Select Committee on Science and Technology Seventh Report


Science Teaching in Schools: Follow-up


The Committee's Commentary on the Government Response

BACKGROUND

1.  In November 2006 we published our Report Science Teaching in Schools[1]. The Government responded in January 2007, and the text of that response is now printed as Written Evidence. Our Report was debated on 3 May, and the full text of the debate can be found in the Official Report (HL Deb., 3 May 2007, cols. 1208-1242).

2.  We welcome the generally positive tone of the response. In particular, we welcome the Government's willingness to expand availability of the International Baccalaureate Diploma (IB) with a view to ensuring that there is at least one institution offering the IB in every local authority area. However, we urge the Government to work closely with local authorities and schools and to consider carefully possible practical problems. In particular, we will follow with interest the steps the Government will take to ensure that parents and stakeholders are properly advised of the choices available within their local authority.

3.  There remain other areas of concern where the Government response was unsatisfactory. In February we therefore wrote to some of our original witnesses and asked them to comment on the response. We are grateful to those who replied, and their replies are also printed as Written Evidence. It will be seen that they share some of the concerns set out below.

STUDENT ATTITUDES AND CHOICE

4.  Although the Government acknowledge that some students perceive science and mathematics as being difficult A level subjects, they fail to engage with the underlying issue. Instead the response repeats the formula that "All A levels have strict standards which have been set by the awarding bodies and are monitored by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. This standard is set as 'advanced' regardless of the nature of the subject" (p 2) No evidence was put forward to support this assertion, which, in the face of the contrary evidence put forward in our Report, is no longer tenable. We therefore echo the suggestion by SCORE, a partnership representing not only the Association for Science Education but a broad cross-section of the wider science community, that matched subject pair analyses be carried out before awarding grades to ensure subjects are of equal difficulty (p 18).

5.  Perceptions of the relative difficulty of A levels are compounded by the lack of good careers advice which might encourage students to study science and mathematics post-16. Although we welcome the work of the Government through the STEM Strategy Group and the STEM Advisory Forum, we are disappointed to see the Government reject our recommendation to establish a small central team of advisers to support existing career advisers, teachers and parents in making pupils aware of the full range of opportunities and rewards open to those with science qualifications.

6.  There is good evidence that at present school career advisers are ill equipped to provide high quality advice about the significant benefits of studying the sciences and mathematics. They have little knowledge of what career paths can follow a degree in science and the kind of salaries that such jobs attract. Better training is urgently required; a template indicating the careers open to science graduates would also be a good starting point as a resource for school careers advisers.

TEACHING METHODS

7.  There appears to be broad acceptance that there is no option but to introduce the revised A Level syllabus on schedule on 2008. However, we echo the call by CLEAPSS, a consortium of local authorities supporting practical science and technology, for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) to urge awarding bodies, publishers and others to seek expert scrutiny of all resource materials for the new A levels, particularly those for practical science, before they are published. There are clearly concerns over the lack of time available to ensure both the scientific accuracy of textbooks and the provision of appropriate health and safety information.

8.  Moreover, we urge the Government to think again with regards to the introduction of the Key Stage 3 (KS3) changes, also scheduled for 2008. Too many curriculum changes are being implemented at once and not enough time is being allowed to deliver the expected outcomes. As SCORE comments, we strongly believe that there would be considerable advantages in allowing schools the option of piloting the KS3 changes from 2008 but not insisting that all schools implement the KS3 changes until September 2009 with the first end of key stage assessments available in 2011 (p 20).

9.  We have already welcomed the increased availability of the IB. But we also note that the Government are pressing ahead with the introduction of the new "specialised Diplomas" as an alternative to the traditional syllabus. The Engineering Diploma is amongst those to be introduced in the first cohort of Diplomas in September 2008. The Royal Academy of Engineering has been closely involved in helping develop this Diploma, which provides a unique opportunity to introduce more practical training alongside the academic. But the whole Diploma programme is highly complex and we share many of the reservations about its implementation expressed by the House of Commons Education and Skills Committee in its Report 14-19 Diplomas[2], published on 17 May. In particular we share their concern (para 55) that "It is absolutely essential that the first Diploma cohort is limited in size and that thereafter expansion takes place at a slow and controlled rate, with sufficient time for development and assessment". We also endorse the comment of the Royal Academy of Engineering, that "A levels are still seen as the Level 3 qualification required for progression towards an engineering, technical or scientific career" (p 15).

10.  We welcome the Government's announcement of additional funding for the Student Associate Scheme with a view to increasing the number of mathematics and science placements. However, we are disappointed at the Government's rejection of our recommendation that outreach work in schools should be properly valued as part of the Research Assessment Exercise. This proposal would not involve a major new injection of funds and would be easy to implement. We urge the Government to think again, and, if necessary, bring forward an alternative mechanism by which outreach work could be recognised.

11.  We highlighted in our report the importance of science technicians. It is essential that the career structure for science technicians as a specialist group is improved and separated from teaching assistants. The response makes no commitment on this issue. Indeed CLEAPSS cautions that the Government's pledge that "every secondary school, which wishes to do so, should be able to recruit at least one science-specialist Higher Level Teaching Assistant by 2008" may further deplete science technician numbers (p 14). We echo their concern.

TEACHER RECRUITMENT AND RETENTION

12.  Our Report highlighted the level of teacher vacancies in science and mathematics, and proposed that the Government encourage schools to offer better starting salaries. The response made much of the soon-to-be-published Sixteenth Report by the School Teachers' Review Body. This report, which appeared in February, echoed our own comments, recommending "a programme of action to secure a significant increase in the use of existing flexibilities in the School Teachers Pay and Conditions Document to address local teacher shortages in priority subjects[3]." We welcome this recommendation. It is not enough that there is a formal opportunity for flexibility if that opportunity is immediately undermined by discouragement from local authorities and unanswered concerns over compliance with employment law. We therefore repeat our call for Government action in this area.

13.  We are also disappointed at the Government's decision not to pursue the scheme to write off teachers' loans at the end of the pilot. SCORE claims that the scheme has had some success. It also argues that "as financial demands on undergraduates increase due to increasing tuition charges, the scheme could become even more attractive." We endorse their call for the Government to think again.

CONTINUING PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT

14.  We are encouraged by the Government's willingness to support and encourage schools to undertake subject-related continuing professional development. However, clarification is needed on how the Government's expectation that "all teachers should have a professional responsibility and a contractual entitlement to be engaged in effective, sustained and relevant professional development throughout their careers" is to be realised. We support SCORE's suggestion that greater emphasis should be placed on the need for subject-specific improvements to be included in personal development plans (p 22).

CONCLUSION

15.  Science teaching in schools is vital to support innovation and growth in our economy, never more so than now, when the booming economies of China and India are supported by huge increases in the numbers of well-qualified science graduates. On 11 July the Prime Minister announced "A new educational opportunity Bill [which] will mean that for the first time not just some but all young people will be able to stay in education or training until the age of 18" (HC Deb., 11 July 2007, col. 1449).

16.  We support this objective. But if this extension of education for all from 16 to 18 is to bring long-term benefits to our competitiveness, rather than just imposing an extra burden on tax-payers, the Government must act now to ensure that a growing proportion of these young people study science and mathematics. We shall therefore follow closely the Government's work in this area in the coming years.


1   House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, 10th Report, Session 2005-06 (HL Paper 257). Back

2   House of Commons Education and Skills Committee, 5th Report, Session 2006-07 (HC Paper 249). Back

3   School Teachers' Review Body Sixteenth Report-2007, February 2007 (Cm 7007), p 14. Back


 
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