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The last time that I spoke in your Lordships' House, I had the pleasure of introducing a short debate on social inclusion. One key conclusion of that debate was that access to high-quality education for allparticularly those who live in deprivation and, often, multiple deprivationsis a key driver for equality, and essential if we are to break the inter-generational cycle of poverty and promote social justice. I do not see that as social engineering, but as creating opportunity.
For that reason, I am proud of the Government's continuing commitment to improving educational opportunities in all communities. I believe that we are seeing real improvements, with performance in inner cities and in more deprived communities improving even faster than the national average. For example, in inner London over 50 per cent of children now achieve five or more good GCSEs, compared to one-third in 1997. That is extremely welcome and due, not least, to a huge effort on the part of teachers, particularly head teachers. I agree that leadership is hugely important in driving standards up; the efforts made there by head teachers are phenomenal.
However, there are still major challenges. We must see if that progress is to be just the beginning. There has been much debate about standards in English and mathematics, to which the noble Baroness already
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referred. I want to focus on developments in school science. I am particularly interested in that because I believe it is vital to equip our children with the skills and knowledge to understand the modern world, and to help them make decisions on things such as MMR or GM in an increasingly complex and confusing information age. It is also vital to our future prosperity as a nation. Promoting higher standards in school science is good for children, because we create greater opportunities for young people and it is vital to our economy if we are to compete globally and make the idea of a knowledge-based, value-added economy a reality.
For years, attainment in science has lagged behind maths and English; but, at last, science is starting to catch up, with 50 per cent of pupils now achieving good grades at GCSE. That is by no means enough, but we are seeing a very gradual trend in the right direction. Indeed, at key stage 3, prior to GCSE, the promising trend seems to bode well for further improvement, with 70 per cent of 14 year-olds now achieving what is expected of their age group, as opposed to 60 per cent in 1996, according to DfES figures.
At A-level, attainment is not such an issue. In fact, young people seem to be criticised all too often for doing too well. But the issue is how to encourage more young people to opt for science, particularly in chemistry and physics. As we all know, there is a significant gender issue here. I find it hugely disappointing, as someone who took a physics A-level a long time ago, that there are now only 5,000 girls taking physics at A-level. While the number, not the percentage, of young people going to university to study science is increasing, there are real concerns, as we have heard, about the supply of future scientists and engineersas well as teachers. This is a particular issue with regard to the physical sciences.
I was pleased that in 2002 my right honourable friend the Chancellor commissioned from Sir Gareth Roberts a review of the supply of people with science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills. His analysis has proved to be extremely valuable. He made a number of recommendations regarding the development of school science, and I am delighted that the Government and the teaching professions have responded so positively.
There are some very exciting things going on in school science that give me great cause for optimism. As Roberts recommended, the school science community has a strong commitment to changing the elitist image of science, tackling the assumption that science is too hard for normal kids and introducing a culture of creativity and innovation within the school laboratory. That has been a great success; some 269 schools cite science as their first specialty. They are working to drive up standards of teaching and attainment, as well as working with their feeder primary schools to rejuvenate primary school teaching by non-specialist teachers. The Wellcome Trust has suggested that half of primary teachers do not have the confidence in their understanding of science to teach the subject effectively, so we can see why that work is so important.
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An exciting new curriculum for 14 to 16-year olds is due to be rolled out in September to promote the understanding of how science works, with acquisition of skills as a priority and less focus on old-fashioned rote learning, which is too often prevalent in the traditional curriculum. I can tell you that I know about that, because I can remember having to draw those boring diagrams of the heart or the eye, with never a question of how that knowledge could be applied or be useful. The new curriculum is ambitious in aiming to engage the majority of students and robust enough for those who want to become scientists. This should result in the offer of triple science in every schoolwhich is essential. I would be very interested to hear the Minister's view on that.
Perhaps the most important development is new investment in the teaching workforce in terms of recruitment and development, and ongoing professional development. More young science graduates are entering teacher training, helped by new, quite significant, bursaries. More people are entering the teaching profession later on, helped by "golden hellos". But there are still too many vacancies in science teaching posts. We need to continue in this direction and not give up promoting the recruitment and retention of more science teachers.
Possibly more important in achieving a sustainable impact is the resource being made available for continuing professional development, which is vital. Roberts articulated what we all know to be true: science lessons can seem irrelevant to today's children, and switch them off. It is obvious; it is not rocket sciencealthough rocket science does crop up in key stage 3 science.
Professional development has huge potential to enrich the experience of science for children and their teachers. That is why I was delighted to see that the Wellcome Trust is, in partnership with the Department for Education and Skills, funding a £51 million initiative to create a network of professional development centres for science educators. The national network of science learning centres offers high-quality professional development for all those involved in science education, including secondary science teachers, techniciansvitaland citizenship and primary teachers, who are, as we have already heard, extremely important. The network enables those working in science education to access cutting-edge technology and leading scientific research. What is going on in stem cell research? Children may well ask that, and teachers need to be able to try out their answers in a safe environment. It aims to support teachers in delivering intellectually stimulating and relevant science education, and to help them to stay in touch with developments in science.
This is truly exciting stuff. It offers courses such as "Science After Dark", for teachers running after-school clubs to coincide with Guy Fawkes night. Another is "Bang goes the National Curriculum", for chemistry teachers who want to pep up their teaching skills. I can remember the enormous sadness and frustration my mother felt as a science teacher in inner London when the Inner London Education Authority
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was abolished, and at the subsequent disappearance of professional development facilities so valued by the classroom teachers. I am delighted that, once again, professional development for science teachers is being put centre-stage by the Government.
There is still much to do. For example, perhaps the Minister can update the House on what steps have been taken to develop specialist careers advice to end the misconception among many young people that studying science closes off options, rather than creating opportunities. We know that the vast majority of careers advisers have very little experience of science and science careers.
On the school environment, can the Minister share with us the Government's reaction to the Royal Society of Chemistry's survey in 2004, which showed that, of the 26,000-odd science laboratories in maintained schools, only 35 per cent were graded good or excellent, but 25 per cent were considered unsafe or unsatisfactory for the teaching of science? We must be clear that the science environment is key. Obviously, the Government have made a huge investment in school facilities. I know that there are some very impressive laboratories, particularly in science specialist schools. We need to know how that can go further.
We know from our own experience that we live in an increasingly scientific age, surrounded by technology driven by science. Even in your Lordships' House, we are to be given BlackBerrys, and there will not even be any children here to show us how to use them. Quite apart from the economic imperative, we need our young children to have a basic understanding of science just to cope with the modern world and, more importantly, to be able to participate, debate and to make sensible decisions about, say, global warming, genetic research and manipulation, vaccination and the future of energy. Good, basic science education is essential if our children are to be active participants in the future, rather than spectators.
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