We began this inquiry because of a perception that health and safety concerns are preventing science practicals in schools and fieldwork and field trips. What we found was that the perception was to a large extent misconceived. Instead, we found concerns, from a broad range of organisations, that students are not receiving the practical science education necessary to produce the next generation of scientists.
It is clear that the provision of practical classes, and how those are supplemented with fieldwork and field trips, varies from the excellent to the dull or non-existent. On health and safety, we found no credible evidence to support its oft cited explanation for decline of practicals and work outside the classroom. While "health and safety" may be used as a convenient excuse for avoiding practicals and work outside the classroom, we consider that there are more fundamental reasons why many students are receiving poor practical science experiences during their school education.
First, there is the availability of teachers who are well-trained and confident. We accept that this Government as well as the last have been addressing the chronic problem of recruiting the relevant people but there is a need to focus on what happens after teachers are recruited. The Government needs to provide strong encouragement to schools in facilitating science teachers to maintain and develop the knowledge and practical science skills necessary to provide students with a high quality science education.
Second, science teachers need fit for purpose facilities and the support of qualified and experienced technical support. We recommend the Government ensure schools provide quality science facilities to match the level of its aspirations for science education. We reiterate the call of our predecessor committee to provide a career structure for technical staff.
Science is a practical subject. If students are to follow a scientific career, either through university and on to research or to work in the new technological businesses of the future, they will need to understand how the knowledge and facts that they acquire in classroom lessons have been gathered and agreed. They cannot and should not do this exclusively second hand, through books without direct practical experience both in and out of the classroom.
Effort is not only required from students and teachers but from the Government and regulators. Practical science is relatively expensive and carries little cachet for parents comparing schools. Without encouragement it will lose out. The inspection regime and the requirements set for examination boards need to drive higher quality with more and better practical lessons for science students.
We have also found that, while there is a plethora of material, information and events to supplement school science, a lack of coherence makes these much less likely to be used and useful to practising teachers, though our e-consultation indicated that this kind of intervention could have a high impact on students choosing to study science. We urge the science community to work towards greater coherence in its provision of educational materials and, more specifically, to utilise the STEM Directories that already exist. We also recommend the Government secure the future of the Directories to facilitate the provision of these vital contacts between schools and practising scientists.
Finally, we are convinced of the need for more students to study science subjects and urge the Government to provide a detailed strategy on how their preferred tools of exhortation and facilitation will lead to increased numbers of students studying science in schools and what level of increase we can expect to see.