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Westminster Hall

Volume 402: debated on Thursday 3 April 2003

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Westminster Hall

Thursday 3 April 2003

[MR. FRANK COOK in the Chair]

Science Education

[Relevant documents: Third Report from the Science and Technology Committee Session 2001–02 HC 508–1 and Sixth Special Report Session 2001–02 HC 1204 (Government Reply).]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.— [Mr. Woolas.]

2.30 pm

It is a pleasure to present the report from the Select Committee on Science and Technology, entitled "Science education from 14 to 19", which is the third report of our session 2001–02.

The Select Committee has worked assiduously, visiting young people and teachers in different parts of the country and picking up information about how teachers who are going through the process and those who have gone through it felt about science education in this country in 2001–02. I give great credit to the people who helped us to present our report and who got us to the right places at the right time. Now and again, it was close, but there were no deaths or injuries and I compliment our Committee Clerks who worked very hard to ensure that the programme took place, was very interesting and helped with the report.

I also want to thank our specialist advisers: Professor Michael Elves—a former director of the office of science and education affairs at Glaxo Wellcome plc—who gave us the industrial context of our report; Professor Jonathan Osborne of King's College London, who is an expert in science education and has produced many publications; and Ms Betty Parker, who is a former head of science at Simon Langton girls school in Canterbury. I also thank the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, which released Jackie Russell, who has worked for the Department of Education and Skills. She has great experience in this field and worked hard with us, developing the enthusiasms of all members of the Committee.

We need to point out that science is important, not only in schools but in terms of what it produces, and to talk about innovation and producing new scientific ideas. A major part of the Higher Education Bill, which is about to descend on us and is already being widely discussed, examines the purpose of science in this country and how we can use it for industrial development, innovation and so on. A new generation of scientists, boffins and technologists will be needed to produce that development and innovation as we try to survive in a very international market.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not take my remarks ill, as I believe the report to have been constructive, and I am sure that he will introduce it constructively. Does he agree that of equal importance to innovation is the scientific knowledge to inculcate a critical mind, which enables people to sort the wheat from the chaff and well-founded allegations or propositions from those that are unsupported?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that comment, but I have hardly entered the first half, let alone the penalty box. I shall come to that arena later.

It is true that we also want a scientifically literate public. It has been clear to many of us involved with scientific issues in the past few years that the public are often described as anti-science. I do not believe that they are, but they are not as informed as they should be and are not sufficiently confident about understanding science and the impact that it has on their lives. During the vigorous debates about the triple vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella and about genetic modification, the public voted with their feet and would not buy certain products, because they were being hoodwinked and baffled with science. That stems from an educational process that does not empower them or give them the confidence to handle the different concepts that are a daily part of our lives. I am gratified to see that The Guardian has started to run a science section once a week. It has realised that science has a great deal of influence on events; other newspapers do it in other ways.

Science education has a dual purpose: it has a bearing not only on legislation in this place but on people's attitudes to problems, in the world outside. We need to focus on schools; the higher education debate will link in to them. We must ensure that our young people are being excited and enthused, so that wherever they end up in society and at whatever level they work, they understand the problems at the grass roots—in schools. In order to create the specialists and experts of the future, we need a literate public now. The media have picked up on that and are employing increasing numbers of people who are scientifically and medically literate to present the arguments about vital processes.

Does my hon. Friend—I call him that because I believe that he is my friend on the Committee—agree that, although the media have made some progress in introducing people who are scientifically literate, there is still an overwhelming culture of treating science and superstition as though they had parity? It is certainly the case in magazines, but also in some newspapers that ought to know better.

I do indeed. That stems from a misunderstanding of how scientific and medical discoveries are made and how much we can say about any discovery. I am 99.9 per cent. sure that the sun is going to rise tomorrow morning, but part of me says that it might not. Something might happen in the atmosphere to change things. We have to put over to the public that scientists are not cocksure or bombastic and do not pretend to know everything. In fact, they often retreat into a world in which they do not want to say anything, particularly in the media, because they do not wish to seem unsure, especially in the face of the Jeremy Paxmans of this world, who drive them into a corner and demand that they come up with a black and white answer. Science is not like that, but that is how it is handled in the media. It could stem from the way in which we teach science in our schools, and that was one of the main reasons for the inquiry.

Many organisations have complimented the Committee. We can do with all the compliments that we can get. The House of Lords recently engaged in a debate about the Medical Research Council, about which we had said a few things. We also made statements about renewable energy, and we know that if one says things that are unpopular one is attacked by the establishment—but members of the Committee have broad shoulders and we can hold our ground. In the British scientific educational process, we benefited from the spirit in which we were encouraged to challenge and to be challenged, to acknowledge when others were right and to engage in dialectical debate. We want to see that as part of the scientific process in our schools.

We have been greatly encouraged by the compliments of the Association for Science Education and the Royal Society of Chemistry on many aspects of our report. Many of the teachers who have written to us, and the young people who have accessed the report on websites, are happy that, at last, Parliament seems to be paying attention to their problems. That is what the Committee did—its members listened to many young people, from those at the Science museum to those in the wilds of Penicuik, just outside Edinburgh. The messages that we received from them encouraged us to believe in what we had written.

We have learned through the teachers about another group of people who have been sadly neglected, which made us very despondent—technicians. They are not classroom assistants. They are the people who prepare the classes, often behind the scenes, working away and never seen, but definitely revered by the young people who depend on them for practical help and who engage with them in debate about what they are trying to find out during their practical sessions in laboratories. I shall say more later about the laboratories and the experiments, or the lack of them. The people I refer to—I shall get this off my chest right away—are mostly women, and they are badly paid and completely forgotten. They are represented, of course, by their organisations, but are never listened to in proper negotiations. There are dozens of them in the country, and I hope that the Department will look at the problem and try to ensure a proper job structure and proper pay scales, as we did recently for those who work in the health service laboratories, for these who contribute so much to our science education.

I shall quickly identify the problems, and I am sure that others will amplify them. We felt that there was an inflexibility in science teaching and an irrelevance or repetitiveness in the curriculum. We saw a lack of engagement in classroom debate, limitations in practical and field work, low educational value in coursework—that was confirmed by many people subsequent to our report—and generally unsuccessful implementation of ICT in science teaching.

I would be the first to acknowledge that there have been reforms and that a lot is going on in this field. Some exciting new AS and A-level courses have been introduced—science with public understanding, advancing physics, Salters Homers physics and Salters- Nuffield biology—and they teach science as it is today, not as it was 100 years ago. Those developments are down to those committed groups, who have the vision to see where change is needed and have the resources to make it happen.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of a litany of failings in science teaching. Did the Committee take steps to find out whether those complaints are new or whether similar complaints have always been made about the teaching of science subjects—and perhaps about all teaching?

Yes, but not systematically. Some of us are old enough to remember what we were once subjected to—cutting up buttercups and sharing one piece of apparatus between a class of 30. Those of us who managed to move on in the professional scientific ranks wonder how we ever came through it, given the laboratories where we had to work. We spent most of our time carving "Ian loves Cherie" on the benchtop. Many must have been subject to such classroom facilities, and there is still a long way to go, despite the Government having put in £60 million. I am sure that the constituencies of all hon. Members have a school with a decent-sized science lab or group of science labs.

The £60 million was welcome, but would the hon. Gentleman not agree that we have no way of auditing where that money has gone? Indeed, one or two of the bodies that he mentioned have commented on that.

Yes, that is true, and not only in the field of science. There seems to be a general malaise. We have to follow money through an exceptional audit trail. The hon. Gentleman will remember that the Committee's report on cancer services provoked another audit trail to ensure that the money given by Government ended up where it was intended.. There are still problems. I know that my county of Norfolk, which includes the constituency of the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, has had a problem getting the money to the coalface, although that is being dealt with. The bureaucracy is still there, but steps are now being taken not only in Norfolk but throughout the country to ensure that the money gets to the right place. We will be watching.

We expect to hear today that more money will appear for schools. Every member of the Committee visited the schools in their constituencies and did a lot of work there; we met their heads of science and had mini-select committee meetings to find out what was going on. We have a duty as constituency MPs to ensure that the money is given to the local councils and that it is used where it is at. We have identified the problem and I am sure that we will make this happen.

The report points out that many students lose any enthusiasm they once had for science. All too often, they study science because they have to. We often hear that they feel that science is difficult. However, that problem is not insurmountable; we have to think of new ways of putting over difficult concepts. All too often, the students study because they have to, but they neither enjoy nor engage with the subject, and that is a great disappointment. The joys of science and its discoveries—particularly this year, as it has been 50 years since the discoveries of Watson and Crick—make huge differences to people's lives. To engage with that and understand it, is a real privilege. The negative image of science may last for life with many young people. "It's too difficult for me," and "It's boring," is so far from the truth for those of us who want to preserve science and drive it forward.

I do not think that science education is serving the dual purposes that I mentioned at the beginning, and the Committee shares that view. Science remains a core part of the curriculum until GCSE level, and that is where the problem is. Why have there not been major changes to the curriculum? I will point out in a positive way what those changes might be. Change is needed at that level, which is reflected in the experience of the Committee and many other people. A pilot of a new-style GCSE is being conducted by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. It was piloted in 90 of the 3,500 schools. When will all the others see that GCSE?

The Department for Education and Skills is proud of its vocational GCSE in applied science. I should like to know how many students take that up and go on afterwards. It may be attracting many students, and I want to know whether it is making an impact on the curriculum.

We are expecting a rewrite of the national curriculum for science. That was announced more than a year ago in February 2002 as part of the Green Paper. It was confirmed in January that the Government really meant that, but what has happened since? I have letters from principals and head teachers in schools who say that they have been to meetings with the QCA, but were not inspired by what is going on there. That is only anecdotal evidence—I have had only a few letters—but I should like to hear whether the Department feels that there will be a sea change and a step change in the organisation of science GCSEs.

We met many inspiring teachers who want to see changes and are prepared to put them into effect. I am pleased to see that the Government have introduced, with the Wellcome Trust, teaching resource centres for science education. There will be a national one and six regional ones, where teachers can refresh themselves, mix with those from higher education institutes, and engage in talking about new experiments, new ways of handling concepts and so on. That recognises the value of retraining teachers in an area that moves extremely rapidly.

We need to think positively about what we need to do. One important insight that I gained during the inquiry and that the Committee highlighted, is that it is a real pity that nowhere in the curriculum can young people discuss things, such as the triple MMR jabs, to which they are subjected in the media and their lives. As soon as one says such a thing , a teacher will get in touch and say, "Oh yes, we do." Well, that is good, but many teachers do not have the time. The curriculum is very demanding, as is the time devoted to coursework. We have to think about quality education as well as the end points that we want.

What should people be taught? It is important to let students experiment for themselves in the lab, to have the opportunity to mess things up and to ask questions, but given the excitement and enthusiasm that is generated by experimentation, is it not also important to allow young people to argue and talk? I have never known two scientists to agree with each other on anything. There are still people who do not believe in the double-stranded DNA helix. There are people who still believe that it is a triple helix. Arguments go on, and that is what science is about. We are not generating that enthusiasm in schools.

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman about giving time in the curriculum to explore what the student or the class wants to explore without the current constraints. However, does he agree that one of the problems is that the hard sciences, in particular, are often taught by teachers who are not primarily qualified in those subjects and are, therefore, limited by the scope of what they have in front of them, and unable to expand and explain the subject as we would want? Does not that suggest that we need to find ways of getting more properly qualified teachers into those hard sciences?

Yes, that is true, but it is a circular problem. Unless we get people enthused at an early age so that they go on to higher education and then back into the system, the shortage of people picking up science subjects at university will continue. We need to give golden hellos to encourage people to go into teaching the sciences.

Some issues are being addressed, but we have got into a slough of despond because we have not addressed this one. This is the time to do so, and the Government have made a start. However, we need to press hard on the accelerator. The Prime Minister has given a major speech on science, and there are not many Prime Ministers who take time off to talk about the value of science and the need for it in our society. The time is right to look at the whole process, not just the time between 14 and 19. Why not investigate what happens at primary schools? That is where children's sense of excitement, enthusiasm and curiosity is, but it is sometimes knocked out of them. We must ensure that it is kept going and enlivened through the whole process.

Young people must see the relevance of their education. Science can be hard, such as understanding pH, physical principles and so on. They will persevere only if they see the value of the whole process and what might come of it.

Perhaps we need to strike a better balance. It is fine to push people to do physics, chemistry and biology, but we also need literate people who understand and can talk about issues with some confidence. That is not a matter of dumbing down, as some people say. Professional scientists say, "We mustn't talk about these things," but science is part of a political world where people enjoy and worry about events in genetics, for example. Today's newspaper talks about whether the transference of blood from an in vitro baby should be allowed, and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority will be on the news. Young people see all that and wonder what the heck it is all about, but they are unable to engage with it. If they had a basic understanding of the processes, the political and ethical issues would be much more meaningful to them. It is an exciting area. Changes will not happen overnight, but we must give people some confidence in the process.

I turn now to an issue that is dear to the Minister's heart. There are not enough women in science. The Greenfield report addresses problems at certain levels and particularly in higher education. It also deals with women who return to work after having families. That is great, and we should ensure that that happens. However, we must also help bright young women like those we saw at the Science museum. They told us that they enjoyed cutting up hearts and that they wanted to get on in science, but then they said, "There's no career in science. We'll never end up as professors or get grants to run our own labs, so we'll go into the media and do flashy things on Sky News and BBC News 24." Who can blame them? We must make jobs in the scientific world important.

This week, some of us on the Committee went to the Research Council in Swindon, where we engaged people about the great work that they are doing. This country is superb at producing good stuff from a small base. We are punching above our weight at the minute, but we must look to the future. When we asked people at the Research Council what the problems were, everyone said, "We fear that young people won't come up through the system to take our jobs in a few years." That feeling is universal, and we have a real chance through our report and through interaction with the Government to do something about it.

If things happen at the 14 to 19 level, that will aid the higher education paper to a great extent. The paper is not all about top-up fees. It is about getting people through the system who can create new products, ask questions and make discoveries. I sometimes think that we must have discovered everything that there is to discover, but I should know better. Things that we thought were true 20 years ago are passé they are no longer true. We move on and get a deeper understanding. We used to look at molecules. Now we have the technology to look at atoms and subcomponents of atoms.

It is excellent that science is moving on, and our young people must be part of that world. More than that, they must be able to contribute to it, to argue for and against it from a position of knowledge and belief. They must believe that it is as important to write a book on any aspect of science as it is to win the Booker prize.

When I see the publicity that Booker prize winners get compared with those who write a science book, I sometimes weep. Both are important; they often interact in developing our civilization. We must create a world-class, world-beating system in this country. We can do that, but only if we engage our young people at this stage. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply. I ask her four questions, to which I expect, of course, instant answers. Does the Department for Education and Skills accept that there is a problem with GCSE science? What is happening with the review of the key stage 4 science curriculum? What are the time scales? When will the wider world hear of the plans?

The Department for Education and Skills sent a memorandum to the Royal Society and to the Association for Science Education about implementing a proper career structure for science technicians. What is being done about that? Can the Department do anything to inject a sense of responsibility and some creative thinking into the awarding bodies, which are often seen by the professionals as holding things back by thinking about funny exam questions to trip people up and separate them? They do not challenge the creativity of our young people.

2.56 pm

The enthusiasm of the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) is catching. I am grateful to him, and I could save a great deal of time by endorsing every word that he said. My enthusiasm for science started at school and was entirely down to having good teachers. That I did not pursue a science career is neither here nor there. I spent a year sitting through chemistry lessons next to a young man who also decided not to pursue science professionally. He is now a general—General Patrick Cordingley—whom we can hear on the "Today" programme most mornings. I am a member of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, so I shall try to make up for my decision not to be a scientist.

I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to the Minister and to my colleagues, because many weeks ago, before this debate was arranged, I promised the Salisbury astronomical society to meet it at 6 pm this evening to discuss the inquiry that the Select Committee is undertaking into light pollution. Therefore, I must honour that commitment, if you will excuse me.

I am not a scientist, but I was a teacher for 16 years and was enchanted to read the report when it was published almost a year ago, although I was not a member of the Select Committee at the time. I recognised many grains of truth in it. I also recognise the importance of the points that the hon. Gentleman made, particularly about the problem of gender in science. It did not seem to apply to me. I regarded gender balance as normal, although perhaps I might not have used that phrase at the time. I was used to the idea of having an aunt who was a physician, a sister who was a physician and a wife who was a science teacher.

Perhaps stereotyping is the problem. In my experience, girls in single-sex schools do better at subjects, including science. Both my daughters went through the state system from primary school onward. One of them is now a vet and the other teaches English literature. They attended a school that was renowned for its enthusiastic teachers, and my goodness, they did well by my daughters.

I grew up in a community in Salisbury in which science was regarded as normal. However, I understand now that that is not the case for many people. My constituency contains the two Porton Down establishments and the aircraft testing and evaluation establishment at Boscombe Down, so in our community science is normal. That matters hugely.

Paragraph 57 of the report made the important point that people of school age are put off science because it is perceived to be hard work compared with other subjects. One comes across that view time after time, whether one speaks to teachers, professors or children. It always come back to the question: why opt for a subject that requires one to spend extra hours in a laboratory, extra weeks studying, or extra years on a university course? As a parent who has seen a vet through five years of study, I know what that can mean for parents as well. We should address the fact that it is harder to be a scientist.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the problem relating to technicians, which is fundamental. He said that technicians were never listened to in proper negotiations. My wife was a laboratory technician in a school, and I do not think that she would agree with that statement—I certainly would not dare to. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that science technicians do an incredible job. Frankly, teachers could not cope without them, and proper attention should be paid to them. I agree that it is important to maintain the compulsory element in the curriculum for 14 to 16-year-olds, because it is hugely important that there is scientific literacy in our community. We must help future generations to understand how our world works and the opportunities and challenges that exist. I want also to mention the importance of the language of science being interpreted for the benefit of all.

As Chairman of the Select Committee that has already been mentioned, I went to Swindon yesterday to visit Research Councils UK, the Natural Environment Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. We also met members of the Medical Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. Then we went to the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils, the Central Laser Facility and the division of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council that deals with space science and technology. Wherever we went, those of us who were not scientists found it difficult to understand what we were being told.

Indeed, when we were standing in the space science division and being told about the wonderful work that was being done, I reckoned that about four out of five phrases meant nothing to me. I understood the words individually, but the concepts were absent. That is a problem for the scientific community, because if it cannot convince politicians, let alone journalists and the electors, of its case, it has little hope of ensuring that resources are prioritised for science. It would be much easier to spend the money on health or social services, because when it comes to science, people say, "Come on, what are you talking about? The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council? It does not sound as if it deserves a penny."

Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem is even more endemic because, expressed by a scientist, a simple word such as "risk" is likely to have a completely different connotation from that which it would have if it were used by a journalist? If a scientist is asked whether there is a risk, he or she is almost bound to say that there is, but that it might not be a risk worth worrying about, in the normal sense of the word used by lay people.

My hon. Friend is wholly right, and we learned that yesterday when we inquired into the risks relating to bio-terrorism. Of course, the sort of risks that scientists have to quantify in that area are different from what he or I might count as a risk.

The problem is that, in Britain, we have not only a non-science but an anti-science culture, which is fuelled, regrettably, by ignorance and indifference in journalism and the media. That has been recognised by the Royal Institution, which has established a superb online science media centre, to which I refer regularly. It offers an extensive database for schools and journalists who have deadlines to meet. It gives the contact details of relevant scientists, in case people want explanations or quotes.

It is the common experience of those who talk to major employers of science graduates that the concern of such employers is not so much with postgraduate science research; they say that the problem is science in schools—not just secondary schools, but from day one at school—and before school. The problem is the entire ethos in which children grow up and whether they inquire about science in the first place. There is plenty of evidence for that. In his report entitled "Set for success", Sir Gareth Roberts catalogued the decline in undergraduates taking physics, mathematics, chemistry and engineering, and in pupils taking, for example, physics A-level. Teacher shortages are part of the problem.

Where do we try to get into the loop? Is it in schools, the home, universities or with teachers? We must start with a Government initiative to take science very seriously by making it a priority and encouraging people to train, so that they can get into our schools.

Who knows what scheme will emerge? It may be golden hellos or some other scheme. Above all, the culture is changing. Whether we are talking about reception classes in primary schools, or universities, politicians must also connect with science and get back in touch with the concerns of ordinary people who are flustered and sometimes frightened by scientific problems that confront them. We must also understand that, without engineering, science cannot be applied for the benefit of mankind. It is important to teach not only science but engineering.

It is important that science policy should not be governed by pressure groups or scuppered by ignorance, prejudice or fear. It is; the duty of democratic politicians to facilitate well-informed debate and to ensure that scientists, decision makers and regulators proceed sure-footedly, morally and ethically. I hope that the Government will address the issues in the report, which certainly contribute to a resolution of the problems that I describe.

What can we do as individuals and as Members of Parliament? The Government have taken many initiatives. All Governments take initiatives, and all Governments believe that not taking initiatives is like riding a bike and falling off. All Ministers are bombarded with new initiatives that they must adopt, or they will fall off the bike and the Government will come apart.

Be that as it may, a modest recommendation, which I make from personal experience, is the specialist school concept, which has been important in science, mathematics and computing. I have personally supported such schools. My daughter attended the South Wilts grammar school for girls, which applied for specialist school status in mathematics and computing. I wholeheartedly supported that application as a politician and former parent. I am glad to say that it has now raised the necessary £50,000. The partnership is in place, and building work is due to commence to meet the needs of the new specialist status. Only last Monday, I was at Stonehenge school in Amesbury, which has started down the same road by applying for specialist status in mathematics and computing.

We, as local Members, can help to galvanise the community and empower those schools to reach out to their local businesses. All future employers will benefit. All that adds up to a huge agenda. The report has contributed enormously to the understanding of the importance of science education in the community in which we all live and work. I wholeheartedly commend it, and I look forward to reading tomorrow on the internet what the Minister says in reply.

3.8 pm

As a scientist who has taught chemistry, albeit at university level, I was pleased to take part in the creation of the report. In my 33-year career, I tramped around the country and the whole of Europe with what became a popular demonstration lecture called, "The magic of chemistry". I did more than 300 90-minute shows as far away as Naples, Denmark and Scandinavia. That brought me into contact with many teachers and obviously many students who came to see experiments and to listen to the applications of science that they never dreamed of seeing in the classroom. My job was to enthuse teachers to take some of those experiments back to the classroom and, in turn, enthuse the students.

I have known many inspiring teachers in my time and there are still many inspiring science teachers in schools. Unfortunately, there are also many bad ones. I hope that there are more of the former than the latter. If I was asked to single out one of the most important ingredients that make a successful science teacher, or a teacher of any subject under the sun, it falls to one word, which has already been mentioned twice in the debate, enthusiasm, whether one is teaching science, French or history or anything else. Teachers have some of the characteristics of politicians, who in turn have some of the characteristics of lawyers. We are all rather extrovert, and some, if not all of us, have a bit of charisma.

I am not going to mention devious. The best are showmen or women. Those who stand up in front of a class and want to pass on their enthusiasm for the subject—science, in this case—have almost to sell that subject to the students and make them believe in what the teachers are telling them. Unless teachers can do that, they will find pupils putting their pens down, switching off and going to sleep at the back of the class.

Many members of the Committee have been teachers and they know that after 60 minutes in front of a class they are absolutely exhausted if they have done the job properly. I admire classroom teachers and I understand, in a way that many members of the public cannot, why they go home exhausted, especially after a full term's effort.

It is essential that all teachers have a good knowledge of their subject. There is nothing worse than a teacher who has constantly to look through the textbook to explain something to a pupil who has asked an awkward question. If a teacher does not know the answer, especially if it is a difficult question, he should admit it and take the student to the library after the class, or school, has finished, and ensure that they are fully conversant with that aspect of the subject.

Does my hon. Friend agree that if such worthy and inquisitive students are subjected to such treatment, they will quickly stop asking questions?

There is that danger. However, it does not happen with philosophers. It helps if teachers have a knowledge of the subject that goes beyond what they have to teach in the classroom. They must be one, two, three or even four steps ahead of those they are teaching.

That brings me to an important element in teaching—retraining. One cannot let teachers loose in the classroom and not expect to retrain them several times in their career. I am sad that dedicated budgets for teachers to retrain in a local university—in science, that is a great help—or on a refresher course run by the local council have almost disappeared in many local authorities.

The most enthusiastic teachers will try to involve their students in activities outside the classroom. For example, science teachers can take their students to demonstration lectures, and where better than the Royal Institution of Great Britain Christmas lectures in London? How many teachers in Manchester, Birmingham and so on even bother to apply to go to such lectures? Outside speakers can be invited into the classroom. How many teachers bother to bring experts from industry or universities into the classroom to impart new knowledge to the pupils?

There are plenty of good museums, most with free admission. There is the wonderful museum of science and industry in Manchester, which I often visit with young people, which takes more than three days to go round. It is the equal of the Natural History museum and other museums in London. Excellent resources abound, but how many teachers bother to tap into them?

I have a son-in-law, Darren Howard, who is a science teacher, so I get some tips from time to time. When I told him that we were carrying out this exercise, he sent me some notes, to which I will refer, as they come from the chalkface. He singled out staffing as the most important priority in his little group. What does he mean by that? According to Darren, it is not necessary for every member of his science team to be a specialist teacher, but he also believes that there should be a specialist in the important subjects of chemistry, physics and biology in the team, with whom the non-specialists can, to use his words, "touch base" to extend their knowledge.

Sadly, the pool of specialist teachers has diminished in the past few decades. I found an economist teaching chemistry in a classroom, and trying to teach practical chemistry in a laboratory. My son-in-law told me about a physical education teacher teaching biology, although that makes a little more sense. Professional bodies such as my own, the Royal Society of Chemistry, report a serious shortfall in chemistry and physics-qualified teachers. However, it is impossible to see the extent of the mismatches between the subject specialisms of the science-teaching force and the subjects actually taught, because there has not been a secondary schools staffing survey since 1997. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether we will carry out such a survey in the near future, because I do not believe that we know how many teachers are teaching science throughout the schools system and whether they are specialist teachers.

My son-in-law also singled out timetable difficulties. The Science and Technology Committee discovered that most 11 to 16 schools offer single and double science. Darren believes that few schools can offer triple science, which in his opinion is the best route into post-16 science and then university education. He says:
"We don't have a GCSE double award in humanities and then expect"
pupils
"to take up an A-level in geography".
Therefore, we deliver only two thirds of a science curriculum by the end of key stage 4, yet we expect pupils to cope with A-levels in a science subject and we are surprised by the post-16 drop-out rate.

Since the introduction of local management of schools and the top-slicing of education budgets by local authorities, my son-in-law has seen less money passported into schools to maintain a good supply of science books and to buy consumables and equipment for the laboratory, which are necessary to be able to teach science to the standards that the Committee might expect.

Our report points out that some science classes are far too large to be manageable, and my son-in-law agrees. That is especially important in a laboratory. Having one or two disruptive elements in a large class in a laboratory can be an absolute nightmare. I have heard from teachers who had to stop teaching practical science with disruptive elements in the class, for health and safety reasons alone. That should not be the case.

Ideally, technicians would assist in the classroom—in the laboratory—but in fact they are far too busy in the preparation room behind the classroom getting things ready for the next class. That is because there are far too few technicians. We need at least to double the number of trained—I underline the word "trained"—technicians who assist science teachers doing the job in the classroom, because learning science, particularly practical science, is almost a one-to-one activity. If the student doing the experiment does not know what they are expected to be doing, the education is hopeless. Obviously, therefore, it takes more than one person in a laboratory class to achieve that objective.

My hon. Friend the Chairman of the Committee referred to pay and conditions. They are not fixed nationally but are subject to local negotiable rates, which is a scandal. We heard of some wages paid to technicians teaching in schools that are a scandal. That must be overcome if we are to attract good people to teach as technicians in schools. We saw a lot of good will. One technician—I think that this was when we visited Scotland—told us that she was in the school only because her daughter had passed through it and she wanted to ensure that she had a good science education. Technicians should not be undertaking teaching for those reasons at those salary levels.

Practical work is a fundamental part of science teaching. It must be fun and enjoyable. The colours, smells and thrill of changing one chemical into another attracted me to study chemistry. I had to assemble weird equipment that I had never seen before, never mind got my hands on, to conduct an experiment. All children should enjoy those thrills in schools, but in the complete knowledge of all the risks involved. Students should be introduced to the control of substances hazardous to health regulations. They should not be afraid of chemicals, including those that make loud bangs when they meet water. The health and safety risks should be taught before dangerous experiments are carried out. They are a fundamental part of classroom teaching

Some school laboratories are completely out of date, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) pointed out. We still have fume cupboards from the Victorian age in many schools. They would not pass a health and safety inspection. What a difference one finds if one looks at the language laboratory and the information technology room in those same schools. That should not be so. Science laboratories should be as well equipped as any other laboratory in the school.

I congratulate the Government on making £60 million available to refurbish school laboratories, but I have been asking parliamentary questions about where that money was spent. The replies have been rather strange. They can be found in the Official Report of 20 January, columns 157–160W. The condition data that have been collected by local education authorities in connection with their asset management plans do not separately identify the condition of science laboratories. Ofsted has not monitored the spending on school science laboratories or equipment supplies.

The Department for Education and Skills has promised an evaluation report of the £60 million capital funding that was allocated to local education authorities for school laboratories in 2000–01 and 2001–02. It covers a sample of 149 participating LEAs and is due this year. I look forward to seeing the results. I also asked how schools that did not benefit from that £60 million allocation could upgrade their science laboratories. Apparently, they will be able to do so from capital allocations, which I am pleased to say are higher than they have been for decades. However, I should like the Minister's assurance that much of that capital expenditure will be used to bring those Victorian school laboratories into this century.

As well as visiting state-funded schools, we visited Westminster school, just round the corner from here in Smith square. What a difference we saw. Money speaks is the old adage, and it certainly speaks there. It was in the process of refurbishing its laboratories from the ground floor right up to the top of that tall building next to Conservative party headquarters. They are delightful laboratories with fine equipment. Lots of money has been spent. Sadly, one would have to go a long way to find anything as good as that in the public sector.

The Field Studies Council told us:
"There is a very worrying decline in the quantity and quality of field work being provided for students studying biology".
Is the problem the cost, the organisation or the dangers associated with taking students out of school, which have been highlighted in the media many times in the past four or five years? Whatever the problem is, it should be addressed. Nobody can study biology without going on at least one field trip. We must look at getting field trips back into biology classes.

When I was a teacher, I was warden of the field studies centre down in Dorset. It was primarily established for the use of the biologists. It was not only the costs but the increasing regulations, health and safety regulations and the culture of litigation that led to the decline of field centres. I regret that even that centre has closed down. Perhaps in view of some of its clientele, it is now known, not inappropriately, as Monkey World.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North referred to other aspects that I intended to cover. Courses are overloaded, we do not teach contemporary issues, although we should, and coursework, as many students told us as we toured the country, is boring and repetitive. I also suspect that there is a lot of plagiarism—a student in one year might copy the work of another student or log on to the internet to find the answers. If one is clever enough, one can almost copy one's coursework from the internet.

Teachers teach the examination timetable, and if they get behind with the theory, sadly, the practical work and the field trips suffer. There are pressures on teachers, and we should free up the curriculum a little and make it more flexible.

I shall tell a funny story at this point. I used to be a GCE examiner in O-level chemistry, and one day went to a chief examiners' meeting in Manchester. The job of an examiner was to go through all the questions and the set answers and put ticks in the margin. One of the questions was, "What colour is sulphur?" The answer on my script was, "Yellow." I am an awkward beggar, so I asked the chief examiner what would happen if one of my candidates had put, "Blue." He looked at me as if I had gone barmy and said, "Blue, Dr. Iddon? There is no such thing as blue sulphur." I said to him, "Well, chief examiner, you obviously have not carried out the famous Tyndal experiment, because colloidal sulphur is blue. Moreover, colloidal gold is red and I could describe a few other colours for you." It was a genuine question. I am sad to say that at the end of the year I was sacked. Sometimes we have to be a little more flexible.

We heard a great deal about the Haber process—an aspect of chemistry with which I will not bore hon. Members—which is often taught in a boring way. When I marked GCEs, I had to put seven ticks in the margin. It is decades since I did that marking, but I can almost remember, after marking thousands of those scripts, what each of those seven ticks was for. There was no flexibility in the answer.

Most people said that they no longer wanted to teach the Haber process, but occasionally a voice from the corner would say, "Hang on, I can make the Haber process extremely interesting. It is about fixation of nitrogen and the legumes fix nitrogen. We used to have to rotate crops to ensure that we put nitrogen back into the soil, but today we can do it via the Haber process." The students' eyes would then open up, because they realised that there was some relevance to the process. One could then continue and say that during the war the Germans could not import raw materials to make bombs, so they had to examine different ways of fixing nitrogen, because it is nitrogen that goes into explosives—nitrates, polynitro-organic compounds with nitrogen in them. Boring as it may seem in the textbook, something like that can be made to come alive if a science teacher has the enthusiasm. That is sadly lacking in many classrooms, however.

Members of the Committee made the effort to talk to teachers. I spoke to science teachers in Bolton. From that I concur with what my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North said about teachers being fed up with the lack of connection between one key stage and another, from primary through to secondary school, and right into post-16 education. An example of that might be photosynthesis, which is studied not only in science but by nutritionists in the cooking classes. There is much repetition in schools of certain common subjects, and students are fed up with it. In some cases, there are different interpretations of the same aspect, and students get confused. It is time that syllabuses are sorted out so that there is not that sort of repetition. Head teachers should ensure that such repetition is eliminated in their schools, because it is a switch-off for pupils in all subjects, not just science.

There appears to be a lack of coherence in the redesigning of the school curriculums. For example, curriculum 2000 for post-16 pupils was introduced to run concurrently with the key stage 3 strategy for 11 to 14-year-olds. We completely missed out key stage 4, which links those two important parts of teaching. Surely to goodness we ought to have built on the foundations from key stage 3 through to key stage 4 and post-16, instead of doing two things either side of key stage 4.

In this country, we have punched well above our weight in sciences. Pro rata, we have had more publications cited in the top journals. There has been more innovation in this country than in many other countries, although we did not exploit all of it, such as the hovercraft, and we have won more Nobel prizes pro rata than any country with the possible exception of the United States—I have not seen the latest figures. We are already in the premier division of science, but we want to be the Manchester United of that division— [Hon. Members: "No!"] I thought that that would bring some howls, and I deliberately said it for the benefit of the Committee Chairman.

To return to what I said at the beginning of my speech, the one word in anything—politics, science teaching or history teaching—is enthusiasm. We must build a system that will inspire teachers to pass on that enthusiasm to their pupils. If we can do that, we shall never have any trouble again.

3.31 pm

What enthusiasm. It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon). Although I cannot match his enthusiasm, I shall try.

It was not chemicals—their smells, or the different colours or combinations—that made me enthusiastic or was instrumental in my pursuing science at school, but the Van der Graaff generator. Most hon. Members will remember that that is the thing that makes one's hair stand on end. Looking around the Chamber, however, the devil in me thinks that in many cases it would no longer work.

Like most members of the Committee, I visited schools in my constituency as part of the process of gathering evidence for the publication of the report. I visited St. Augustine's Catholic college in Trowbridge, which is a specialist technology college. The headmaster, Mr. Brendan Wall, helpfully put on a programme for the day, which was worth while, and from which I learned a great deal. I came away with lots of messages that have been distilled into the report.

One message that I got from the teachers was that we need to protect the integrity of what one could describe as hard science. There was a great fear that we might dumb down our science curriculum. The teachers gave much thought to their contributions, and they were concerned that in supporting hard science and not dumbing the curriculum down we might ignore the citizenship agenda of science. There is a play-off between on the one hand protecting hard science, producing the scientists and engineers of the future and providing the feedstuff for universities and professions, and on the other introducing science more generally into what one might call the citizenship agenda. We should increase scientific literacy among all school leavers—that is for sure. I hope that in so doing we put the wraps on some of the more exuberant stories that we read in the popular press from time to time, which play on people's ignorance and fears. If we can lift that by introducing science more generally into the curriculum, we shall do the citizens of the future a great service.

In our study we touched on the gender imbalance in science. That issue is close to my heart, because, like my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), I am the proud owner of daughters. I have five, and I should be delighted were they to follow scientific careers at school and thereafter. However, as things stand the odds are stacked against them. We need to work out how we can do better. We know that girls are, increasingly, studying biology and chemistry. Perhaps they are drawn to those subjects because of possible career options in the medical and paramedical professions. Equally, boys are less inclined to study them. It is harder to work out why that should be.

I am struck by the dynamic between career choices made at school and those made later in life. One will inform the other, and it is no good expecting girls to sign up at school for science if they do not perceive that there will be worthwhile careers for them when they leave school. Schoolchildren are, in my experience, extremely canny; they will not go into career options without giving a great deal of thought to what will come of them. However, we need to be aware that those who are currently pursuing scientific and technological engineering careers will influence those making choices at school. We need to think about role models, and we are all aware of the paucity of female role models in science, technology and engineering. Of course, we can always think of exceptions to that general rule. It is easy to say that we need more role models, but how on earth do we, as politicians, ensure that there are role models to encourage people such as my daughters to take up science at school?

The hon. Gentleman will remember that one of the leaders of his party was a fellow of the Royal Society. Does he consider Margaret Thatcher a role model?

I am grateful to the Chairman of the Committee for making that political point. That is for history to judge. If I were to be at all critical of Baroness Thatcher, I would have to say that she did not play up her scientific credentials. I remember thinking at the time that she was missing an opportunity. She might now agree with that—who knows?

We need to give some thought to role models. Perhaps, in future, there will be members of all political parties who are scientists and proud of it. That would be nice; such role models are important. However, apart from citing scientists who go on to become directors of companies, we need to show that science is a good thing to do in its own right. We can all think of medics and scientists who go into directorships and general jobs, but we need to focus on those who stick with science or medicine and make them proud to do so. That goes for teaching as well. We often see people in the professions progressing into managerial positions and directorships of boards. That says something about our society and the status that we accord our specialists.

The Save British Science Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry, with which I have an honorary association, have been good enough to write to me with their thoughts on our report and on the Government's response. Their comments echo remarks that have been made by hon. Members about initiative overload. It is certainly my experience from gathering evidence in my constituency that there is a feeling that there is initiative overload. It seems to permeate everything that we do; it is not confined to teaching, although it is particularly demoralising for teachers. They are there to interact with children; that is what they want to do. Rather like doctors who go into medicine because they want to deal with patients, they feel increasingly burdened by the volume of paperwork and initiatives that they are expected to cope with, particularly those that are centrally driven.

The morale of teachers is vital, because there is a great shortage of people who want to teach hard science. There is a clear mismatch between subject specialisations and subjects taught. We politicians are used to talking off the tops of our heads about subjects with which we have only a fleeting acquaintance. We might not feel too badly about it; that is what we do. However, I feel strongly that it is likely to demoralise the teaching work force if they are told that they have to teach subjects outside their specialisation with which they are not entirely comfortable. Someone who knows a little about teaching—I would have to count myself in that number—might say that if they are teaching GCSE, they should be able to cope with that. However, I firmly believe that in order to teach one needs a profound understanding of one's subject; it must not be superficial. It is difficult to see how teachers can be truly enthusiastic about a subject if they do not have the deep knowledge that comes from being a graduate in it.

I was frankly rather horrified to find that two thirds of GCSE physics teachers do not have a physics degree, and one third do not even have a relevant A-level. That is quite stunning. How teachers are meant to talk in depth about Van der Graaf generators without a profound understanding of them is a mystery to me. That is surely bad for children, and it must be bad for teachers.

We have heard about various initiatives that might be introduced by the Government to improve the situation. We are used to trotting out golden hellos as a possible way of increasing the number of people in particular shortage areas. As a general practitioner, I know that it is talked about in my field a great deal. In teaching, it has manifestly not worked. In the first year in which golden hellos were introduced, the number of applicants to teach physics decreased by 17 per cent., which is quite an extraordinary achievement.

I have two brief remarks to make in conclusion. The British Association for the Advancement of Science is very concerned at the lack of ability to carry money over from one financial year to another. Many hon. Members will be exercised very much at the moment by school budgets, and I suspect that many of them will have been writing to schools recently to ask how they are getting on now that the new financial year has begun. The subject of money carry-overs will probably feature greatly in our mailbags. Science is particularly important because capital expenditure is needed on some bits of kit that are quite expensive. In order to aggregate funds to allow the purchase of that kit, it would be extremely helpful if there were more flexibility in aggregating funds from one financial year to another. I hope that the Minister will comment on that, and bear it in mind.

I would like to echo the views that have already been expressed about disruptive pupils. That is particularly important in the context of science subjects. There is a health and safety angle to the matter, and teachers who teach practical subjects are concerned that they may be in danger if they permit disruptive pupils to remain when they are trying to handle kit that can be quite dangerous if it is not handled correctly. Head teachers are concerned that excluding pupils is potentially expensive and bureaucratically difficult to address. That has been a problem for some years, it appears to be getting worse, and I hope that the Minister will try to address it.

3.43

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), the Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, on producing such an excellent report. I also congratulate the members of the Committee on the work that they have put into it. I found it extremely interesting to read.

I would like to make two comments to accompany that word of congratulation. First, it is always seems unfortunate that when Select Committee reports are published, and the Government make their response six months later, it takes another six months before we have an opportunity to discuss it. In our ongoing consideration of the modernisation of the procedures of the House, we should look for a way to find time to discuss Select Committee reports more quickly. The Government obviously need time to make their response, but it seems to me that it is not beyond the wit of the men and women who are in charge of organising our business to find a way of providing an earlier opportunity to discuss reports.

Secondly, the Chairman made a point with which I wish to associate myself. Perhaps there is an argument for a further report about science teaching in primary schools; the Committee might give some consideration to that. We all agree that many of the weaknesses that we have identified in our secondary school system have their origins in the primary school system. It is not generally understood that science is critical to the future of the United Kingdom, not only in strict economic terms or in the way in which it adds strength and value to UK plc through innovation, new inventions and new products but because it can liberate individuals and lead to a better quality of life.

Some recent debates on science that have been controversial and political, whether on bovine spongiform encephalopathy, the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, or genetics and embryo research, have shown that although we do not have an anti-science culture—I would not go that far—the population are unsure how to deal with scientific matters, and how to make a reasoned response based on evidence. People therefore find themselves in great difficulty when faced with the need to make calculations of risk. There is value in strengthening our science teaching in schools, not only for those who will become professional scientists and technologists but for the population at large. The population need to be able to make more mature judgments, particularly when assessing and calculating risk, because as science develops, and as it permeates more aspects of all our lives, that sort of judgment will be necessary.

One or two hon. Members have mentioned citizenship. Just as we are concerned about the disengagement of sections of our population from the political process, particularly the young, so we should be concerned that large sections of the population have become disengaged from the scientific process. We face a difficult future if our society is built on a minority of elite scientists who understand the issues and who have the self-confidence and knowledge to debate them, because the majority of people will have no idea about what is under discussion. The majority will effectively be disfranchised from the major public debates of the day.

It is a great tragedy that science teaching in schools has been so weak in so many ways. I do not underestimate our many achievements or the major progress that has been made in recent years. However, children and young people have a natural curiosity about things scientific. They are fascinated by things as varied as the future of the rain forests, the growth of information technology, the design of motor cars and space travel, yet that is not translated into widespread interest in the classroom. The only conclusion that we can draw from the failure to engage with the natural curiosity of young people is that there must be something wrong with teaching and with the curriculum. The report accurately reflects many of the specific weaknesses that have to be dealt with.

The hon. Gentleman makes some splendid points. He may wish to consider whether we are at risk of dressing science up too much as a matter of facts, and not enough as a matter for debate. I feel strongly that that brings science into disregard. Does he agree that the lack of enthusiasm in schools is partly a reflection of the cynicism that many people have for sciences that appear constantly to be changing?

The hon. Gentleman anticipates a point that I was about to make; I ask him to be patient for a little while. Indeed, it will be my main argument.

In the curriculum, we focus too much on the separation of individual subjects, including the sciences, although we now have a double science award. I note the criticisms of the son-in-law of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) about the double science award and its relationship to study post-16. However, we separate the sciences from the arts and humanities in a way that is not altogether productive. That serves to intimidate some young people and to reinforce the idea that science is somehow a harder subject, which leads to a switching-off from the study of science at an early age.

A point that comes across forcefully from the evidence that young people gave in the report is that many of them desperately want to engage in controversial issues that are rooted in science. They want to talk about the issues that they see discussed on television and that they read about in newspapers. There is insufficient time in the national curriculum for young people to do that, which reinforces the point made by the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), that providing more opportunity for discussion of current controversial topics would increase the enthusiasm of young people for confronting the factual evidence base of science.

Will my hon. Friend bear it in mind that the Government agreed that the Arts and Humanities Research Board would become an arts and humanities research council? The chief executive of that fledgling research council now attends meetings of the other research councils, which we did the day before yesterday. It was interesting to note that the chairmen of the biological sciences and engineering councils initially asked, "What are these people doing here, and what use will we get out of it?" After a couple of meetings, they asked how they could ever have done without them. They are finding all sorts of connections and synergies, which is a good story to tell in this context.

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point, and it is good to see that sort of progressive development in higher education. My argument is that, so often, progress in our society starts at the top and takes a long time to filter down. It would be far better to examine what is happening at the bottom, and we should have the sort of progressive integration between the sciences and the humanities that exists in almost every primary school in the country. We need to reinforce this in our secondary schools, but the current design of the national curriculum has worked against that.

May I join in the party in support of the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter), a distinguished philosopher, by pointing out that students of that discipline are typically recruited from members of a wide range of disciplines—scientists, mathematicians and people from the humanities. In a sense, that handling of concepts, which is so central to the way in which we interpret our society, can derive some of its strength from the fact that it is not a one-shot route of entry. It can bring together a series of different disciplines on matters of public concern.

I agree completely. It is a matter of great regret that the national curriculum, as it is currently constructed, does not formally recognise philosophy. With the growth of citizenship, we may have more opportunities to introduce a more philosophical dimension to the national curriculum. I am sure that members of the Committee will correct me if I am wrong, but I am reminded of the remarks made by Einstein, who said that imagination was more important than knowledge. I think that he said that—[Laughter.]—which serves to reinforce the general drift of the argument on which we all seem to agree.

We must examine the impact of assessment on the national curriculum. In the national debate of the past 12 months, the balance is now shifting on the curriculum and assessment. There is a general recognition, which must be reflected in Government policy in due course, that we are over-assessing our young people at almost every level of their education. That also comes across strongly in the report from both teachers and students. We must seriously review the volume of assessment and the way in which work is assessed. In particular, we must examine the balance between external and internal assessment.

I have commented briefly on the problems of the curriculum and assessment, but I also want to comment, as other hon. Members have done, on the problems of teacher recruitment and retention. Figures have been cited on the proportion of people teaching physics who do not have a degree in it. I am sure that similar figures apply for teachers of biology and chemistry. I know that the Government introduced the concept of golden hellos and fee exemption for people starting PGCE courses. However, more must be done. I reinforce the point made about the lack of reliable evidence about staffing in schools.

I urge the Government to tackle the problem, because unless there is evidence of the number of staff with the requisite qualifications teaching particular courses, they cannot form a sensible policy. Teaching science must be made more attractive to young people.

There has been some progress since the report was published. One difficulty in attracting high-quality recruits to teaching is a policy of full employment. We have to grapple with the dilemma that when there are ample jobs in the economy, it is more difficult to recruit people into the public services generally, and especially into teaching subjects that have a strong market value elsewhere in the economy.

It is not all doom and gloom; far from it. Schools are performing better year on year at GCSE and A-level, of which the most recent league tables, published this week, give further evidence. The Government have responded to criticisms about the lack of capital investment for a generation by implementing a £60 million programme to refurbish laboratories. We look forward to an extension of that programme, of which I have seen evidence in my constituency. Last week, I visited the Holy Cross sixth form college, which was just putting the finishing touches to a new suite of laboratories, which provide a far better teaching environment than anything it had before.

Although there were difficulties in the early stages of the curriculum 2000 reforms because the programme was not properly piloted, there is now a far more flexible, modular post-16 curriculum, which in theory will make it easier for a broader range of students to take science options.

I want to finish by making four specific points: first, the further development of the curriculum is not just a matter of considering what happens at GCSE. With a 14 to 19 curriculum, GCSEs will become less relevant and may ultimately disappear. We must consider the 14 to 19 phase of education as a whole and look at the development of a baccalaureate, to which considerable thought is being given at present. We can crack the problem and move in the right direction if the importance of GCSEs diminishes and we develop a modular 14 to 19 curriculum that encourages more young people to take science; it will build up their confidence in stages when they are successful in different modules.

In the past two weeks, the chief executive of the QCA has said that we must move to a modular GCSE programme. It is a great irony in the education system that the value of modular structures is widely understood at university level, and has more recently been accepted for the 16 to 19 phase through the development of curriculum 2000; but the school system, especially at key stage 4, has continued to hang on to two-year courses, largely built on terminal assessment. It is true that coursework plays a part in GCSEs and that there are some modular GCSEs and half GCSEs, but for those students who most need the incentive of having their achievements recognised at regular intervals, the structure of the curriculum works against them. In revising the 14 to 19 curriculum, diminishing the importance of GCSE and developing a British baccalaureate, we must move to a modular structure which should enable more young people to benefit from science, and to mix and match science with the humanities.

Secondly, a wider range of better careers advice for young people of about 13 or 14 is desperately needed, because as they go to school and live their normal lives, they see only certain kinds of adults in certain kinds of jobs. They can see teachers, nurses, doctors, bus drivers, shop assistants and hairdressers, but they cannot see scientists. At that important, impressionable age, therefore, young people do not have role models in science. At least, they do not have any on their doorsteps; they may see something on television, but, almost by definition, that is remote and not something to which they really aspire. We must therefore go through the Connexions service and use individual schools' resources. We must do much more work on giving young people a clearer idea of the career opportunities in science. We must also do far more to provide work experience so that young people at the beginning and end of key stage 4 can spend time outside school in local firms that work in a scientific field.

Thirdly, I want to reinforce the point that was touched on earlier about the need to link science with the humanities and particularly with philosophy. Our curriculum needs to provide much more opportunity to discuss controversial issues. As every good teacher should know, children learn best when they are actively engaged in doing practical things or in discussing and asking questions. The difficulty is that far too much science teaching has been hopelessly didactic, which is one reason why it has switched young people off at an early stage. I am looking for a curriculum that is less rigidly divided between science and the humanities. I am looking to encourage and train young teachers who can teach in an integrated and flexible way.

My fourth and final point relates to the way in which the specialist schools programme could strengthen and enhance science teaching. I pay tribute to the head teacher and staff of Derby high school in my constituency. Earlier this year, it became the first school in the country to be awarded specialist school status for science and the arts. It has planned a hugely ambitious programme of curriculum development, which was clearly instrumental in its being given that unique designation. I commend the school as a model for the future.

We are all desperately keen to strengthen science teaching at the highest levels, and we all know the importance to the national economy of creating a new generation of scientists and technologists. Although we are all conscious of those things and want to drive standards in the hard sciences continuously upwards, we must always recognise the importance of instilling a sound understanding of scientific principles in our young people as a whole. Many schools could build on the specialist science and arts school model. They could use the curriculum imaginatively, creating more space in it for integrated projects, and building on and encouraging children's natural curiosity and imagination, thus enabling them to come to science by that route.

I commend the Chairman and his Committee on their excellent report. I look forward to the follow-up report on science teaching in primary schools.

4.2 pm

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. It is a great privilege to—

Order. I would be remiss in my duty if I did not remind hon. Members that the House has decided that the occupant of this Chair should be referred to as a Deputy Speaker.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Old ways die hard.

It is a privilege to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor). He and other hon. Members have perhaps anticipated many of the things that I wanted to say. However, I want to dwell on the conception of science that so many young people have, which the education system fails to comprehend or deal with.

The other day, I heard a Minister talking about top-up fees, which might seem some way removed from the report. However, the Minister said, "Why should someone who left school at 16 and who never went to university pay for someone else's university education?" On hearing that, my first thoughts were, "Do people who have not been to university ever go to a doctor? Do they ever drive over a bridge? Do their children breathe air that is cleaner by far than it would have been if many people had not laboured to ensure that emissions from our factories and motor vehicles are less corrosive and damaging?" Those who do not go on to higher education nevertheless benefit enormously from the activities of those who do.

It is particularly interesting that the arguments that most often spring to mind come from the sciences. A society with great achievements in the sciences has the clearest connection between the advancement of knowledge and the promotion of the understanding, and hence the life prospects, of its population.

I am slightly inclined to say that again, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I see that the Minister is so familiar with the point that perhaps she has heard it from me before. Ministers who do not have sciences at the forefront of their thinking are more likely to regard such education as a self-indulgence than as an achievement that is of huge benefit to everyone else in society. Just as the sciences may not be at the forefront of Ministers' consciousness, it is also true that many young people's conception of science is severely limited. One problem that we may face in an advanced society is the pollution of a river. If we ask a young person—I have done this experiment, albeit only informally at coffee mornings in my constituency—to think about how scientists connect with that pollution, they are far more likely to think that the scientists caused the pollution than that they have the capacity to remedy it.

We on the Science and Technology Committee are so passionate about the sciences and engineering because of their capacity to transform lives for the better, not only in our society but on the wider world stage. As a Member of Parliament, I had the privilege of visiting Mozambique to monitor an election. In place after place, and circumstance after circumstance, one could see how desperately that society needed engineers and scientists to sort out its water supply, to remove the rotting hulks in the harbour at Beira, which were left over from the civil war, and to try to cure the dreadful residual problems with agricultural impoverishment and the presence of landmines.

Scientists improve the quality of our lives and we depend on them for that quality to be sustained. One of my constituents waited 18 weeks for a scan for cervical cancer, because there was a shortage of scientists in the pathology lab. When she got the result, it was positive—and too late. How many young people understand when they sneer at the sciences in school and say, "It's not for me," what sort of society this would be if too many people said and thought that? How are we to protect a society that needs graduate chemists when the number of chemistry students and chemistry departments that are available to teach people falls like a stone every year?

It is not good enough for a Government to plan to have 50 per cent, of the population in universities without ever asking themselves what proportion of those students are to be engineers and scientists. It is no good for the Government to refuse to do the figures to connect the policies on science with the kind of country that we are trying to create. I talked about the sense of science being on the back burner for Ministers and about its being regarded as nerdish by too many students who think of it as "not for me". They are given far more attractive alternatives.

My daughters, aged eight and 11, would far rather have a career starring in "EastEnders" or possibly featuring in "Pop Idol". That is no great surprise. Before I do my surgeries on a Saturday morning I have to deliver them to theatre training, where they spend three hours assiduously acquiring all the right talents to pursue that career, such as it is. However, they do not yet have a negative conception of science. That will begin at about the time that they are told for the 17th time that Pluto is the most distant planet in the solar system. Something that was initially exciting and interesting is enervating when one has revisited it for the umpteenth time. Young people seem to have a conception that the kind of person that one needs to be to do science is different from the kind of person one needs to be to be a singer or an actor. The latter are participants; they are given scope for creativity. There is a humour that, if one has the right voice or mannerisms, can come relatively easily. I speak as a one-time excellent second butler in "The Importance of Being Earnest."

Young people have a negative conception of science. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North hit on an important point that was reflected in a short memorandum given to the Committee as part of the evidence: scientific education is one of the last surviving authoritarian social and intellectual systems in Europe. When young people go into a science lesson they are temporarily told to be primarily motoring in receptivity gear and not in participatory gear, and in this day and age they find that increasingly difficult.

I take slight issue with my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) when he says that one science teacher might give one interpretation of a phenomenon and another a different one, which leads to "confusion". My view is that confusion is the grandmother of understanding. Only those who have been confused, had their confusion indulged and been allowed to work their way out of it may achieve the state that we call understanding. There is far too little of that in science education.

The memorandum from Dr. Gerry Ravetz makes just that point. He says that
"students absorb the lesson that every real scientific problem has one and only one simple, correct answer."
That is the kind of answer that one gets on "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?", which might be a slightly awkward reference these days. [Interruption.] That coughing comes right on cue. I finally get the right answer. Dr. Ravetz continues:
"This mindset can be seriously disabling for all who eventually deal with science-related policy problems."
In a sense, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority deals with science-related policy problems because it is charged with trying to provide us with a system in which science has its proper place within the wider curriculum, but the people who advise the QCA on the scientific content of courses and the required standards and assessment do not have the breadth of vision to see how it connects with the other subjects in that package. Dr. Ravetz argues that it is important to get a wide understanding of the connection between scientific understanding and the desire to understand engineering systems, and the wider understanding of how human beings think, whether consequently or inconsequently, about the world in which we live.

The first thing that we must do is get the Government to acknowledge that we have a real problem. We cannot assume that there will always be people coming through who study the sciences. There is a cultural problem. I welcome the new curriculums that seek to address that, but the courses are expensive. In our report we state that they are more demanding of people's intellectual powers than many other courses that they might be offered. We also point out that people have a negative view of the contribution that one makes to a better society when one dons a white coat.

We do not want the Government to say, "We disagree," as happens so often in their response. We want them to engage with us in transforming the conception of science held by so many young people so that more of them take up the challenges of the sciences, and more of them become engineers, chemists and hospital technicians. If we do that, we will retain the high quality of provision in society that we have enjoyed heretofore, the neglect of which endangers our collective future.

4.18 pm

For me, the debate stems from the diminishing supply of university applicants and graduates in what are regarded as the hard sciences. They are hard because they tend to be hard to understand and because they are damn hard work. Let us be honest about it. That puts the country in a difficult position. If we lose the capacity for research and development and hence innovation, we will be relegated as a nation to being simply a less intelligent consumer of other people's scientific and technological innovation and to a future of economic decline. Our only real resource as a nation is our intellectual resource, and we must husband, grow and nurture it. Our scientists and technologists are the vital core of our future.

The cause of the problem involves many factors, and it is not exclusive to the United Kingdom. Other countries also complain that there are too few would-be graduates going into the hard sciences—physics and chemistry—or into engineering. German universities make the same complaint, but not to the same desperate extent as those in the UK.

Chemistry and physics departments are closing at an alarming rate throughout the UK. Why is that happening? I do not believe that one can isolate a single factor—there are many. One is undoubtedly the decoupling of science and engineering from society, which has resulted in scientists and engineers not being well regarded by the rest of society. If most people were asked what an engineer was, they would say that he was a guy in oily overalls who fixed cars, and not someone who is a highly trained and skilled professional. That perception rubs off on young people, who do not see science or technology as a sexy, attractive career option, especially when the road to qualification in those subjects is hard.

Moreover, there is a perception, which is not entirely wrong, that the career opportunities for scientists and technologists are not that wonderful. My hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) gave the example of one of his patients who had to wait for a cancer scan for several months, until it was too late, because there were not enough laboratory scientists. That is a good example of the way in which we undervalue and underpay our scientists.

Medical laboratory scientists have been scandalously abused for years in that respect. It was not until the Government did something about that in the last year or so that the situation changed slightly. A new graduate entering the Public Health Laboratory Service used to start on the princely salary of less than £8,000 a year. It is therefore scarcely surprising that the supply of recruits had completely dried up and that that had created a crisis in the hospital laboratory service. It meant that a modern, science-based medical service could not possibly function, because those people are as essential as doctors.

Many television programmes make certain jobs seem very attractive. There is no shortage of willing recruits into medicine. Not only do people think that doctors are well paid, which they are, but medicine is also seen as sexy, because there must be 10 or 20 hours—I have never counted them—of television soaps based on doctors and nurses on the different channels. That is a pretty good recruitment advertisement. How many television soaps have there been about research scientists or engineers? I cannot remember a single one. If we could persuade television companies to run one or two such soaps, we might provoke some interest and start to change the image of scientists and technologists. We would have to chat up the TV producers pretty intensively to get a result.

That problem is not unconnected to the education problem—the whole thing is a circle. I have no doubt that science education in schools—the subject of the report—is another crucial factor. I have done a bit of science teaching in schools. I would not say that I speak with authority, but I know the problems at first hand. Indeed, I was working in a school when a previous Government introduced the Baker educational reforms—Gerbil, or the great Education Reform Bill—that saddled schools with the GCSE curriculum.

The GCE O-level and CSE curriculums were not that wonderful, but they were a little more flexible than the new GCSE, which turned teaching, and especially science teaching, into an exercise by numbers. Teachers are given no latitude and it is a densely factual curriculum. What matters is that teachers should be able to tick the right boxes at the end of a module to say that the kids have achieved a bit of key stage 3 and so on. That leaves absolutely no room to follow interest for its own sake, or to foster a spirit of discovery.

I was a scientist and I became interested in science because I was excited by it. There is no way that a child could be excited by the present GCSE curriculum. It is impossible: it is an oxymoron. That is why the report says that we must focus on developing something new—something that will encourage scientific literacy and understanding rather than teachers simply having to tick the right factual boxes. Not only that, but we must leave time for exploration and discovery.

When kids ask questions in class about a topical subject, such as genetically modified food, or the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, the teacher must not say, "Sorry, but we do not have time for that." The children need to be able to explore such topics. It is not a party political matter, but it was no surprise that the Government came badly unstuck over GM foods. A misjudged article in the Daily Mail carried far more weight than anything that the scientists could say, because the general population's understanding of the issues was so poor. Accusations of witchcraft were much more attractive than what the scientists saw as the reasonable and factual basis for the problem.

We are taking kids from primary school who are keen on science and probably enjoy it and sending them to secondary school and the GCSE curriculum; unless they are particularly dedicated, that will simply turn off their interest in science. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) mentioned nostalgically his days of "stinks". Children cannot do that any more; it just does not happen. He is right that practical work is crucial to developing science education. We inhibit practical work at the expense of getting kids who are interested in science. It is as simple as that. Given the circumstances in which most science teachers have to work—apparatus that does not work, bits of glassware that do not fit—experiments either are unsuccessful or do not happen. That cannot be allowed to continue. We let it perpetuate at our peril.

We have heard about technicians. Their role in science teaching is crucial, yet they have been treated even worse than the medical laboratory scientific officers I mentioned. Many of them have been in the sort of situation that this Government introduced the national minimum wage to relieve—they are so badly paid. In most schools, at the end of term, that is it—they have to go away and they do not get paid for the holidays. People who have to make a living are not attracted to the job. Schools are reliant on women—mothers for whom the hours fit with their family responsibilities and who can survive on a miserable pittance. In addition, our society, which largely values people according to what they are paid, does not treat them with any respect. That is a sad situation.

So, we have lots of problems. We are happy that new syllabuses are being explored. Some A-level syllabuses, in particular, have been successful in making physics more attractive to students. That is good. Just as we have problems with the GCSE syllabus, so we have problems with the A-level syllabus. Traditionally, as science has moved on, things that were once taught only to university students start to be taught to A-level students, but nothing is taken out of the syllabus, so it gets stuffed and stuffed until it becomes totally indigestible.

We need to focus syllabuses—at any level—so that they not only have time built in for individual exploration and development, but they focus on scientific understanding and literacy as opposed to simple facts. The facts are there to tell a story and it is the story that matters. If people understand the story and why it is there, hanging the facts around it is relatively simple—they will be understood. Just as it is important to keep up our supply of future innovators, it is vital to expose the rest of the public to sufficient science to enable them to understand their world.

We have to fight against all sorts of problems. Even when science graduates emerge from university, they will not necessarily work in science because we pay them poorly and offer them poor career prospects, certainly in academia. Most of them end up on short-term contracts not knowing where their next year's salary is coming from and spending most of their time writing research proposals. We do not set out sensible career paths. It is not surprising that far too many of the brightest science graduates that we produce go into the City, where they make a lot of money and do not have to slog in the way that they would at the bench.

An awful lot is loaded against us. Let us at least do what we can in education to ensure that at school we give kids the best chance to develop their interests and talents in science and to allow that to happen more naturally than we do now. If we do that successfully, we shall at least increase the number of young people who go into science and technology. That is essential for the sake of our country's future.

4.35 pm

A great deal has been said and I shall not endeavour to repeat it, although I congratulate the Chairman and the Committee on producing a splendid report. I enjoyed it in the best possible scientific spirit, in so far as it reinforced all my prejudices and provided confirmation of what I already believed.

I was going to begin by saying that I am not a scientist, but then I realised that that very remark incautiously betrays what is wrong with British education, which is based on the old C. P. Snow two-culture model. People are encouraged early in life to define themselves as scientists or non-scientists, and it is not unfair to say that schools do the same. Science teachers—I am sure that hon. Members who have been science teachers are exceptions—are quite keen early on to designate certain pupils as potential scientists. The education system has hitherto worked largely as a filtering system that identifies scientists and sends them further up the line, while non-scientists move on to other things.

There is a marked contrast between the English education system and the German education system, in which people are not free to define themselves as non-scientists until they are free of the system itself. The old English A-level system was fundamentally based on determining whether one would go on the science or the arts side. The results of that are good-quality university science undergraduates, but low general scientific literacy. Governments have perpetually worried about that, and for years and years have thought that it puts the country at a commercial, technological and occasionally intellectual disadvantage.

I note that the Committee's report mentions the Devonshire royal commission which, I think, dates back to the 1830s, when what we are debating was also debated. Governments in those days worried about the lack of science because they thought that that would put the country at a severe military disadvantage. They thought that poetry won few wars, although I noticed outside Downing street the other day that poets were campaigning against the war. A big sign had been hung up that said, "Poets Against the War".

To be fair to the Government—I am always inclined to be that—there have been quite significant changes. The quantity and quality of primary school science has improved appreciably over the last decade or so. The national curriculum, which a Conservative Government introduced, has meant that people do not drop science before they are 16. Prior to the national curriculum, there were many schools at which very little science was taught. Therefore, there has not been a total, or even systematic, decline. The quality of resources, of teaching materials and even of some laboratories has improved. The improvement has not been universal and there has not been as much of it as we would like, but there have been significant improvements since the 1970s and 1980s. Although the Committee does not rate IT as the panacea that will make people thoroughly engage in science, it is a useful supplement to scientific education. The audiovisual resources available to teach science now are far superior to those in days gone by.

Nevertheless, we must still record the underachievement in terms of subject entry, subject success and university entry when pupils leave school. Given the resources that have been committed, the results are quite disappointing and require an explanation. One explanation could be that the subjects are genuinely hard, that science is tough: one cannot access it straight away and one must learn the appropriate language for each subject. However, if that were true, our profile would look exactly the same as those of other nations, yet it clearly does not. There is a difference between how we perform in science and science education, and how, for example, the Japanese and Germans perform.

I thought for a second that we are unsuccessful because students of that age are just plain cussed: if people of our age preach to them that they should do science, the chances are that they will do precisely the opposite. Another villain of the piece that many hon. Members have mentioned—

I have been reflecting on the hon. Gentleman's comments. We are scientists and we deal in evidence. What evidence does he have to support his contention that we do less well in science education than the Japanese and the Germans?

The hon. Gentleman has caught me on the hop. I cannot cite the empirical evidence, but would quite happily look it up and observe. However, if he thinks that we do better than any other country, why on earth are we having this debate in the first place? If Japan and Germany were the not the right examples, I am sure that I could cite others that were. Otherwise, this debate would be entirely needless, because we would then be the best country in the world and could rest on our laurels.

Many have mentioned teaching style, which is a key point. Teaching style is to some extent a product of the need for departments in schools to get the right results and places in league tables, in order to satisfy the powers that be in those schools that they are achieving as they should be, in pure quantitative terms. That means that although science is being taught in an unimaginative way or a way that does not inspire pupils to go further, none the less, the school's requirements are satisfied, if the results make it look as though there has been some kind of improvement.

The Select Committee is entirely right that the way forward for science education is to engage with more of the issues relating to pupils' lives—what we might call the social or softer scientific issues. Another point made in the report, which I do not think that anyone has stressed so far, is that science education should centre on key ideas, rather than on masses of detail. Were it to do that, it could address some of the values that people would like to see form part of a scientific education. Creativity, imagination and questioning have been mentioned, all good elements, which attract students.

School students currently have every inducement to study science. In careers advice, students are universally told that if they take a science subject at stage A, they will keep their options open, and if they take science at stage B, they will still keep their options open, but if they forsake it at stage A, they turn their back on it for ever and their options are closed, so there is substantial lobbying by careers masters against taking subjects other than science. I genuinely do not think that pupils are unaware of the fact that, on balance, taking science is probably better, in career terms, than taking other subjects, however dire the prospects may be for some scientists. I think that there are some students, however, who fancy that there is a quick way to the top, and to relative affluence, by taking subjects such as business studies and economics, although they are capable of studying science. Somehow, we have not got the recipe right in order to attract students.

I am especially sad about the trouble that we have experienced with AS-levels, which could have offered a way forward. They could have ensured—but so far have not ensured—that, by virtue of studying a wider mix of subjects, students need not join a strange set called scientists in order to be interested and scientifically switched on. AS-levels would make it possible to complement an arts education with a science education, and vice versa. Our pattern of education has not been universally welcomed by those in the universities, who prefer narrowness because it shortens the time that they need to spend on undergraduate education. The failure of the AS-level system to broaden the educational curriculum strengthens the case for a baccalaureate system, as has already been emphasised in a previous contribution.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one possible way forward is for scientific case studies to feature in the new syllabus on critical thinking, which the Government are proposing? That might meet some of the objections that we have raised by enabling people to have sensible discussions about scientific issues.

I recognise that a course in critical thinking would have some benefit, although the current attempts to provide such a course are inadequate. I have some criticisms of them, and I say that as someone who has taken part in pilot projects for such courses. There is some way to go before we have a good vehicle to extend pupils' wider understanding.

One promising development that is crucial and may help in addressing some of the problems detailed today is the Government's emphasis on the skills agenda in the 14 to 19 age group. If science is presented not as something done by strange men in white coats but in relation to practical issues that people understand, can relate to and already know about, interest in it will increase. The more science is portrayed as a cult—I know that science has its esoteric specialisms—or something that is done differently from wider thinking tasks, and not as a system of rational techniques, theories and facts designed to widen our comprehension of ourselves and the world, the less people will opt for it. No one actually avoids science in this world; even those who turn their backs on it at school subsequently have to adapt to a scientific mode of thinking when they find themselves confronted with issues that require it.

It seems to me that Britain has an excellent record in producing very good science graduates and excellent scientific institutions. However, we have not succeeded in becoming a nation at ease with science. There is a distinction to be drawn between the way that engineers are regarded in this country—as nerdy, boffin-type characters—and in Germany, where they are seen as valuable social contributors. That emphasises the point made by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner).

In the education system and the wider world, we still have a sort of cultural apartheid that can be countered only by a sort of cultural revolution. To be fair, in order to accommodate and produce that revolution, the structures in education and the examination system can play only a partial role. What is required is widespread scientific literacy, as opposed to people becoming ever more specialised in the specific concerns of scientific research.

I do not know if many hon. Members have much experience of going to something as out of the way as a computer fair, but if one goes to such a fair, one will see a huge range of people, the vast majority of whom have no formal scientific education. Their jobs may be very ordinary and quite unexceptional and they may have no scientific specialism, but they discuss technical matters with a degree of knowledge, interest and real perception that is unexpected.

The cultural revolution that is required in the spreading of scientific literacy is not an impossible dream. The Government are surely right in stressing that a precondition for that is adequate numeracy. That is the big bar to what many people call the hard sciences. Numeracy needs to be built up and developed at primary level. The Government are not wrong to consider that as an important target and they are not wrong to consider what happens to people in a world where an understanding of science is required, but who are excluded from understanding the science agenda by virtue of being relatively innumerate.

In conclusion, the Government are not altogether unaware of the problem that we are encountering. The Liberal Democrat education team did a little research in schools—particularly among science teachers. We asked specifically: what is the fundamental reason why science teachers give up science teaching and go on to other things? Why do they not stay the course? The answer was not disruption. It was not the fact that pupils were giving them a lot of unnecessary trouble that they had not expected when they came into the business. They complained about being overloaded with work and bureaucracy. What had happened over a period was that a job that they had thought to be enjoyable and fun had become something else. If science education is to prosper, the same rules must apply as for all education: bureaucracy and the overburdening of work must end.

4.50 pm

This has been a very constructive and welcome debate. I join in the congratulations to the Science and Technology Committee, its distinguished Chairman, the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), and those hon. Members who have participated in the debate, which has been marked by a high degree of consensus.

To pick up the phrase of the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), there is a pretty strong tide of enthusiasm for doing something about the problem. The only counselling I would offer at this stage is that the problem is not new. It goes back to the 19th century, and we have been talking about it ever since. We and other enthusiasts will go on talking about the problem, but no one has cracked it yet. We need to have that awful warning. One reason for the problem is that, although we may discuss it in a comparatively modest and consensual format, many opinion formers never engage with it and do not care about doing anything about it. That is just an initial warning.

It would be a good idea if the Committee recorded its thanks to the unsung heroes of this exercise—the individual teachers, who have been praised implicitly. I am thinking also of the Association for Science Education and others who have laboured long and hard to try to make practical improvements in this field.

I have very little to bring to the party, as the Chairman of the Committee will know, because I am not a scientist, although he may give me a different perspective. I am one of those victims of an early selection process. On reflection, I can say that, having never lost my interest in the natural world and having been deeply offended at having to make that early parting of the ways, I have always wanted to reinvest myself into concern about these matters. It has just occurred to me that if I had been through the conventional process, I might well have suffered the symptoms that are well identified in the report. I am talking about those people who reach the end of key stage 4 and find science repetitive and the regurgitation of facts a serious turn-off to any future interest in the subject. Perhaps by accident, I have reached a better position than I would have through the conventional route, but I hope not as the essence of what we want to do is to improve the conventional route.

Reading the report, I was struck by an issue that has not quite come out this afternoon, which is the extent to which Governments should be directly involved in the process. To put it more tendentiously, how do we strike the difficult balance between indifference on the one hand and micro-management on the other? The answer must be for this Government, as successive Governments have done on the whole, to take an interest through the national curriculum, and to set broad parameters, including support for the continuation of science as a major part of the key stage 4 curriculum. The Government should make the arrangements for the appropriate palette of qualifications, although of course it is not necessary to specify them in detail. They should indirectly provide, or ensure that the necessary resources are provided, for the delivery of science education.

In that context, we must—all members of the Committee said as much—be concerned at the continuing endemic shortage of specialist science teachers. I note, for example, from yesterday's Teacher Training Agency figures—unless I have misread them—that the number of trainees doing physics is still less than 10 per cent. of those doing English. As my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) commented, far too high a proportion of science lessons are taken by those without specialist knowledge of the subject. It is difficult to convey relevant detail, or indeed enthusiasm, without the underpinning knowledge to be able to do so.

The report rightly touched on the problems of outdated laboratory facilities, which may say something about the priorities of individual local education authorities and even school governors, and the identified shortage of 4,000 technicians. I notice that the Engineering and Technology Board, whose comments are helpfully brief for the debate, makes the chilling comment that figures point to a 50 per cent, shortage of technicians in the UK work force. The problem does not affect only schools, but is major and systemic, and we will need to address it. In the context of schools, these difficulties with laboratories and technicians add to the problems of image and the delivery of science education. I hope that the Minister will comment on some of those problems in her concluding remarks.

I do not seek to shake the consensus that we have established, but underpinning—overarching, if one prefers—the whole discussion is how the Government will approach the wider context. There have been problems with the curriculum 2000 reforms, to put it mildly. The Government are reconsidering wider contexts and examining the 14 to 19 curriculum under Mike Tomlinson. That is probably the right way to think about things, and I wish the Minister well in that major task. It is, however, coincident with the age range of the report. It is important for her to give some indication of how education for that age range may be approached. Others mentioned moving to a baccalaureate or other system, and what vehicles and institutions would be required to deliver that.

The report's most interesting finding was recommendation 6, which explicitly exposes the dilemma between engaging all students with science as a preparation for life and the aim of inspiring or preparing a group of pupils to continue with science post-16. It briskly and accurately concludes:
"In practice, the present system does neither of these well".
That is the problem—we are falling between two stools.

The Government's response is somewhat oblique. They say that a great deal will depend on the pilots of an innovative GCSE structure that will engage
"pupils with contemporary scientific issues and focussing on their role as users and consumers of science."
At the same time, the Committee's report accepts that there is a tension between whether or not to incorporate additional mathematical skills at what I might call the pre-vocational stage when we consider science A-levels, where some innovative work has been undertaken.

Frankly, I am surprised that the word "mathematics" has not been mentioned in the debate so far because, as scientists on the Committee will know, it is central to physics. Even the Committee rejected it because of the suggestion that it could be a turn-off for students. In a sense, I understand that, because once pupils have reached the age of 16, they have absolutely no obligation to continue with scientific studies when there are competing options. That must be a consideration. If we talk to people at university level, especially where the sciences have reconfigured themselves into single-subject areas, we find that some are seriously worried about the competence of those who present themselves to universities.

Does the hon. Gentleman recall a remark by Stephen Hawking to the effect that one equation in his book halved its readership?

I had forgotten that, but it was probably after I had switched off myself. The number of those who opened the book but did not finish reading it is perhaps greater than those who stayed the course.

The issue, which does not divide individuals, let alone parties, is how to introduce greater flexibility without loss of rigour. It is understood that if a better understanding of science is to be our major concern, we must not shed scientists' science, because that is important, but neither must we make the curriculum a soft option that people will take because it gets them out of a hole.

Part of the problem is an underlying national problem with mathematics. If there is still such a problem, it has its origins further back and it has not yet been completely overcome by the numeracy strategy in primary schools. There is no doubt that academic sciences are hard disciplines. They require proper numeracy and conceptual underpinning. At the advanced level there is bound to be some pull towards apparently softer options, such as media studies.

At the same time, those who are likely not to aspire to be scientists—most of us—need to understand scientific relevance. I can understand why people propose what I would call thematic options. My reservation about those is that unless they are carefully thought out, they do not convey the underpinning knowledge, and at worst they run the risk of being a kind of psychobabble, referring to subjects without understanding them. Those hon. Members who have commented, rightly, that the curriculum is too authoritarian and deals in facts must not lead us to the opposite conclusion—that everything must hang out and that all possible views are defensible. In a sense that is true, just as one could still make a case for Copernicus and the various ways in which he interpreted the universe. However, they are wrong, and we now know how it does work. We have, at least, to have a measure of reservation before suggesting that we should merely discuss a topic among friends, with all the options laid out. That is different from saying that one should not confront issues and explain the underpinning science.

It is interesting to move from recommendation 6 of the report to the discussion on the curriculum. The Government's response to recommendation 39 contains an intriguing suggestion about preparing science for citizenship. However, I caution against swapping prejudices, even about an area that is relevant to us as citizens, electors and decision makers. A subject such as food safety, about which I know a little, is clearly relevant to the economy, and it deeply engages the emotions. However, it cannot be considered without a robust and critical view of the underlying science.

Perhaps I display some of my own academic interests and qualifications, acquired at different stages, when I say that my preference is that any such course should at least be grounded in statistical method. We have discussed the need for evidence-based analysis. The acquisition, validation and presentation of evidence is central to the scientific principle, and the supporting analysis that statistics can bring is important in coming to evidence-based scientific conclusions.

I do not suggest—because it can be daunting—that every teenager should be required to invert a matrix, even though I can remember doing it before computers were available. It was an extremely difficult task. However, some basic statistical notions that are relevant to the issue of risk, which we have discussed, need to be imparted—they are central to the public understanding of science. For example, the concepts of a normal distribution, a standard deviation and what is or is not statistically significant are central to any informed appraisal or discussion of the modern world. If we are to consider issues of great public concern, be they the MMR vaccine or GM crops or food safety, we must engage in the debate.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. However, should those issues not be part of the critical thinking procedure that we discussed earlier?

I have no difficulty with that. If we are to have a discussion about public policy under the science remit of the curriculum, it is important that there is an underpinning structure. It must not be seen as merely a concertation of views or as a suggestion that all views have equal validity. Of course, all views have a right to be expressed and it is right that we listen to them. Nevertheless, there must be a scientific basis.

I have been perturbed for the past five minutes, ever since the hon. Gentleman said that Copernicus was wrong. As I understand it, Copernicus formulated the heliocentric view of the universe rather than the geocentric view. I would not want Hansard to record the hon. Gentleman as defending a geocentric view of the universe.

We could go into the issue of whether certain persons would suggest that in order to wind me up. I believe that the hon. Gentleman is right, because even as I said it, I thought I might have got some of it wrong. Copernicus was getting over epicycles if I remember. However, that is a long time ago and shows how little astronomy I have done recently. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman; we will progress in our knowledge and understanding as we go.

Another important area of potential confusion is the interface between science studies on the one hand and technology on the other. It is easy to conflate or confuse them, and there may be some relevance in doing so. The Minister may want to comment on that, as 14 to 19 education is highly relevant here. I am a little suspicious—perhaps it is a professional cynicism—about blended qualifications. There is always a danger, when we have a bit of a vocational element and a bit of rigorous general or academic attainment, of falling between two stools. It may be better to have freestanding qualifications that earn their own rights in their particular areas and add up to a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. I leave the Minister to comment on that.

On reflection, I feel that the report and the Government's response to it lack some wider perspectives. That is not to say that there is anything wrong with the report, but inevitably because it is largely schools-based, with some reference to delivery in sixth-form colleges and in further education colleges, it is not surprising that it concentrates on its remit. However, there is a read-back into primary education, and we must look much more carefully at how things begin to go wrong there and how those mistakes are replicated and exacerbated later. We must get that right.

We must also look at the routes beyond 14 to 19 education into the adult world, including higher education. It would be in the interests of higher education institutions to have people apply for their courses who have an understanding of issues of public policy and of the underpinning scientific methods. We must also look at the world of work. We could debate—we might find it a contentious debate—the role of business in relation to science. The ability of business, commerce and engineering to exploit scientific knowledge is central. The bona fides of business, particularly in relation to biotechnology or emissions, and its role in explaining the relevance of science to young people in providing the necessary work experience are vital.

It is fair to say that a primary study and a business-related study would be major free-standing exercises in themselves. They should not be written off as additional studies for the future. Whatever else happens and however much we manage to get through at school, in later life almost everyone at work, in whatever capacity, will require the analytical, evidence-based approach of science and its supporting statistical methods. Frankly, we all need a bit of science in our working portfolio.

5.10 pm

I join others in congratulating the Committee and the Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), on the very good report on science education. I congratulate my hon. Friend, too, on securing time for a three-hour debate, which is not insubstantial in this place, to discuss the report's conclusions. I share with the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) the view that we have had a well-informed and non- confrontational—rather than consensual—debate; hon. Members have expressed various views. I hope that this good debate is the start of further consideration of the important issues that have been raised.

There is consensus on the importance of science to drive economic growth and improve the quality of our lives, which was particularly well articulated by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner), and the importance of scientific literacy to support citizenship and all that goes with it. I slightly disagree with my hon. Friend, as I believe that there is plenty in modern science that would make good TV soaps; he should perhaps talk to a producer or two. I can think of a good subject: GM foods, for example, or an issue such as genetic engineering which would entice millions of viewers to early-evening viewing while they are having a cup of tea.

I am very glad that my hon. Friend agrees with my comments. Would she volunteer to encourage television companies to take up some superb issues that are knocking around out there? Humble grunts from the Back Benches do not cut as much ice as the Minister.

Recently, Back Benchers have had much more airtime than many on the Front Bench. We both have a role to play in encouraging those developments.

There is a cultural issue, which hon. Members described in various ways. The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) talked about the anti-science culture and the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) talked about cultural apartheid. We accept that there are cultural issues, which we must address. I hope that hon. Members will accept that the Government are taking them seriously.

I will give hon. Members one little fact: the Secretary of State has recently given me the responsibility for promoting science as a discipline in the Department for Education and Skills. I am responding to what is primarily a schools debate to take forward that responsibility. I have had good discussions with several members of the Select Committee about how to make science fun and how to persuade more people, especially young people and girls, in whom I have an interest, to study science through education and to pursue it in their working lives.

I take on my responsibility as someone who dropped science at the age of 13 or 14 because I hated my science teacher. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) mentioned inspirational teachers—

It was a woman, in an all-girls school. I concur with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East. However, before I had my current responsibility for promoting science in the curriculum as Minister for Lifelong Learning, I had determined that I would do a physics A-level at some point in my life, simply because I do not want to be beaten by it. I invite the hon. Member for Daventry to join me in that lifelong learning ambition.

May I point my hon. Friend in the direction of the Secretary of State, to whom I gave a book at Christmas about the physics of football? She will certainly learn from that how to bend it like Beckham from first physics principles.

As long as the book does not promote Norwich City and promotes Arsenal, I will happily read it.

Throughout the debate, legitimate concerns have been raised by members of the Science and Technology Committee. I assure them that we take those concerns seriously, and I hope that in the time remaining I can describe the actions that we are taking to try to address those concerns. However, I also hope that the Committee will acknowledge—some Committee members have done so today—that we have made progress in many of those areas since we have been in government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) and the hon. Member for Southport both alluded to the Government's good record on raising the standards of science in primary schools. In 1998, 69 per cent. of pupils reached level 4 at key stage 2, and by 2001 that percentage had risen to 87 per cent. In 2000, 59 per cent. reached level 5 at key stage 3, and by 2002 that had risen to 67 per cent. The number of pupils achieving GCSE grades A to C has gradually increased year on year.

We should not get too depressed in the debate this afternoon, because four out of five pupils currently follow a course that leads to the double award in science GCSE, and six out of 10 are currently taking science or maths at A or AS-level. Although I recognise that in some areas the figures have been decreasing, that is not a bad base from which to start. We should not, therefore, get too depressed about the future of engagement in science and science education in our schools.

At university level, although I know that some science departments are closing and others are under threat, there are also areas of growth. For example, the physical sciences may be decreasing overall, but there is growth in astronomy and oceanography. Similarly, engineering may be decreasing overall, but some areas, such as aeronautical and electronic engineering, are experiencing an increase in demand. There are good signs as well as bad.

I want to describe some of the initiatives that the Government have taken, which support the shared ambition expressed in the debate this afternoon to improve the quality of science education in schools and to increase the enthusiasm for the subject through schools, so that that will lead to further training and learning, and to more people taking up careers in science.

The specialist college initiative has been important. The hon. Member for Salisbury raised that issue, and gave his generous support to the initiative. There are 24 specialist colleges up and running, and there will be 40 more by September. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North alluded to the school in his constituency, Derby high school, which is very innovative: it is a specialist college in science and the performing arts. There are also two specialist schools in science and engineering, which are innovative and a good way forward.

I shall also mention the £51 million grant from the Wellcome Foundation, matched by the Government, to establish the national network of science learning centres. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North said that there would be six regional centres, but we hope that there will be nine, including the national centre. We hope that the first centre will open in 2004, and that those centres will provide a focus for the enthusiasm that we want to engender among our teachers, and give them confidence. It is important to have enthusiastic teaching, because that will help science throughout the curriculum, in primary as well as secondary schools.

I should also like to mention the work that we are doing in the post-16 standards unit in the Department. We are looking at particular areas of the curriculum to see how we can improve the pedagogy and provide better teaching and learning material and professional developments for teachers. Science is one of the first four areas that we have selected. We now have nearly 300 advanced skills teachers in science, which is a good beginning. They are all enjoying the electronic whiteboards, which are a powerful innovation in classroom teaching. We have also been able to provide free Intel digital microscopes in every maintained primary and secondary school in celebration of science year.

We are doing a great deal to try to get the benefits of information and communication technology into science teaching. One instance in the work we are doing around key stage 3 involves data logging. The data involved can be captured either very fast or very slowly, depending on what one is attempting to do. It is thus possible to see how long it takes for a ball bearing to drop from different heights or track the changes in greenhouse temperature. That is an example of how we are hoping to bring the developments in new technology into the classroom.

The millennium science centres have been a good innovation. I am discussing with my colleagues at the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport how we can keep the best of those going. I hope that the growing schools initiative will encourage more scientific field work in schools, an issue raised by several hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East. All the advice that we put out at both primary and secondary level encourages the better use of field work. I accept that much more has to be done. A lot comes from the enthusiasm of individual teachers that we must engender.

The issue of teachers themselves has been raised by a number of speakers. Contrary to what the hon. Members for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) and for Daventry said, our attempts to recruit new teachers into science are doing well. In 1999–2000, the year before golden hellos were introduced, we recruited 2,362 people into science teacher training. In the first year of the golden hellos, that rose by 13 per cent, to 2,670. Far be it from me to disagree with Opposition Members, but the preliminary figures for applications that were announced yesterday showed that science teacher training was up 12 per cent, on this time last year. English teacher training was up 10 per cent. and maths teacher training was up by 25 per cent. Within the science teacher cohort the number of people with physics degrees was up by 17 per cent. Those are all welcome moves in the right direction.

I will continue, as we are running out of time and I want to respond on some of the other issues that have been raised.

We have also launched our new studentships: 50 of the brightest and the best A-level students in maths, chemistry and physics who choose to go into teaching will have all their expenses paid at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. Science year, which is now Planet Science, has been successful in promoting good science teachers. Four out of five teachers have now heard of it. Over half of the maintained schools have registered to use the free resources. We are hoping that schemes like the seismic science clubs will become part of the legacy of the initiatives that have taken place under science year. A number of hon. Members mentioned the science and engineering ambassadors, which is a scheme to provide mentors.

I want to deal briefly with the curriculum. We all recognise that there is an issue in the nature of the curriculum, which is why we have taken a number of initiatives around it. It is not just the curriculum, but how it is taught. That combination is important. We have decided that science will remain in the national curriculum with a core of science, which must be both suitable and enriching to provide the basis for a range of qualifications. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North asked me for the timetable for that. We are expecting to receive QCA advice on 17 April. There will then be a period of consultation with both schools and subject interests. We expect to introduce the changes in September 2005.

The programme of study for key stage 4 will, I hope, be less prescriptive and more interesting. There will be not just Bunsen burners and test tubes; subjects will be more relevant to individuals' day-to-day lives. I hope that that will give teachers the necessary confidence, so that they can make science a joyful experience. I take on board the issue of repetition in the curriculum, which is not peculiar to science and which can be seen in whole areas of the curriculum.

The vocation-focused applied science GCSE, which we launched in September 2002, is a good way forward. It will help students, on the basis of their knowledge of biology, chemistry or physics, to learn about the world of work. It will help them in a range of areas, and they will perhaps develop into laboratory technicians or environmental scientists. I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North that it is too early to tell how the provisions are working, but we will want to evaluate them.

The new GSCE in science in the 21st century, which we will pilot in 50 schools in September, aims to stimulate science education for consumers, users or producers of science. It will raise some interesting questions, such as, "Do I contribute to air pollution?" or "Is pollution harmful to my environment or me?" or "What choices can we make to improve the quality of air?"

The citizenship programme addresses some of the scientific literacy issues raised by hon. Members. Issues such as immunisation, food safety and organ donation should be integral to the citizenship agenda. The hon. Members for Daventry, for Westbury and for Southport mentioned the difficulty of trying to face two ways, and I agree with them. We must ensure that we have a strong cohort of people who will study science at university and take it up as a career. Equally, however, we want to develop scientific literacy among the population as a whole. The last thing we want to do is (dumb down what some hon. Members have called hard science.

Interesting points were made about the baccalaureate. Mike Tomlinson is studying assessment and the curriculum. In the interim, however, I should say that curriculum 2000 has not been a failure; it has been an interesting way of enabling young people to study science and humanities subjects. We are also looking at what we can do to ensure that the maths curriculum is appropriate.

The gender issue is close to my heart, and it is a real challenge. I have said I will focus much of my work on encouraging more girls into science. It is not that they do not go into science, because more girls than boys are studying to become doctors. However, more boys are studying to become engineers. We therefore need to ensure that young people of both genders pursue all aspects of science. Bodies such as the Equal Opportunities Commission are working with the Department of Trade and Industry and using the resources that it has produced, and the commission's "What's Stopping You" campaign challenges the stereotypes. Other initiatives that we can take include looking at the new science GCSEs that we are pursuing, and updating the guidance that we give to the Connexions service. Several hon. Members raised those issues. However, we face a real challenge. I hope that ambassadors, which we are beginning to embed in schools, will also be a focus.

This is not the end of the debate, but the beginning. Hard issues have been raised in relation to what is a hard discipline. I recognise how crucial science is to our economic and social well-being. I thank those who contributed to the report, because they have added much to the breadth of our understanding of how we must tackle some difficult issues. I hope that we can act on several recommendations; indeed, we are already doing so. I look forward to engaging members of the Select Committee and other hon. Members on some of these issues.

It being half-past Five o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment lapsed, without Question put.