Practical experiments in school science lessons and science field trips - Science and Technology Committee Contents

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 motivates children.

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 level.

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 be.

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 the centre.

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 system itself.

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 development?

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 precautions—I have it here—and 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 same place.

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 of technicians?

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 afternoon.

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