Examination of Witness (Questions 158-202)
Q158 Chair: Minister,
welcome and thank you for coming this afternoon. As you know from
what you have heard in the last few minutes and the briefing on
the inquiry that we are conducting, we are concerned about the
perceived decline of science practicals and field trips. The core
question from the evidence provided to us would seem to be: from
your perspective what value do practicals and field trips have
in science education?
Mr Gibb: They are
very valuable indeed, first, in terms of helping with understanding.
I do not know how you can understand the potency of hydrochloric
or sulphuric acid without ever having held a bottle of it and
poured it on something, preferably into a beaker in a safe way.
It is also very important in terms of accuracy. Being able to
measure accurately is an important skill that children need to
acquire during their school career. Conducting experiments is
an important way of ensuring that they have those skills. It also
Q159 Chair: We
have just heard that there is a review of the curriculum. What
is your view about how we could radically improve science education
particularly from the point of view of practicals? We all know
that there is a national problem in terms of not producing enough
people with STEM skills. What is your formula?
Mr Gibb: We are
reviewing the curriculum from five to 16 across all the national
subjects, and science is one of the priority subjects. English,
maths, science and PE are in the first phase of that curriculum
review. We want to slim down the curriculum. I heard in the previous
session a question about the volume in the curriculum. We want
to slim it down and focus on the core knowledge and concepts that
we believe all children at school should acquire during that period.
The review will also recognise the importance of the practical
application of scientific skills, particularly things like measuring,
and seeing experiments happen in real life will also be included
in the curriculum.
Q160 Chair: Virtually
all the evidence we have had has in some way or another expressed
the importance of science practicals and field trips in terms
of teaching science. What levers do the Government have? If the
review says that that has to increase substantially and you have
to free up the curriculum, what levers do the Government have
to make that happen?
Mr Gibb: It is
a difficult question, because we do not want to exercise too many
levers, particularly when it comes to pedagogy. The whole direction
of travel for the Government is to trust professionals and let
them decide on the basis of their professions how they want to
teach. There will be some aspects of practical scientific education
that need to be in the curriculum. There will be a recognition
of some of the important skills, such as being able to measure
and record results accurately. Being able to know the diagrammatic
formula for how you depict a test tube and how you draw diagrams
for an experiment are all matters, subject to the conclusions
of the review, that I believe should be in the curriculum, but
how you deliver that should be a matter for professionals. But
there are none the less levers that you can exercise. One thing
in which I believe very strongly is that, if you have teachers
who know their subject extremely well, they will be better equipped
to provide good practical experiments and lessons in chemistry
and physics than a teacher who is grappling with the subject content.
Q161 Chair: I
very much agree that the drivers should be the professionals,
but some benchmarks must be applied nationally, must they not,
to have consistency across the country so that we can measure
the success of good schools?
Mr Gibb: Yes. The
question you are asking, therefore, is: should we be assessing
these issues? That will depend on what the review recommends should
be in the curriculum. We will have to see what that comes up with.
But you also have to distinguish the national from the school
curriculum. We want to have a slimmed-down but content-full national
curriculum in science. The school curriculum is what the school
decides to do beyond the national curriculum, and we want to free
up teachers and professionals to provide an inspiring, rigorous
and very broad-based approach to education that will include things
like field trips and practical experiments in science lessons.
Q162 Stephen Metcalfe:
I was looking at a remarkable statistic that in England only 28%
of students study one or more science at A-level. The Royal Society
is keen that that proportion is increased. Would the Government
support that? Do they have an aspiration to increase the number
of students studying science at A-level?
Mr Gibb: We do
not have targets but we certainly want more students to be studying
scientific subjects, both at GCSE and A-level. It has been of
concern to us that the numbers taking A-level chemistry and physics
dropped from 1996 onwards. There has been a gradual reverse in
that trend in recent years, which is welcome. One of the drivers
behind the English baccalaureate is to encourage more young people
to take the three sciences to GCSE, and that will lead them to
being comfortable about taking their subjects to A-level. We also
want to make sure that young people are selecting the right subjects
at A-level if they want to go on to progress to scientific subjects
at degree level.
Q163 Chair: You
do not have a target but you would like us to get up to the Scottish
Mr Gibb: It would
be a target. We just want a higher proportion taking these important
subjects that have progression.
Q164 Stephen Metcalfe:
You mentioned the E-Bac. Science is already a core subject in
schools at GSCE, is it not?
Mr Gibb: Yes.
Q165 Stephen Metcalfe:
Why would the E-Bac increase the number of children who potentially
take that on to A-level?
Mr Gibb: Although
it is a compulsory subject, it does not mean that it is compulsory
to take and pass the GSCE in it. Our concern is that there has
been a focus on some of the softer subjects at GSCE to deliver
the five or more GCSE figure. That can sometimes mean a focus
on the softer subjects at the expense of what are perceived to
be more rigorous science subjects.
Q166 Stephen Metcalfe:
You are hoping that schools will teach more science at key stage
4 to get an exam passed, so they will focus more of their resources
on science within schools because it forms part of the E-Bac.
Mr Gibb: Yes. To
have more young people taking the GCSE right through and doing
well in that exam is one of many factors.
Q167 Stephen Metcalfe:
As opposed to just studying the course, the incentive will be
to get those students up to the level at which they can take an
exam in it.
Mr Gibb: Yes. There
are all kinds of other issues about the league tables. For example,
we are focusing on those who did not perform well at key stage 2
to see how the school is developing those youngsters so that there
is not a focus just on the C-D border but on the D-E and A-B borders.
We want another column for high achievers at key stage 2 and how
they are achieving in GCSEs at key stage 4.
Q168 Stephen Metcalfe:
The Chairman said that in Scotland the proportion studying sciences
to A-level is almost double. I think that 50% study one or more
science. That has a cost implication in that teaching science
is more expensive than teaching some other subjects because of
the resources and facilities required. Would the Government support
that increased participation?
Mr Gibb: The Scottish
system is slightly different in that the Higher has a broader
range of subjects, so, statistically, you will have more 17-year-olds
studying a science than a 17-year-old in Britain, who will specialise
in taking only three A-levels, generally speaking. Having said
that, we want to see the numbers taking chemistry and physics,
in particular, rising in future, and if that requires the school
to allocate more resources so be it.
Q169 Stephen Metcalfe:
But it is the infrastructure, the labs and that kind of thing,
that supports it. Do you think resources would be made available?
Mr Gibb: Capital
spending is a subject for another session. Schools will need to
prioritise the limited amount of capital that they have as a result
of the wider difficulties facing us.
Q170 Stephen Metcalfe:
But the Government would be supportive of that aim.
Mr Gibb: Yes. Secondary
schools should have good quality laboratories, fume cupboards,
technicians and all the chemicals and equipment they need to enable
them to conduct experiments and students to take part in them,
but how schools allocate their capital is a matter for the schools
and local authorities.
Q171 Stephen Metcalfe:
You touched on technicians. Some of the evidence we have heard
has highlighted the importance of technicians. SCORE told us that
it is essential technicians are supported in their work and accorded
the professional status they deserve. There should be substantial
investment in technicians' continuing professional development.
Is that something with which you agree?
Mr Gibb: Yes. I
think technicians are important. It is not the role of central
Government to employ technicians, but the science learning centres
that we are continuing to fund, quite generously given the overall
constraints on public spending, have courses for CPD for technicians,
and obviously we would support that.
Q172 Gavin Barwell:
The Department indicated to us in its evidence that, in reforming
GCSEs, it will look to assess the ability to undertake practical
experiments through formal examinations. What kind of assessments
do you have in mind?
Mr Gibb: We will
have to see what the curriculum review proposes. I think we will
have to await the outcome of that before we decide how that manifests
itself in terms of the GCSE specification and the assessment criteria.
That is all I can say on that at the moment.
Q173 Gavin Barwell:
Do you have any initial thoughts that you want to share with us?
I think most people agree with the principle. Certainly, a number
of people have expressed to us concerns about how easy it is to
cheat on some of the current assessments that are used, but a
lot of the evidence submitted to us is that it is not necessarily
an easy thing to do.
Mr Gibb: It is
not an easy thing to do but you can do it by asking a question
about the conduct of an experiment. If a student has not had exposure
to a considerable number of experiments, they may find such questions
very difficult. You do not have to assess it live through a practical
session, if you like; it could be a written exercise, with students
writing up about experiments they have seen and taken part in.
Q174 Gavin Barwell:
It might be paper-based.
Mr Gibb: It could
Q175 Gavin Barwell:
Does that apply just to GCSEs, or does the Department have a similar
view about other scientific qualifications?
Mr Gibb: In terms
of A-levels, we want to re-link their development to the universities
and the learned societies. Given their concern about these issues,
I am sure that is something in which they would also be interested
as they become more and more involved in the development of future
A-levels in science.
Q176 Pamela Nash:
During the last few weeks there seems to be a very broad consensus
that laboratory work, fieldwork and field trips all contribute
to encouraging students to take science subjects to a higher level.
I want to move on to how the Government can incentivise both teachers
and young people to take part in those trips and therefore take
on science subjects. There has been quite a lot of evidence from
students in an econsultation we have been holding that it
is definitely possible to enthuse and engage children by exposing
them to high-quality science through laboratory work and field
trips. Do you feel there is a place for the Government to provide
more central funding if they are really serious about encouraging
British schoolchildren to take up STEM subjects?
Mr Gibb: I am pleased
that this Committee is conducting this inquiry. Anything in this
building that can be effected to raise the profile of STEM subjects,
and indeed field trips and practical experiments in science labs,
is very welcome. But I do not think it is the direction of travel
of this Government to continue the approach of central prescription
and initiatives. That really was the approach of the last Administration
and we have tried to get away from that by putting more and more
funding that was held centrally to provide those initiatives and
get that money down to the school level so that the school can
decide how it wants to spend that money on its priorities. Having
said all that, my view is that field trips are essential, particularly
in subjects like geography and geology. I also think that practical
experiments in science are very important. We would want to encourage
it but not to do so through a plethora of central initiatives
and ring-fenced funding streams.
Q177 Pamela Nash:
If not funding, another idea that has come up is to produce a
system of accreditation: a course for teachers to take in fieldwork
and field trips. Is that something that the Government support?
Mr Gibb: Certainly,
but again not necessarily from the centre. Part of what we want
to do with teacher training and continuing professional development
is to encourage, albeit from the centre, if you like, teaching
schools to form clusters, relationships and alliances with other
schools in an area so they become the focus of the development
of teachers. That is an area where that kind of accreditation
and professional development can take place.
Q178 Pamela Nash:
There has been a foray into this from the Learning Outside the
Classroom manifesto which has developed a quality standards badge.
They told us that there was a much bigger uptake of the fieldwork
rather than the field trip aspect, which was separate, which led
us to think that teachers were less inclined to take pupils out
on field trips. We have seen evidence of that in the last few
weeks. Is there anything else the Government can do specifically
to encourage more fieldwork by school science departments?
Mr Gibb: Again,
the whole thrust of our direction is to trust professionals to
devolve these decisions down to the school level, encourage the
growth of teaching schools and to have these developments coming
from the bottom up rather than the top down. What we do want to
do, however, is remove any obstacles. If teachers are telling
us that health and safety rules and risk assessment hinder fieldwork
and field trips, we want to try to do what we can to remove them.
That was why, on Saturday, the Department launched a slimmed-down
guidance about health and safety so that we can return to common
sense and not have that as a hindrance to teachers in organising
trips around the country.
Q179 Chair: However
much you try to duck out of the responsibility of what happens
from the centre, I think you were here earlier when the official
from the HSE gave evidence. It is all very well to say that it
is the responsibility of schools and clusters of schools, but
what about at initial teacher training? Are there not responsibilities
that central Government have there? First, when are you going
to free up the curriculum for teacher training to ensure that
these important subjects are covered? The first part of the question
is much broader, but, secondly, given what has been said in the
media over the weekend specifically about health and safety and
schools, this cannot just be done on the initial training side;
there must be continuing professional development. Surely, central
Government must have a role in that.
Mr Gibb: Yes, but
not in the old-fashioned sense that we want an initiative that
we dream up, to which we give £20 million and launch in a
great fanfare. Education policy has to be cleverer than that.
If you look at what we are doing, you accuse us of trying to absolve
ourselves of any responsibility. No. We want a rigorous curriculum,
hence the national curriculum review. We want rigorous qualifications
and exams, and we are reviewing GCSEs and A-levels and how they
are configured. We are bringing A-levels back to the universities
and learned societies. That is where you will get the input in
terms of what children should be exposed to when they are studying
science. I do not believe you can really understand science unless
you have been on a field trip and chipped rock off a cliff or
put some sodium into a beaker of water and so on.
Q180 Chair: Do
you know how few kids do that these days? It is done behind a
Plexiglas screen as a demonstration.
Mr Gibb: Again,
how do you address that? Should we be passing a regulation to
say that every child should take part in that experiment rather
than just watch it from behind a screen? No.
Q181 Chair: But
from the centre you need to make sure that technicians and people
managing fieldwork and laboratory experiments are properly accredited.
Mr Gibb: Maybe.
For example, only 14% of science teachers have a degree in physics.
If we want to get teachers in our classrooms who are comfortable
with practical scientific experiments, the way to do that is to
have highly qualified, able teachers in the classroom. One of
the thrusts of our policy is to have a bursary scheme to encourage
the top graduates in the STEM sciences in particular to come into
teaching. That is the thrust of delivering what you want without
central prescription. In terms of ITT in particular, we are reviewing
the Qualified Teacher Status standards under Sally Coates. Again,
we are trying to simplify it and make it clearer and crisper,
but one of the standards will be that we want teachers to be well
qualified in their own subject areas. I think that is the way
you deliver that rather than say, "We are going to have a
special QTS for science teachers and one for geology teachers."
Of course, we want CPD; it is terribly important, but the best
CPD is provided from peer to peer and teacher to teacher so that
teachers can observe high-quality teaching taking place. That
is what the teaching schools, we hope, will deliver in due course.
Q182 Chair: The
point of that question, coming back to the health and safety issue,
was that clearly you cannot ensure that the necessary protections
are there unless there is continuing professional development.
Mr Gibb: Yes.
Q183 Chair: Although
you say you really want schools to determine that themselves,
at the same time you recognise that to achieve your objectives
you will have to have a certain amount of strong guidance from
Mr Gibb: Slimmed-down
guidance that is readable and usable is what we have produced.
Chair: But strong.
Mr Gibb: Helpful,
so that teachers know what the law is. When it comes to trips,
there is this myth about a 100-page risk assessment form that
teachers have to fill in. They do not have to fill in such things.
We are making it very clear precisely what teachers have to do
when they are arranging a field trip. They just have to go there
and check it out rather than fill in a 100page form. I am
not sure that health and safety is an issue in terms of the science
lab. Last year a survey by science learning centres showed that
health and safety in terms of doing experiments in the science
lab was a minority concern among teachers.
Q184 Chair: I
think time is the big issue.
Mr Gibb: Time is
a big factor.
Q185 Roger Williams:
The Chairman has covered a lot of the ground that I was going
to cover. The Department has said it wants to reform initial teacher
training and will talk to schools, students, universities and
other training providers. Do you think it would be a very good
idea to talk to other people in the science world, for example,
the Association for Science Education, SCORE and CLEAPSS? Surely,
those are critical people to be talking to as well as the education
Mr Gibb: All the
reviews we undertake are conducted openly and with wide consultation.
The same applies to the review of initial teacher training as
well as the review of the curriculum. So yes, you are right. You
could not possibly reform any of these institutions or issues
without consulting those that are delivering this on the ground.
Q186 Roger Williams:
And you are talking to them.
Mr Gibb: Yes, very
widely. For example, in the national curriculum review we had
a call for evidence and in three months we had nearly 6,000 responses,
which I think is a record in the Department for any consultation.
We are open and consulting widely in all our reviews.
Q187 Roger Williams:
You mentioned a number of quality systems, such as the science
learning centres and the peer-to-peer training process. I think
the point the Chairman is making is that these are very good systems,
but we have lots of evidence that teachers find it very hard to
find the time to attend these centres. How are really skilled
teachers going to find the time to train other teachers when they
do not have enough time for their own continuing professional
Mr Gibb: I have
heard many teachers say the same thing. On inset days, when there
is time to develop CPD, there tend to be courses run by an exam
body instructing them how to get their students from a D to a
C grade, which really is not the best use of CPD time. We have
said that we want our schools to become centres of academic excellence
in this country. That is what they should be, not exam factories.
That is why we have also introduced a scholarship where teachers
can bid for time off to engage in deeper subject knowledge. I
think that is very important. We want to change the culture in
schools so that head teachers regard it as important that teachers
enhance their subject knowledge by attending the excellent courses
at the science learning centres, among others.
Q188 Roger Williams:
Talking to a few teachers over the weekend, I got the impression
that right at the heart of this was a feeling that at individual
teacher level, even if a practical lesson or visit to the countryside
was planned well, and the risk assessment and supervision were
done well, a pupil could, through a particular action, get into
trouble and damage themselves. The feeling of those individual
teachers was that that perhaps put them at risk of a civil action
against them. They felt that they should not put themselves and
their families in that position. Could the Government table some
legislation that there is an inherent danger in certain activities,
and if pupils act inappropriately the teacher should not in any
way be put in danger of prosecution?
Mr Gibb: That is
right. Of course, the reality is that prosecutions are very rare.
Q189 Roger Williams:
But civil action is not, is it?
Mr Gibb: No. That
is what the guidance is designed to do. If schools are following
the guidance, which is now readable, because it is not eight pages
of waffle but very sensible precautionsI have it hereand
teachers adhere to it, they should be in a strong position to
defend any civil action.
Q190 Chair: How
many teachers will be able to apply for the scholarships you mentioned?
Mr Gibb: It depends
on how much is spent. It is £2 million a year. I think it
can go up to about £3,500 per teacher. I do not think it
is fixed at that, so it could be less. It depends on how much
is spent per teacher.
Q191 Gavin Barwell:
I want to develop the philosophical point about the balance between
giving the schools more autonomy and not requiring each individual
teacher to re-invent the wheel, essentially. From what you have
said, you will slim down the curriculum to give schools more freedom,
essentially more space, to decide exactly how they are going to
educate their pupils. If you take a science teacher who is looking
to organise field trips or practical work, without having lots
of central initiatives that you say you do not want, how do we
avoid a situation where there is a source of guidance they can
go to in terms of the best opportunities in their area, rather
than leaving each individual teacher to go out and find the relevant
resources off their own bat?
Mr Gibb: This is
what organisations like the science learning centres are about.
There are lots of organisations out there that schools can buy
into which have this expertise. That is what we want to see flourish
and not have all that initiative coming from just the Department.
I think that must be the right approach. People are professionals.
They will develop their own approach and, hopefully, spread best
practice through the teaching schools. Indeed, we will have on
the website examples of best practice in all kinds of areas.
Q192 Gavin Barwell:
Presumably, the teaching schools will have a responsibility for
driving best practice in terms of how to teach science.
Mr Gibb: Yes.
Q193 Gavin Barwell:
But in terms of opportunities of places to visit places for field
trips and things like that, that is a matter for the national
science learning centres.
Mr Gibb: Among
others. I really do not know what the alternative is other than
to say, "We think that on Thursday afternoon there should
be a visit to the British Museum." I do not think that is
the approach we want. We have to rely on professionals ultimately
to know where it is best to go on a field trip. Those who are
deeply immersed in their subject and attend seminars on their
subject will know the places to take their pupils.
Q194 Gavin Barwell:
I do not think anyone on the Committee will be looking to you
to prescribe what people should do in individual sessions. I think
it is more having a single resource which brings together all
the opportunities so that there is one place to which people can
go and look for those opportunities. Certainly, from the school
visit we made, that came up as an issue. Teachers thought there
was not a single place to which they could go to see all the opportunities
available. In relation to another inquiry, this Committee visited
CERN. They were desperate to engage with schools in the UK, both
at primary and secondary level, and were not really aware whether
the mechanism to do that was in terms of providing opportunities
for pupils to go out and visit or resources they could provide
for use in the classroom. I entirely understand your political
and philosophical point that you do not want the Department to
prescribe all of this, but it seems to me there may be a gap between
not having central prescription and making sure there is a vehicle
out there which brings together all these opportunities in the
Mr Gibb: I hear
what you say and I will take it away and think about it further.
As you say, it is not the direction of travel which we are headed
towards. It is a wonderful idea for youngsters, if the opportunity
arose, to visit CERN. It is also a good idea for them to have
a trip round the Queen Mary, which I have also seen. Just a few
weeks ago I saw a wonderful scheme at Imperial College called
the Reach Out Lab. It is fantastic. Students from primary and
secondary schools come in and see an experiment organised by Lord
Winston at Imperial College. There are all kinds of initiatives
like this. Once you start centrally suggesting that this or that
is a good idea, it crowds out the potential for innovation.
Q195 Gavin Barwell:
To ask the question in a slightly different way, do you think
the Government have a role in providing a forum where teachers
themselves can exchange thoughts about best practice? How should
teachers in different schools swap thoughts and ideas about things
they have done that have inspired their students to make sure
that best practice is spread across our school system?
Mr Gibb: Again,
that is what we want the teaching schools to do. That is the answer
to that question. To provide a better answer to your earlier question,
we also fund the Royal Institution to maintain a STEM directory.
That is a directory of various STEM enhancement and enrichment
opportunities open to people.
Q196 Gavin Barwell:
Does the Department fund that?
Mr Gibb: It funds
the Royal Institution to provide that.
Q197 Chair: Gavin
referred to our previous inquiry into particle physics and astronomy.
In that inquiry, students studying A-level physics were in front
of us sitting in the very seats that you are in now. It was an
enlightening session. I am not saying this is not. They talked
about the things that you would expect: that an inspiring teacher
makes a difference; obviously, support from parents makes a huge
difference. But access to things that excited them also came out.
One of the things we looked at in the case of astronomy was the
role of the National Schools Observatory. Have you had any discussions
yet with the STFC about that as a consequence of our report?
Mr Gibb: No, but
if you suggest I do then I will.
Q198 Chair: We
would very strongly encourage you to do so. You are quite right
to talk about some of the exciting places such as the Reach Out
Lab and so on, but clearly that is London-centric. There are facilities
like those up and down the country. The NSO is a facility available
online. The last figures I saw showed that a stunning number of
schools had registered on that. Our concern was that it would
disappear for want of a small sum of money, but we are not here
to argue that. When we look across the country, some of those
exciting places to which young people can go to experience science
hands-on are under huge pressure. I have had some detailed discussions
with David Willetts about that. I can see a very strong role for
Ministers getting together and working with the private sector
to try to enhance some of those and get serious support across
the country. Don't you agree with that?
Mr Gibb: Yes.
Q199 Chair: So
there are things the Government can do, you see.
Mr Gibb: Exhortation
and facilitation, absolutely; we are very keen to do that. We
are always talking to academics and universities, and encouraging
a Reach Out Lab-type approach is the right one. Again, it is a
bottom-up approach; it is about encouraging but not prescribing
or organising from the centre.
Q200 Chair: One
piece of evidence we had is: "We need more technicians in
industry and less Stephen Hawkings. Maybe it is no surprise
that the number of students attending HE science courses is declining
and the number of those achieving certain grades is falling."
Is that something the Government recognise?
Mr Gibb: I think
the thrust of your quotation is the need for more people with
those technical skills rather than pure ivory tower academics.
Chair: I guess that is
the thrust of it.
Mr Gibb: We need
both. We need to have top academics in our universities if we
are to maintain British universities in the international tables
where they are at the moment.
Q201 Chair: I
would totally agree that we need both, but do you think that the
current curriculum encourages the Stephen Hawkings at the expense
Mr Gibb: No. I
think we have problems right across the curriculum, which is why
we are reviewing it. There are problems in mathematics; we need
more youngsters to achieve higher levels of arithmetic and mathematics
at school level; we need more youngsters taking the three separate
sciences; we need them to be more knowledgeable in those three
separate sciences by the age of 16. We need more youngsters taking
A-levels. At every level I think we need to do better in this
country, which is why we are reviewing the national curriculum.
Q202 Chair: Of
all those possibilities, what do you see as the single most important
improvement that could be made to improve science education?
Mr Gibb: I think
we need to sort out maths, to be frank. I cannot remember which
academic it was who said to me the other day that what they want
for their physics undergraduates more than even physics A-level
is maths and further maths at A-level. I worry about the level
of arithmetic of youngsters leaving primary schools. We have to
get that right and have a real boost in further maths at A-level.
I think both of these things are important.
Chair: The Minister must
have looked at the inside of my family and recognised that we
have produced one higher level mathematician, so that is a good
point on which to finish. Thank you very much for attending this