE numbers. The number of young people who are able to take three separate sciences is low indeed: just 26 per cent. of comprehensive schools are able to offer the three sciences separately—clearly as a result of the shortfall in the number of specialist teachers. That has had a knock-on effect on the number of students able to study at A-level and a further knock-on effect on the number studying science at university. There has been a 40 per cent. fall in demand for undergraduate places in physics, and I know from my experience in south-east England that the physics department at the university of Reading, which provided an excellent opportunity for students in my area to study physics close to home, has recently closed.

The Royal Society of Chemistry has warned that too many science students need remedial lessons when they arrive at university, which causes significant problems for university teachers. Most sobering of all, it says that 30 per cent. of university physics departments have closed since 1994, and that only 47 out of 125 universities now offer physics places. It is estimated that only six chemistry departments will be left by 2014.

What has been the Government’s response so far? We should not be surprised that it has been to set a target. The target is that by 2014, 25 per cent. of science teachers will have a physics specialism, and 31 per cent.
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a chemistry specialism. Those are admirable objectives, and I am sure that the Minister will touch on them in his remarks, but the Royal Society felt that those targets were somewhat short on detail when they were announced. Indeed, the Institute of Physics did not feel that there was a well-defined strategy in place for achieving the goals that the Government set out. Perhaps we should not be surprised that in the past decade, parliamentary answers obtained by my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) have revealed that, year on year, the Government have failed to meet their targets on the recruitment of more science teachers into this area, despite the considerable effort put into golden hellos and bursaries, which simply have not been hitting the targets on improving recruitment or other targets that the Government wanted to achieve.

The most concerning statistics of all must be that 40 per cent. of science and maths teachers who qualified in 1999 were not teaching a year later, and that 50 per cent. were not teaching five years later. Those figures come from the Royal Society. Why are we not retaining the scientists whom we have enticed into the teaching profession? Perhaps the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East hit the nail on the head by making the lion’s share of his speech about practical work, which brings science to life, not only for students but for teachers. He talked about his experiences, in his early years, when he got a chemistry set from his friend and undertook his own experiments, thus finding out how exciting science can be for young people. For me, the highlight of biology at school was dissecting a cow’s eye, but I hear that, unfortunately, such dissections are not always offered in schools in my area.

The practical role of science was highlighted in the House of Lords report as an essential component of effective science teaching. The Lords also picked up on the problem of health and safety inhibiting teaching. Several speakers, including the hon. Members for Mid-Dorset and North Poole and for Bolton, South-East, have discussed the conditions in laboratories. I share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes that building schools for the future will not be available to many constituents until five years hence, which will be too late for the work that needs to be undertaken in our science laboratories.

Science teachers might feel let down by the Government, because many students do not have basic English and maths when they reach secondary school, and that affects the teaching of science in schools. How does the Minister feel about that? Surely, if children do not have a grasp of basic English and maths, it will be next to impossible for them to access physics, chemistry and biology. Does he not share our concern that that is a fundamental issue and that the Government must start to take it far more seriously?

I noted with interest that the Minister picked up on the fact that there have been some discussions on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development rankings of the UK in science. I am sure that he is not complacent in that area at all, and that he is as concerned as Conservative Members are that, in absolute terms, China—one of the countries that we must keep in mind as a key competitor in the future—significantly outperformed the UK on science and maths in 2006. I would appreciate some thoughts from the Minister as to how he will reverse that situation in the coming years.

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The Opposition want specialist science to be taken seriously by the Government. Too little progress has been made on recruiting and retaining suitably qualified teachers for core academic science subjects. The Government need to share our pledge that all secondary school pupils capable of doing so should be able to do the individual science GCSEs if that is their choice. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole also picked up on that.

The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) mentioned the importance of firsthand experience for children in schools, and echoed many of the thoughts of other Members. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) discussed the importance of inspirational specialist teachers. There is a great deal of agreement on the issues that face us.

Will the Minister pledge that students who wish to study individual sciences will be able to do so? When will the Government be able to meet their recruitment targets and perhaps make up the shortfall of the past decade? The Government’s promise in the 2005 general election campaign of £200 million for school science labs has not been delivered, much to the annoyance of some sectors. Given the declining number of science students, how will the Minister guarantee that building schools for the future money will actually be used to improve science labs in schools? What will he do to help more teachers access the regional science learning centres?

Last but by no means least, will the Minister undertake a review of science teaching and take up some of the issues that the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East raised, to establish what can be done to enhance the excitement of teaching science in our schools? Science is the lifeblood and one of the most important aspects of the economy and the future of this country.

12.12 pm

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): Like others, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing this important and engaging debate on science teaching. There is no greater champion of science in this House, and we have seen that not only today but through his work on the former Science and Technology Committee and now on the Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee. I shall comment later on some of the points that he made.

We had excellent contributions from all the speakers. It is unfortunate that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) has had to go to a Public Bill Committee—I shall say one or two things in response to his comments shortly. I was taken with the engaging contribution of the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster). We all enjoyed hearing about the holes in his lawn, and I agree that it is a crying shame that every young person is not taught science in a fun and engaging way.

I was pleased that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) thought that we were going in the right direction, and I share her desire and impatience for us to go further and faster. She thought that we needed to make teaching more attractive and spoke about teachers’ pay. I hope that she has had a chance to see the ministerial statement on teachers’ pay that we published at 9.30 this morning. It outlines the
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three-year settlement of 2.45, 2.3 and 2.3 per cent., which, according to the comments that I have seen to date, has been broadly welcomed by all but perhaps one of the teachers unions. Average teacher pay is up 19 per cent. in real terms over the past 10 years; for head teachers, it is up by more than 25 per cent. We have made some good progress on teachers’ pay.

Among his other comments, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) spoke about his worries that top-up fees would have a detrimental impact on recruitment of science students in higher education. A provisional figure from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service for 2007-08 shows that, in comparison with the previous year, there have been increases in first-degree acceptances for physics of 10.3 per cent., for chemistry of 8.8 per cent., for biology of 3.3 per cent. and for mathematics of 9.2 per cent. I am sure that all Members who have shown their enthusiasm for science will welcome those significant increases. They follow the signs of recovery in A-level recruitment into physics, which I shall discuss later.

Annette Brooke: I believe the Minister will concede that my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon made a particular point about the position of women and the burden of debt. Throughout this debate there has been great concern about the gender imbalance and the fact that more science teachers could be recruited if there were equality between the sexes. I would be grateful if the Minister addressed that general point.

Jim Knight: I agree that there is a continuing need to redress the gender gap, particularly in respect of girls studying physics. There has been a slight narrowing of it, but it is not sufficient and we certainly need to do more. As ever, there is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation with such issues. If we could get more girls to study physics to A-level, there would be more chance of their going on to study it in higher education and then going into teaching, but which comes first is something that we have to address. I will say more about that as I go on.

The hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) made an interesting contribution as well and asked all the right questions. Beyond what I already said in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East on the programme for international student assessment, it is worth noting that only seven countries had mean scores that were significantly higher than England’s, and that England has the third highest proportion of students at the highest level of attainment in the world. There are some cultural as well as substantive issues—for example, gender was just mentioned—that we need to address. Only 38 per cent. of students said that they like reading about science, and only 55 per cent. said that they generally have fun when they are learning science. Those are the sorts of things that we have been talking about and that we want to deal with in our reforms. However, 61 per cent. of students—higher than the international average—agreed that when they leave school there will be many opportunities for them to use science. Some of the messages are starting to get through.

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I agree that science should be exciting and engaging. I well remember my experience in school of lighting the magnesium, of wrestling with the ticker tape timer, and, in the days when I had hair, of static electricity having the necessary effect. I was delighted when I went back to my school last year that Paul McCartney, who taught me chemistry, and Jan Pringle, who taught me physics, were still there and still doing the great job that they did when I was a pupil.

I share the enthusiasm of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East to make science a more attractive option for young people to study and for schools and teachers to teach—almost as much as I share my enthusiasm for KT Tunstall’s latest album, “Drastic Fantastic”, with my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North, who is an enthusiast. Perhaps it describes how we want science teaching to change: drastically and fantastically.

We want more students to continue to study science, to make it their career and to engage with scientific issues as citizens. I want to explain today how we will achieve that by inspiring young people with science throughout their journey through the various stages of school.

The key to good learning is, of course, good teaching. We know that to help students enjoy and achieve success in science we need more specialist teachers, as has been pointed out—specialists who can communicate their love for and depth of knowledge of their subject. We are encouraging people to train and to qualify as science teachers, as the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said, by offering a teacher training bursary and a golden hello in the subjects that we need. That is working: the number of trainee science teachers recruited in a year has just reached more than 3,000 for the first time for conventional initial teacher training. Add to that the employment-based routes, and we are now recruiting well in terms of science specialists.

There is not an overall crisis in terms of the future numbers of science teachers, because the numbers entering training has risen by almost a third in seven years, but the hon. Member for Basingstoke is right to say that there are still not enough specialist physics and chemistry teachers. We are doing more so that teachers in other subjects can gain the specialisms that they need in science, through funding the development of the new accredited training courses that were mentioned. To ensure that those courses deliver the quality that is needed, the Training and Development Agency for Schools has worked with the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Chemistry, and together they have developed courses that allow science teachers—normally biologists—without a physics or chemistry specialism to gain the knowledge and teaching skills that they need to teach these science subjects well. In gender terms, that is significant, because many of those biologists are female, and we are now, through the use of this qualification, engaging them to become specialists, especially in physics, so that we can then address the gender imbalance in the physics teaching profession, which I hope will encourage more girls to stay on doing A-level physics and go on to study it in higher education.

In the children’s plan, we announced a further new programme, “Transition to teaching”, which will be a partnership between employers and the TDA intended to attract staff with science, mathematics or technology backgrounds who may wish to take up teaching to come
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out of industry and take on a second career in teaching. That programme is being developed under the leadership of Larry Hirst from IBM.

We do not just need more specialist teachers, we need to ensure that science teachers get the continuing support and development that they need to remain inspirational teachers. Continuing personal development is important, as all hon. Members have said. We fund schools to provide CPD for staff. Today is the fifth anniversary of the social partnership that the Department for Education and Skills developed with teaching unions, one of the main outputs of which has been the work force agreement, giving more planning preparation and assessment time for the teaching staff, and using Baker days—the in-service training or INSET days—that were developed by the previous Government. The combination of funding and time ought to be able to improve CPD, but we do not prescribe nationally how that should be developed.

In partnership with the Wellcome Trust we have set up a national network of science learning centres, as hon. Members have mentioned, to provide professional development for science teachers and technicians. Those centres focus on high-quality, innovative and inspiring courses, ranging from “Putting the wow into year 2”, through to “Creative brain warmers” for 14 to 19-year-olds, to ones using cartoons and puppets to encourage pupils to discuss scientific issues. However, I am not sure that those courses extend to blowing holes in the garden.

The take-up of CPD at science learning centres has been strong, and although it is not quite up to half of science teachers attending the equivalent of a day at the centre last year, it is not far off. However, the best measure of the success of science teaching is beyond that, in the classroom. The journey into science begins in primary school. We agree that it is really important, across the whole range of subjects in the curriculum, that young people have a mastery of reading and mathematics. That is where we put the priority throughout the past 10 years and why 100,000 more pupils every year are now leaving primary school with the national competency that they need in English and maths. That is 100,000 more than in 1997, when we took over as a Government, but we accept that we need to go further. That is why we are introducing the synthetic phonics, developed by Sir Jim Rose, in the “Letters and sounds” programme and why we are developing “Every child counts” to further improve mathematics and extending the use of one-to-one classes for catch-up for those that need it.

We have seen the enthusiasm of young children enjoying the hands-on science or looking in awe at the rockets on display in the Science museum. Teachers have been harnessing such enthusiasm with increasing success. In 1997, seven out of 10 pupils were achieving level 4 at the end of key stage 2, and now it is almost nine out of 10. Again, that is a good improvement. Building on these excellent results, we look forward to teachers having more opportunities to inspire children.

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