Select Committee on Science and Technology Tenth Report


Friday 23 June 2006

Members visiting York were Lord Broers (Chairman), Lord Howie of Troon, Lord Paul, Baroness Perry of Southwark and Baroness Sharp of Guildford, with Tom Wilson (Clerk) in attendance.

Huntington School

The Committee was welcomed to Huntington School by the head teacher, Mr Chris Bridge. The school was a comprehensive with 1,500 pupils (267 in the sixth form) and a wide ability range. It had been granted technology college status.

Giving a brief introduction, Mr Bridge commented that only one person had applied to become Head of Physics at Huntington School, in spite of its very high reputation, which demonstrated the ongoing difficulties in recruiting science teachers. The number of pupils taking A-levels in science and mathematics had remained stable, even though these subjects had a reputation for being "hard". Psychology A-level had proved very popular, and two dedicated teachers were employed to teach the course.

The Committee members proceeded to split up into groups in order to talk to students, technicians and teachers, and to sit in on a Sixth Form biology class.

National Science Learning Centre

The Committee was welcomed to the National Science Learning Centre by Professor John Holman, the Centre Director. The National Centre, which opened in 2005, was funded by the Wellcome Trust until 2013, whilst the nine regional centres were funded by the Department for Education and Skills until 2008. Together, the centres provided professional development services for science teachers, technicians and teaching assistants.

The courses offered at the National Centre were residential, with purpose-built accommodation available on-site. The courses were generally in three parts: an initial residential period where attendees were taught by both internal and external instructors; a "gap task" where new skills could be tried out, with communications being maintained through the web portal; and a second residential period. For the time being, most attendees had their costs met by Wellcome Trust bursaries, provided they could prove that their attendance would have a beneficial impact on their school. However, this subsidy was not sustainable in the medium to long term.

After visiting a class for post-16 chemistry teachers, which looked at the value of discussion groups and games in making chemistry exciting, members took part in a discussion with a number of the Centre's employees. It was thought to be essential for teachers to receive a sufficient amount of subject-specific continuing professional development (CPD), not merely generic CPD, and that this CPD should consist of a blend of external and in-school training. The value of external CPD was that it allowed teachers to meet colleagues from other schools and to share ideas. There should be a more systematic framework for teacher CPD, as with some other professions, with professional development being linked to pay. The introduction of a system of credits leading to a qualification could also be a valuable development.

The Centre also offered courses on teaching practical science. It was felt that there was not enough exciting practical work in schools for a number of reasons: time pressures, lack of knowledge or confidence among teachers, and a mistaken perception of health and safety constraints. In addition, there were serious problems with the recruitment and retention of science technicians, alongside an inadequate recognition of the importance of their role. Many technicians were part-time, which meant that they often did not have time to carry out valuable preparatory work.

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