Select Committee on Science and Technology Tenth Report


Friday 30 June 2006

Members visiting Little Heath School were Lord Broers (Chairman), Lord Paul, the Earl of Selborne and Lord Taverne, with Tom Wilson (Clerk) and Dr Cathleen Schulte (Committee Specialist) in attendance.

The Committee was welcomed by Mr Mike Wheale (Head Teacher), Ms Sally Thurlow (Assistant Head) and Ms Tima Lund (Head of Department, Science). Little Heath had been a specialist school in science and mathematics for three years, and its excellence was demonstrated by the exemplary reports from Ofsted.

Mr Wheale emphasised the fundamental importance of recruiting and retaining bright and lively teachers who could offer high quality and enjoyable teaching. Even for a successful school such as Little Heath, where the specialist status was an added draw, it was necessary to work very hard on retention—particularly in a relatively affluent place such as Reading. The cost of housing was a particular problem and the key worker housing scheme, whilst helpful, was fairly complex and limited.

It was felt that market mechanisms already applied to the recruitment and retention of teachers of shortage subjects, in spite of claims to the contrary. Good science teachers were generally paid more, whether through accelerated promotion or other means, to ensure that they were not tempted away by more senior or well-paid jobs elsewhere. On the other side of the coin, Mr Wheale also accepted the potential benefits of recruiting returners or newcomers from industry or elsewhere, although he felt that some of them might find it difficult to adapt to modern teaching methods.

It was suggested that there was a bewildering and unstructured plethora of organisations offering continuing professional development (CPD) for teachers. Whilst some of Little Heath's staff had attended courses at the National Science Learning Centre in York, which had been beneficial, Mr Wheale felt that sending staff on courses at the school's nearest science learning centre (in Southampton) was not necessarily the best use of resources. He suggested that the funding should "follow the teacher" as a consumer of training services, rather than going direct to the providing institution, which risked duplicating training provision at great expense.

Among the science teachers present, there was a feeling that local cluster groups—enabling neighbouring teachers to meet on regular occasions to swap best practice—could be more effective than undertaking CPD at a dedicated institution. In addition, teachers from other schools often came to look at Little Heath which, as a specialist school, was encouraged to act as an exemplar.

With regard to testing, there was a general feeling that the national curriculum tests—far from being onerous—were useful for focusing the minds of students and teachers alike. It was, though, important for teachers to teach the subjects appropriately and not to allow the tests to dominate their methods.

The new GCSE science courses, which were coming into force in September, were welcomed. Little Heath was planning to teach the Twenty First Century Science syllabus. The latter was felt to be more relevant to people's lives whilst retaining plenty of "hard science", thus allowing students to make sensible value judgements about science later in life. The teachers had been on training courses to learn about the new courses and schemes of work had been purchased—which meant that staff would not have to spend the whole summer preparing. It was felt that not all schools would be able to take such a supportive approach to preparing their science teachers, however. There were also potential difficulties in providing the IT facilities that the new syllabus required.

The condition of school laboratories was a major issue: even Little Heath, a successful specialist school, had some poor quality laboratories in huts. However, the school had cheaply and quickly upgraded a number of laboratories for around £30,000, which was excellent value for money. It was felt that better use of the Government's Targeted Capital Fund would yield impressive results in schools.

Mr Wheale expressed concern that physics, chemistry, mathematics and biology A-levels were harder than other subjects, citing evidence from the Advanced Level Information System (ALIS). Unsurprisingly, this could lead to students spurning science and mathematics A-levels in favour of easier subjects; instead, there ought to be a broad equivalence between subjects.

The Committee were joined by Mr Jeff Trim (Leader, Further Maths Project) and Mr Steve Rayner (Leader, Sixth Form Maths). The mathematics department had achieved very impressive results and, in particular, the high A-level Performance System (ALPS) "value-added" scores demonstrated how high quality teaching was improving students' attainment levels. The students were thought to be encouraged by the dedication of staff, who gave up their own time to help with "Funbus" (an after-school mathematics session with a very high ratio of teachers to students) and to conduct a revision weekend before exams. In addition, the mathematics teachers (along with the science teachers) regularly visited the local feeder primary schools, thus maintaining an excellent liaison between the schools and ensuring educational continuity.

Finally, Mr Trim explained that he was the manager of the Berkshire Further Mathematics Centre, one of 46 across the country. The aim of the centres was to make further mathematics teaching available to any student in the country that wanted it. In its first year, the Berkshire centre had taught 20 students (400 nationally), all from schools where small numbers or lack of staff expertise made further mathematics teaching impossible. Mr Trim did two days work for the centre each week.

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