Select Committee on Science and Technology Tenth Report

CHAPTER 3: Teaching Methods

3.1.  Good teaching is key to persuading students to continue studying science and mathematics to GCSE, A-level and beyond, as discussed in Chapter 2. It is also of central importance in ensuring that those students who choose not to continue in these fields have a sufficient grasp of science and mathematics to enable them to prosper in their future lives.

3.2.  In this chapter we consider the ways in which science and mathematics are taught, encompassing both content and the ways in which that content is imparted. This includes specification content, the effects of testing, the involvement of industry, the use of external resources and the role of practical work in school science.

The evidence base

3.3.  First, though, it is necessary to consider the ways in which science teaching in schools is monitored. Both the Government and the array of other organisations working towards excellence in science teaching need good data if they are to monitor the impact of new initiatives and to maximise the spread of best practice.

3.4.  The collection of data on teaching quality in schools is the responsibility of the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted). Ofsted has recently introduced a new system of shorter inspections, lasting two days. Miriam Rosen, Ofsted's Director of Education, explained that these new "Section 5" inspections—unlike the previous ones—"do not include inspection of subjects of the curriculum". Instead, there would be separate subject inspections of "a sample of 30 secondary schools and 30 primary schools" each year. This sample was "not statistically significant" but contained "a range of schools in terms of the socio-economic context, school size, type and geographical location". The subject inspections would "allow strengths and weaknesses and emerging issues to be identified and matters of particular interest to be followed up". The first report into science would be published in 2007-08 (Q 68).

3.5.  We encountered serious concerns about the adequacy of the new inspection regime for collecting reliable data on the teaching of science. Dr Derek Bell, Chief Executive of the Association for Science Education (ASE), told us that "if you are only going into 20 schools a year, it is not giving you a good evidence base", so a major source of data "is going to be lost" (Q 201). He continued, "if you only have a handful of schools you need to extrapolate that. It just becomes almost meaningless. It is like me quoting an example of my own children at school. You cannot translate that to what is going on all over the country" (Q 203). Dr Bell noted that "we have lots of changes coming in at the moment" and asked, "how are we going to monitor the impact and effects of those changes if we do not have any way of monitoring [them]?" (Q 201).

3.6.  These concerns were echoed by the Royal Society of Chemistry: "we have serious concerns that the new regime for subject inspections, which is admitted by Ofsted itself to be not statistically significant, will mean that important conclusions from the previous rich bank of data will be unable to be made" (p 79).

3.7.  We do not believe that Ofsted's new regime for the inspection of individual subjects, based on a small and statistically insignificant sample of schools, will provide sufficiently reliable data on science teaching. We recommend that Ofsted revisit the new subject-specific inspection regime with a view to devising a system which draws evidence from a substantially larger number of schools. We further recommend that subject-specific inspections be carried out by specialists in the subject concerned.

Specification content

3.8.  In this inquiry we have deliberately not looked in detail at the science curriculum. However, no matter how high the quality of teaching, it is difficult to engage students effectively unless the specifications too are inspiring. The dangers of uninspiring specifications were plain to see when we spoke to a selection of students at Huntington School, York, all of whom had displayed ability in the sciences. They felt that the sciences did not seem relevant, particularly chemistry; there was too much learning of facts and not enough about the processes and applications of science. There was a consensus that science would be more attractive if it could show itself to be relevant to current issues.

3.9.  The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) recognised this point in its evidence: "the science curriculum must be relevant to the young people who are learning so that they can make sense of it and relate it to their existing knowledge and worldview ... Equipping them effectively with skills and understanding will take them beyond mere accumulation of knowledge, which so easily becomes out-of-date, towards becoming lifelong learners able to adapt to the rapidly changing technological world they will live and work in" (p 192). We strongly endorse this approach.

3.10.  In line with these priorities, the QCA set out to revise the national curriculum programme of study for science at Key Stage 4 and the GCSE science subject criteria. The Government told us that the new programme of study "maintains the breadth, depth and challenge of the current curriculum, but has a better balance between knowledge and understanding than the existing curriculum" (p 15).[17] The awarding bodies accordingly developed new GCSE science specifications which have been taught since September 2006. Although the majority of students—especially those at state schools—will continue to take double award science, the Government have pledged that "from 2008 … all pupils achieving at least level 6 at Key Stage 3 [will be entitled] to study three separate science GCSEs".[18] If this welcome pledge is to be met, our recommendations on teacher recruitment and retention in Chapter 4 must be heeded.

3.11.  The Nuffield Foundation, which jointly developed and piloted the Twenty First Century Science suite of courses with the University of York, claimed that the courses would "address some of the problems that lead to young people's disillusionment with school science: an overemphasis on factual recall, a lack of intellectual coherence across existing courses and a lack of relevance to the real world of science and technology that students encounter outside the classroom". It was hoped that the new courses would thus help to "enthuse young people and encourage more of them to study science post-16" (p 184).

3.12.  The OCR, the awarding body which offers the Twenty First Century Science courses, explained that the introduction of the "How Science Works" section into the QCA Science Criteria "underpins" the changes—"it is intended to make courses relevant to students by showing how scientists work and how the implications and applications of science impact on our lives" (p 187). Ofsted elaborated, noting that "How Science Works" is not confined to carrying out practical science but "involves pupils developing the skills of scientific inquiry, and, through analysis of evidence, arriving at a new understanding of the world around them" (p 39).

3.13.  The majority of witnesses broadly welcomed the new GCSE courses, particularly the learned societies (see Q 133). This enthusiasm was strongly echoed by the science teachers with whom we spoke at Little Heath School, a science and mathematics specialist school in Reading. There was general agreement at our seminar that the Twenty First Century Science courses would make school science more exciting and relevant to students without "dumbing down" the content. Dr Derek Bell, when asked if the new courses could be more interesting without reducing the amount of real science studied, replied: "The answer is yes, very unequivocally, providing we stick to the rigour and I think the majority of teachers will do that" (Q 214).

3.14.  The new GCSE specifications were also welcomed by Research Councils UK, which felt that they would be beneficial for teachers as well as students, going "some way to enabling teachers to take ownership of their subject". The previous specifications had been too detailed, "leading to science teachers feeling too often that they were a de-professionalised cadre of content deliverers", whereas "the new specifications will free teachers to some extent, enabling them to use their professional expertise to develop engaging activities for their students" (p 198).

3.15.  However, the ASE regretted that the new GCSEs had been introduced "before all the findings of the [Twenty First Century Science] pilot are known" (p 100), a point confirmed by the Nuffield Foundation (p 184). Moreover, whilst Jules Hoult, Head of Physics at Uppingham School, welcomed the Twenty First Century Science courses—which have now been revised—he felt that the other, unpiloted courses "still have all their errors, uncertainties and unfortunate teaching orders" and noted that there was insufficient time to rectify the problems. He concluded: "Some schools are already reporting problems getting to grips with vague syllabus statements that give no indication of what level is required for examination and teachers entering the profession must be finding this very intimidating" (p 152).

3.16.  We welcome the new science GCSE courses, although it is essential that teachers should maintain the necessary rigour in their teaching and ensure that the "hard" science is retained. However, it is unfortunate that the Government opted to roll out the new courses before the results of the Twenty First Century Science pilot could be fully evaluated, and before the other, unpiloted courses had been sufficiently scrutinised. We recommend that, in future, the Government should allow more time between piloting new courses and rolling them out across the country. In addition, the Government must keep a very close eye on how the unpiloted courses are bedding down, providing appropriate support where necessary.

3.17.  The QCA is also currently reviewing the Key Stage 3 programme of study in order to align it with the new GCSEs and to give schools "greater flexibility to design a curriculum tailored to their own particular needs and circumstances". Similarly, the specifications for science A-levels are being reviewed "to reduce the assessment burden, reflect subject developments, and provide better progression from the new Key Stage 4 [GCSE] programme of study". The new courses will be taught from 2008 (p 196).

3.18.  In principle we welcome these changes. However, Daniel Sandford Smith of the Institute of Physics was concerned by the proposed timetable. He noted that the burden of teaching new A-levels from 2008 will mean that "teachers will need to get the GCSEs right in two years [which] means they are not going to have a chance to revisit what they have done and find more creative ways of teaching the second or third time round". In other words, science teachers will have barely adjusted to the new GCSEs before having to repeat the whole process with the new A-levels. Mr Sandford Smith felt that the whole programme of change was in danger of being "ineffectively rushed through" (Q 129). A further problem is that there are no plans to pilot any of the new A-level courses.

3.19.  We welcome the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's (QCA) plans to align the Key Stage 3 programme of study and the science A-levels with the new GCSEs. However, the introduction of the new A-levels in particular must not be rushed. We recommend that the Government review the proposed timetable for introducing the new A-levels, so as to ensure that there is sufficient time for the new GCSEs to bed down and for teachers to adjust before national roll-out. Furthermore, we call on the Government to ensure that some piloting takes place before the new courses are introduced.

3.20.  Finally, we draw attention to the new specialised diploma in engineering, due to be introduced in 2008. It is one of 14 proposed diplomas being devised in consultation with the Sector Skills Councils with the aim of providing students with "real world" knowledge and skills—through work experience—whilst they are learning. The diplomas will have different levels of difficulty and are aimed at students of all abilities. The highest level of diploma will be accepted by colleges and universities. Whilst we look forward to seeing how this initiative progresses, we are seriously concerned that the diplomas may produce a binary divide within the education system, pigeonholing some lower ability students into a particular career path at too young an age.

Enriching science teaching

3.21.  To enhance the learning experience, science and mathematics teachers should aim to make full use of the resources available to enrich their teaching and inspire their students. In the words of the Science Learning Centres: "students enjoy variety, and for effective learning, a range of teaching methods is needed, including group discussion, computer assisted learning, and science outside the classroom" (p 176). In this section we focus on the role that can be played by IT facilities, museums and ambassadors from industry or academia.

3.22.  The use of IT facilities can greatly enhance students' enjoyment of science classes; as Ian Richardson of Ofsted told us, "there are some very dramatic examples where students' engagement and enjoyment has lifted because of judicious and skilful use of ICT interactive whiteboards and a range of other ICT applications and devices" (Q 91). However, the National Advisers and Inspectors Group for Science (NAIGS) warned us that "in NAIGS surveys, most schools have reported insufficient access to ICT equipment, particularly within the science departments (as opposed to school ICT suites)". Nonetheless, they noted, "the use of laptops, data projectors and interactive whiteboards in science is increasing" (p 162).

3.23.  During our visit to Little Heath School we saw the enormous impact of ICT equipment, allowing the teacher to guide students through biology research on the internet. This interactive approach to use of the internet clearly enhances student engagement, particularly when exciting websites are used. For example, the Planet Science website (provided by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, NESTA) is, in the words of NESTA, "packed full of resources to inform, inspire and stimulate science learning" (p 167). Similarly, the Bradford Robotic Telescope allows students to access images of space whilst learning about the basics of astronomy (see pp 133-135).

3.24.  Museums can also be an invaluable resource, inspiring students and revealing links between science and the real world. We were delighted to receive submissions from organisations as diverse as the Royal Armouries, the Natural History Museum, the National Maritime Museum, the Science Museum and the Stoke-on-Trent Museums Service. The Real World Science Project, a Government-funded partnership, uses museums' collections, galleries, curators, scientists and educators to deliver a learning programme for secondary science students. According to the partnership, 40 per cent of visiting students "felt that their feelings towards science had changed positively as a result of their museum visit", and 13 per cent responded that they "had been inspired to continue studying science" (p 225). Such initiatives are welcome, but teachers must also play a full role in ensuring visits are followed up in the classroom and embedded in learning.

3.25.  The network of over 80 interactive, hands-on science and discovery centres across the United Kingdom also makes a great contribution to engaging young people in science. For example, the INTECH Science Centre near Winchester houses over 100 exhibits "which communicate the fundamental principles of science and technology and their applications in industry and the home", and offers workshops covering many areas of relevance to the curriculum.[19] We strongly endorse the use of such facilities by schools and families alike.

3.26.  Amongst the most valuable external resources for science teaching are industry and academia, whose representatives can enhance science lessons and act as role models for students still considering what career path to follow. Crucially, as the Science Learning Centres noted, these links can "keep teachers in touch with the front line of scientific research and the applications of science in industry, helping them find ways to bring interesting and relevant contexts into their teaching" (p 178). There are a number of valuable schemes in this area such as Research Councils UK's Researchers in Residence scheme and the Royal Society's Partnership Grants scheme, which help bring scientists and engineers into the classroom to help with teaching.

3.27.  Another key initiative is the Science and Engineering Ambassadors Programme, funded by the Government, which currently sends 12,000 volunteers involved in STEM to schools across the United Kingdom. SETNET commented that these volunteers can "act as role models, provide exciting and novel demonstration or project ideas to teachers, and offer assistance with and access to valuable curriculum enrichment activities" (p 216). Feedback on the Ambassadors programme has been positive, and we welcome the Government's aim to expand the scheme so that "by 2007-08 the total number of ambassadors will be 18,000, an increase of 50 per cent" (p 14).

3.28.  However, there was some concern from the Biosciences Federation that academics and university students wanting to lend their expertise to schools are "at best unrewarded and at worst actively discouraged" because "it is not recognised as a 'worthwhile' activity within the RAE [Research Assessment Exercise] framework" (Q 108, p 66). Indeed, whilst some external activities are recognised by the RAE as "indicators of esteem", outreach work in schools is not generally acknowledged at all. A connected problem is that the universities themselves often do not look favourably upon such activities.

3.29.  The severity of this problem was highlighted by a recent Royal Society survey of almost 1,500 research scientists: "according to the scientists ... the pressure to publish research, attract funding to their departments and build careers on 'hard research' means public engagement work, such as ... outreach activities with schools, is not a priority". Moreover, "45 per cent of respondents said that they would like to spend more time engaging with the non-specialist public about science".[20] The challenge is to build an understanding amongst scientists, engineers, academic institutions and funding councils that public service such as outreach work in schools is of great value in itself, and should also be acknowledged and included in RAE submissions.

3.30.  Whilst we welcome the existing schemes that bring scientists and engineers into the classroom, particularly the Science and Engineering Ambassadors Programme, we are concerned that academics and university students receive little recognition for helping to inspire the next generation of scientists in schools. We recommend that the Government work with the funding councils to ensure that outreach work in schools is properly valued as part of the RAE, and to encourage higher education institutions to provide details of any such work in their submissions.

3.31.  It is also highly beneficial for students to spend time in the workplace, laboratory or field. It not only gives them experience of the attractions of a STEM career, but helps them demonstrate their commitment to both universities and potential employers. The Royal Academy of Engineering's Best Programme undertakes very valuable work in this area, for example through the Engineering Education Scheme and the Headstart Programme. Similarly, the Nuffield Science Bursary Scheme helps students to work alongside practising scientists on a project, and GlaxoSmithKline provides Year 11 and Year 12 students with the opportunity to work with scientists in the company's laboratories. Such opportunities should be promoted energetically by teachers.

3.32.  However, the range of enrichment activities outlined above creates its own difficulty: how to promote them to teachers and students in a co-ordinated and comprehensible manner. There is some evidence that the vast array of different schemes offered by a range of different organisations, and the large selection of websites, museums and other resources, are overwhelming for potential users. As the Society for General Microbiology opined, "the multiplicity of schemes is confusing and some streamlining would be helpful" (p 218). This issue was recognised in the Government's STEM mapping review, published in August 2004, which recommended that "coherence and co-ordination are brought to these programmes/initiatives".[21] The Government have subsequently developed an ongoing cross-cutting programme in STEM.

3.33.  Substantial action is already underway. In response to a recommendation in Sir Gareth Roberts' review, SET for success, a Regional STEM Support Centre is being developed in each of the nine English regions in order "to establish a single recognised channel through which schools can access schemes aimed at enthusing and educating pupils in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics".[22] This initiative is being undertaken by SETNET (which will provide the director of each STEM Support Centre) with partners including the Regional Development Agencies and the Science Learning Centres (each of which will provide an ex-officio member to the local STEM Support Centre).

3.34.  Whilst the functions of the new STEM Support Centres appear to overlap significantly with SETNET's existing regional SETPOINTS, this initiative is welcome. The key challenge will be to ensure that all schools and teachers are made aware of the STEM Support Centres and that they provide sufficiently user-friendly and up-to-date information to encourage ongoing use, particularly by those schools which have traditionally failed to become involved in enrichment activities. In addition, whilst the Science Learning Centres told us that the STEM support Centres would employ "a common STEM support portal" (p 177), it is important that each region has its own section, detailing national schemes as well as those only available locally.

3.35.  We welcome the formation of the Regional STEM Support Centres as a means to provide a single, simple source of information on STEM enrichment opportunities. However, the web portal must be comprehensive and accessible. We therefore recommend that there be separate sections for each region, so that the content is tailored to the audience, and teachers and students are thus able to obtain information with the minimum time and effort.

The impact of testing

3.36.  Testing plays an increasingly large role in school life, with students facing compulsory tests at the ages of seven, 11 and 14. As the Science Learning Centres stated, "testing dominates the teaching of science at the upper end of primary schools and in secondary schools at all levels" (p 175). It is therefore necessary to consider the nature of this testing and the impact that it has upon the teaching of science and mathematics.

3.37.  Although the teachers at Little Heath School felt that testing helped to focus the minds of both students and teachers, there was widespread agreement amongst witnesses that the current nature and level of testing was having a deleterious effect upon science and mathematics teaching. In particular, there was concern that the testing regime was resulting in a culture of "teaching to the test", whereby the nature of the tests and the pressure for their students to score well pushes teachers into narrow and uninspiring methods of teaching.

3.38.  The Mathematical Association was particularly concerned about this problem, commenting, "many teachers feel seriously constrained by a system that is increasingly ... dominated by the assessment and accountability system, which encourages a narrow 'teaching to the test' which focuses exclusively on rehearsing skills and solving standard problems". This form of teaching "compromises the enthusiasm of both teachers and students, fails to develop students' ability to think independently and detracts from their enjoyment of mathematics" (p 158). The Association concluded that "a radical shift away from the current dominance of tests, examinations, targets and league tables is essential if standards in mathematics are to be improved" (p 157).

3.39.  The ASE agreed that "teaching to the test leads to a narrowing of not only teaching approaches and activities but also to the quality of knowledge and understanding gained by pupils and their engagement with the subject" (p 94). One symptom of such teaching, in the opinion of the Science Learning Centres, was that teachers had less time to provide students with enjoyable and inspiring activities such as practical work, discussion of ideas and visits outside the classroom (p 176).

3.40.  The impact of this was highlighted by the National Advisers and Inspectors Group for Science (NAIGS), which commented that "research has identified a deterioration in attitudes to science during KS3, and we believe this is ... partly a result of preparation for tests" (p 161). This suggests that uninspiring "teaching to the test" can give students a bad impression of science and mathematics in the years leading up to GCSE and A-level—the very time when it is so important to convince students that the subjects are relevant and exciting.

3.41.  Thus the pressure for teachers and students to perform well in tests can in itself contribute to uninspiring teaching. In addition, the Science Learning Centres criticised the nature of the tests themselves, because they "assess a narrow range of skills" and are dominated by factual recall, which in turn adversely impacts upon the way in which teachers prepare their students (p 175). A similar point was made in a recent report by the Teaching and Learning Research Programme, which reported that the tests failed "to assess the full range of skills and competencies that should be the goals of science education".[23] If the tests were broader and less dominated by factual recall, allowing more flexibility in teaching and requiring a wider range of skills, it could be that "teaching to the test" would not necessarily be the problem that it is at the moment.

3.42.  We are seriously concerned about the impact that the national testing regime is having upon the teaching of science and mathematics. We call on the Government to ascertain as a matter of urgency how the tests can be altered so as to assess a much broader range of skills, thus allowing the teacher greater flexibility in inspiring students in the classroom.

The role of the practical

3.43.  Practical work—both in the classroom and outdoors—is an absolutely essential component of effective science teaching. As the Consortium of Local Education Authorities for the Provision of Science Services (CLEAPSS) noted, "appropriate practical work enhances pupils' experience, understanding, skills and enjoyment of science" (p 109). Moreover, NESTA commented that practical work "allows science education to become something that learners participate in, rather than something they are subject to" (p 165) and, in the words of the QCA, supports "aspirations towards further study and science-related work" (p 195).


3.44.  Some witnesses felt that the volume and variety of practical work in schools had lessened over time. A key cause of this was the focus on "teaching to the test", which squeezed out some types of practical work. As CLEAPSS pointed out, "teachers are being required to achieve better examination results and one response to this has been to focus more on 'book learning' which is more easily managed and assessed" than practical work. Moreover, teachers had "insufficient opportunity ... to learn about, and practise, activities before lessons" (p 110). Similarly, the Science Learning Centres noted, "many teachers complain that, with pressure to get through the syllabus, they cannot find room for much practical work" (p 176). A NESTA survey had reinforced these impressions, with "a lack of time" being cited by 64 per cent of teachers—more than any other issue—as a barrier to practical work (p 165).

3.45.  Even when teachers can find time for practical work, there is concern about the lack of variety, particularly at GCSE level. CLEAPSS suggested that "a desire to ensure that ... investigations can be both rigorously assessed and enable candidates to do their best has meant that schools choose only those known to work well and conform to certain specifications". This had led to "perhaps as few as 10 different investigations forming the bulk of science GCSE coursework throughout the country" (p 112).

3.46.  This point was echoed by the Science Learning Centres: "the national tests at ages 14 and 16 require teachers to assess practical skills, but the highly specific criteria against which this assessment takes place tends to lead to a formulaic approach more akin to jumping through hoops than carrying out true scientific enquiry" (pp 176-177). Whilst it is to be hoped that the new GCSEs will improve the situation, these issues again emphasise the need to modify the assessment regime, allowing space for genuinely open-ended practical work.

3.47.  The problems facing practical science are particularly serious in the case of fieldwork. The Field Studies Council warned that "fieldwork provision in science and biology is declining in British secondary schools. A minority of 11-16 students will now venture outside the classroom and even in A-level biology nearly half the students will do no fieldwork, or will only have a half-day experience near to their schools". This decline was spreading to universities and "appears to be leading to a shortfall in people with the practical skills needed to support biodiversity and teaching related careers and activities" (p 150). The British Ecological Society concurred, warning that "urgent changes are needed to policies and the level of resources available to enable students to have meaningful fieldwork experiences" (p 137).


3.48.  Another threat to practical science comes from the attitude of teachers themselves. As CLEAPSS commented, "a lack of experience, expertise and training are some of the factors which have led to teachers making less use than before of practical work, both demonstrations and class practicals" (p 109). The Science Learning Centres agreed: "many teachers ... lack the experience and confidence to carry out the kind of practical work that can stimulate and inspire" (p 177).

3.49.  The provision of information on practical work for teachers is improving. CLEAPSS already provides advice to members through a telephone helpline, whilst the Nuffield Foundation together with the Institute of Physics has developed a "Practical Physics" website with details of over 400 experiments. Moreover, the Foundation and the Royal Society of Chemistry are intending to launch a similar site for chemistry later in the year. However, whilst these sources of information are welcome, the most effective help for teachers comes in the form of initial teacher training and continuing professional development (CPD). We discuss CPD in depth in Chapter 6, but at this point we note with concern that science teachers' uptake of CLEAPSS practical science courses has fallen very significantly over the last 10 years—although the uptake of such courses by science technicians has risen (p 109).

3.50.  Even if teachers do feel sufficiently confident to undertake exciting practicals, some appear to be held back by health and safety concerns. Indeed, such is the concern of the scientific community on this matter that the Royal Society of Chemistry commissioned CLEAPSS to carry out a major study entitled Surely that's banned, which surveyed the attitudes of schools and local education authorities towards practical work. The report concluded that "there are significant misunderstandings on the part of teachers and technicians about the chemicals and scientific activities which are banned in secondary schools and some teaching is inhibited by unjustified concerns about health and safety".[24]

3.51.  This problem was emphasised by NESTA, whose survey showed that 87 per cent of science teachers had "at least once prevented their students from undertaking practical work because they believed current health and safety regulations prohibit them from doing so" (p 163). Tom Dawson, a teacher of physics A-level, noted that "conducting class experiments has become a huge burden. Health and safety is burdensome where confidence among teachers is lacking; indeed, H&S has become an industry in its own right, stifling excitement" (p 145). Dr Colin Osborne of the Royal Society of Chemistry elaborated further: "people are very worried about health and safety issues and they become ill-informed because there is ... a perception that you cannot do things and chinese whispers takes place so that people think certain experiments are banned" (Q 139). Phil Bunyan of CLEAPSS echoed this, referring to a "very real fear of litigation" and pointing out that "the power of myth and rumour ... is very hard to contradict" (Q 231).

3.52.  In reality, CLEAPSS told us, "health and safety concerns are a real constraint in only a tiny number of practical activities, and, even for these, CLEAPSS offers advice on suitable alternative chemicals, equipment or procedures" (p 111). The key challenge is to convey this message to teachers, ensuring that they have ready access to clear and comprehensive information on any practical work which they may wish to undertake. The Society for General Microbiology stated that "clearer guidance should be made available on safety issues as it is SGM's experience that teachers ... do not know where to find authoritative advice" (p 218). Dr Osborne agreed that there was a need for "more publicity for teachers to tell them where to find information", whilst Dr Sue Assinder of the Bioscience Federation called for "exemplar practicals that have been risk assessed that are not things followed step-by-step but are open-ended so that teachers can inspire the students" (Q 143).

3.53.  A related issue is teacher concern about undertaking practical work in classes with an excessive number of students or with poorly-behaved individuals. The National Union of Teachers called for consideration to be given to "a nationally agreed and enforced upper class size limit for practical science lessons" (p 83). Whilst this is an admirable aim, it is difficult to see how a class size limit could be imposed on practical science lessons without imposing the same limit on all science lessons, because it would not be possible to exclude some of the class when practical work is being undertaken. Clearly, lower class sizes are desirable for all subjects, including science and mathematics, but there are enormous cost implications. In the absence of an increase in resources overall, it must remain the responsibility of the head teacher to muster his or her resources in the most effective way for the school as a whole. For example, higher level teaching assistants can potentially play an important role in helping teachers to maintain discipline in the classroom.


3.54.  An issue repeatedly blamed by witnesses for impairing the effective teaching of practical science was the condition of school laboratories. In 2004, the Royal Society of Chemistry commissioned CLEAPSS to research this issue. The results of the survey are set out in Table 2:


Results of a survey of lab condition (taken from Laboratories, Resources and Budgets)
Description of lab condition Number in sample % in sample Number estimated for all maintained schools in England
Basic (uninspiring)




3.55.  As the Royal Society of Chemistry commented, these results make "unsettling reading", with an astonishingly high total of 66 per cent of school laboratories rated as basic (uninspiring) or unsafe/unsatisfactory. There was also an insufficient number of laboratories, with teachers reporting that "on average, one additional laboratory per school is required to allow all science lessons to be taught in a laboratory. This equates to an under-provision of at least 3,518 laboratories" (pp 48-49). Finally, only 36 per cent of preparation areas were described as good or excellent, with 21 per cent described as poor (p 112). The impressions presented by this study were backed up by anecdotal evidence. For example, Francisco DaCosta, Head of Physics at Blake Valley, Staffordshire, was disillusioned by "the conditions of the ancient laboratories and the even more dated scientific apparatus" (p 143).

3.56.  Ofsted agreed that "in too many schools ... accommodation remains less than satisfactory" and noted that such accommodation "hinders teaching and learning". Indeed, "inspection data show a clear positive correlation between the quality of accommodation and the quality of teaching". In consequence, there was "a clear need for improved standards of accommodation" (p 40).

3.57.  The funding implications of improving laboratory provision are significant: the Royal Society of Chemistry found that "if all issues are addressed at once, the total finance needed is estimated to be in the region of a staggering £1.38 billion. This represents the total cost to upgrade to a good standard only" (p 49). The Schools Minister, Jim Knight MP, when asked about this issue, pointed to the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme which aims "to replace or refurbish all secondary schools by 2020". In total, he added, capital spend on schools had increased ten-fold over ten years (QQ 57, 58).

3.58.  Although the funding increases are impressive, the National Union of Teachers insisted that "funding needs to be specifically earmarked ... to improve the quality of science laboratories" (p 82). Otherwise, there is a risk that head teachers will shift funding away from science and towards more popular subjects. This can create a "vicious circle" whereby money is moved away from science laboratories, which then deteriorate and act as a deterrent to prospective science students, thus resulting in even fewer students taking science and a greater reluctance to spend money on science laboratories.

3.59.  Moreover, there was consternation from both the ASE and the Campaign for Science and Engineering in the United Kingdom (CaSE) that the extra £200 million—or £75,000 per school—of additional funding for school science laboratories pledged by the Government (on top of the BSF programme) in the run-up to the 2005 General Election had not been delivered (pp 101, 141). The Government's failure to meet this pledge, which had been reaffirmed by the Prime Minister, was confirmed in a letter to John Dunford, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).[25]

3.60.  Money in itself is not sufficient to improve the quality of school laboratories: the money must be spent wisely and appropriately. During our visit to Little Heath School we saw how a number of laboratories had been quickly and effectively upgraded for £30,000, which had in turn increased the teachers' ability to offer innovative and exciting practical work. However, CLEAPSS was concerned that in general "the quality and effectiveness of recently rebuilt or refurbished school science laboratories is too often below an acceptable standard" (p 124).

3.61.  The data in a draft report being prepared by CLEAPSS for the Royal Society of Chemistry, with support from the Royal Society, reveal that 28 per cent of science departments "thought the quality of their new or newly refurbished labs was unsatisfactory or poor" and that, astonishingly, 33 per cent of science staff "had little or no involvement with the design or refurbishment". CLEAPSS felt, therefore, that "more care is needed by all concerned when planning, commissioning and designing new or refurbished science laboratories if they are to be fit for purpose and sufficiently durable" (p 124).

3.62.  Addressing this issue, Schools Minister Jim Knight referred us to the "School Labs of the Future" programme, which aimed to bring together designers, experts in science teaching and schools to develop exemplar designs for laboratories that could be used as part of the BSF programme to create "inspirational learning environments" (Q 58).

3.63.  In response, however, Phil Bunyan of CLEAPSS said, "I know the Government has a project to build exemplarily but we have seen some of the specifications of science labs and frankly they are woefully inadequate" (Q 236). He decried the "inconsistency and evident lack of care" in the relevant documents and warned that they could result in laboratories which are "a constraint on effective science teaching" (p 125). Indeed, CLEAPSS had not been consulted on the specifications and had only seen them because "we know somebody who had them ... it looked like an administrative oversight" (Q 237). Moreover, Dr Derek Bell of the ASE told us that his organisation had attempted, without success, to become involved in the BSF programme itself but "we are not getting anywhere with that at all" (Q 238).

3.64.  Practical science is at risk in our schools. We urge the Government to take the following action:

  • We call on the Government to review the place of practical science within the national tests as a matter of urgency so as to secure the future of genuinely open-ended, investigative science both inside and outside the classroom. Similarly, the new A-levels should place greater emphasis on practical work, including that outside the classroom or laboratory.
  • We recommend that the Government assess the feasibility of a unified and comprehensive central website dedicated to practical work in all the sciences. Such a website, which could be closely linked to the Science Learning Centres' web portal, should offer health and safety advice and exemplar practicals that can stimulate students.
  • Significant funding is required to remedy the unsatisfactory state of many school science laboratories. We therefore deplore the Government's failure to deliver the £200 million promised for school science laboratories during the 2005 General Election campaign. We welcome the Building Schools for the Future programme, but are concerned that an insufficient amount of the funding will be spent on improving science laboratories. It is not the role of central Government to determine in detail how schools spend their budgets, but we recommend that the Government, together with local education authorities and Ofsted, initiate a campaign to persuade schools of the huge importance of high quality laboratories.
  • The low quality of so many new or refurbished science laboratories is both regrettable and avoidable. We are mystified that the Government, in developing exemplar designs as part of the "School Labs of the Future" programme, have failed to consult acknowledged authorities such as the Consortium of Local Education Authorities for the Provision of Science Services (CLEAPSS) and the Association for Science Education (ASE). We recommend that the Government rectify this omission immediately.

Role of technicians

3.65.  Science technicians are of central importance in the provision of effective and exciting practical work in science classes, helping teachers by preparing, maintaining and managing the resources needed for practical activities. Furthermore, as the Science Learning Centres commented, "good technicians can transform the morale of a department by ensuring its smooth running and providing support and guidance for less experienced teachers" (p 178). At the same time, a lack of technicians can have a seriously harmful effect: Ian Richardson of Ofsted told us, "I do come across teachers who, when technician support is lighter, withdraw from doing practical work and therefore revert to a rather more didactic approach to ... teaching" (Q 88).

3.66.  There was some concern amongst witnesses that the supply of science technicians in schools was often inadequate. The ASE claimed that "the level of technician support for science in schools is not adequate by any of the commonly used measures" and warned that "without adequate numbers of science technicians the learning experiences of students will be impaired ... and safety in school laboratories will be compromised". It was suggested that "up to 4,000 additional science technicians" should be recruited (p 107).

3.67.  Even in cases where there are enough technicians, many of them tend to be part-time and do not work during the school holidays. This, in the words of CLEAPSS, "seriously restricts the capacity to undertake annual or termly maintenance and servicing of laboratories and stores" (p 115).

3.68.  This highlights the need to professionalise the role of the science technician and to create a more attractive career path. As one science teacher told us, technicians are often seen by senior management as "glorified washer-uppers" (p 147). Not surprisingly, many technicians view their job as a "stop-gap" and do not regard it as a viable long-term career. For example, of the four technicians we spoke to at Huntington School, York, two were graduates but both were expecting to leave in the foreseeable future because the pay was very low and there was little prospect of career advancement.

3.69.  The ASE, in partnership with the Royal Society and CLEAPSS, has proposed a career structure for technicians consisting of four tiers: Assistant Technician, Technician, Senior Technician and Team Leader Technician.[26] This structure is underpinned by a new National Vocational Qualification, Laboratory and Associated Technical Activities (LATA). In taking the NVQ, technicians will be supported through a "virtual" centre, the Technicians' National Assessment Centre, which will allow them "to engage with the qualification without having to regularly attend sessions away from the workplace".[27] The scheme is being piloted and is expected to be made available nationally in 2007.

3.70.  However, Dr Derek Bell, Chief Executive of the ASE, expressed disappointment that "when the Government brought in their workforce agreement [they] did not have a category which was specifically for technicians ... because they were seen as being linked to the teaching assistants" (Q 245). This impression was reinforced by the Schools Minister, Jim Knight MP, who, when speaking about career progression for technicians, focused on "progression through to higher level teaching assistants" which would "give them great satisfaction and allow them to use their enthusiasm for science more effectively" (Q 64). Whilst it is important that technicians should have the opportunity to become higher level teaching assistants, the two careers are distinct. The Minister's words risk giving the impression that the technician's work is not as worthwhile as that of a teaching assistant. Technicians must be assured that they can have a fulfilling career that enables them to progress whilst remaining technicians.

3.71.  It is also important that technicians should have the opportunity to undertake continuing professional development (CPD) and thereby maximise their chances of progressing in their career. CLEAPSS reported that an increasing number of technicians were taking their CPD courses and the Science Learning Centres noted that they too had experienced "strong demand" from technicians since opening, which is welcome (p 178). However, it remains necessary for the Government and other bodies such as the ASE to convey consistently to schools the value of sending their technicians on such courses.

3.72.  A motivated and well-trained supply of technicians is an essential component of effective science teaching. We therefore wholeheartedly endorse the ASE's proposed career structure for technicians, the new NVQ and the virtual assessment centre. We recommend these proposals to the Government, and in addition invite them to consider whether the career structure could be linked to advisory salary scales, in an attempt to increase the almost universally low level of pay for technicians.

17   The details of the programme of study can be seen on pp 193-195. Back

18   Next Steps, p 3. Back

19   See Back

20   See Back

21   DfES, Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) Mapping Review, August 2004, p 2. Back

22   Written evidence (not published). Back

23   Teaching and Learning Research Programme, Science Education in Schools: Issues, evidence and proposals, March 2006, p 10. Back

24   CLEAPSS, Surely that's banned? A Report for the Royal Society of Chemistry on Chemicals & Procedures Thought to be Banned from Use in Schools, October 2005, p ii. Back

25   See: 0603/5951228e-3c31-42a4-afa7-472bfd4fb513.htm. Back

26   See

27   See Back

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