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Science Teaching

Volume 470: debated on Tuesday 15 January 2008

Thank you, Mr. Olner. It is a pleasure to serve this morning under your chairmanship.

Unfortunately, this debate has clashed with a seminar on renewable energy that the members of the Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee are now attending at Imperial college. Otherwise there would have been a much greater attendance at this meeting. However, the quality is here and that is what matters.

First, I should declare an interest, in that I am a parliamentary adviser to the Royal Society of Chemistry. That is a non-pecuniary interest, which I have registered.

My contribution to this debate is not going to be about the supply or quality of science teachers, important as those subjects are, because they have been covered in two Select Committee reports. One was published by the House of Lords in the 2005-06 Session of Parliament and the other was published by the House of Commons in the 2001-02 Session of Parliament.

I intend to concentrate on issues that are used to embellish the teaching of science, some of which I have been closely involved in. Many of us, if not most of us, who became scientists in the past would probably agree that, foremost, it was the enthusiasm of the science teacher that attracted us to pursue such a career. Some science teachers can make the sciences, whether it be chemistry, physics, geology, biology or even zoology, sound extremely complicated, if not boring, probably because they do not enjoy teaching the subject or, in some cases, because they do not even understand the basic principles. Of course, the lack of specialist teachers is part of the problem and that situation has got worse in recent years.

The worst science teachers make no attempt at all to embellish the curriculum by taking their students out of the classroom, for example to listen to an outside lecture or to visit an outside facility that is trying to make science interesting to students and the general public. They are also reluctant to invite scientists or engineers into their classroom to talk about their experiences and they make minimum effort to run practical classes. Indeed, their sole aim appears to be to cover the curriculum so that their students will achieve the highest grades possible in examinations, even by abandoning many of the practical classes if that should prove necessary.

Recent surveys by the Science museum in Kensington and the awarding bodies have shown that hands-on practicals in laboratories and visits and excursions outside school are the most enjoyable aspects of studying the sciences. I am aware of The Times Education Supplement published in October last year that revealed that a third of teachers had cancelled school trips, with cost cited as the problem by 40 per cent. of the teachers surveyed and form-filling cited as the problem by 36 per cent. of the teachers surveyed. However, to be fair to the Government, they have responded to that criticism by publishing a manifesto entitled “Learning Outside the Classroom” and pledging £2.7 million towards encouraging school trips, for which I am extremely grateful, as I am sure are others.

I would like to pay a tribute to the 12,000 or more volunteers who take part in the science and engineering ambassadors in Schools, or SEAS, programme, which is organised in partnership with the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network, or STEMNET, as we should now call that organisation; previously, of course, it was called SETNET. Those volunteers are mainly young people who are encouraged by their employers to convey the excitement of their work to secondary school children who might be attracted as a result to pursue a career in science or engineering. Unfortunately, pressures from the research assessment exercise in recent years have reduced the number of younger university academics willing to visit schools.

My own interest in science began with an opportunity, at the age of 11, to purchase a rather complicated chemistry set from another boy in my village who had become rather bored with it. It was accompanied by a very old practical textbook. The front porch in our house, which was only used on significant occasions such as funerals, became my laboratory. The absence of a fume cupboard did not deter me from carrying out the experiments, much to the consternation of my parents, I might add.

In those days, chemicals and basic glassware, such as round-bottomed and flat-bottomed flasks, retort stands and clamps, beehive shelves and thistle funnels, could be purchased from a chemist’s shop, believe it or not. All my purchases were made from Caves the Chemist in Neville street, Southport, the town where I attended secondary school and, later, the technical college.

In those educational establishments, my enthusiasm for practical science was fired by two very fine teachers, Mr. Jones and Mr. Crossley. They made full use of the demonstration bench at the front of the class. If they were talking about chlorine, they made chlorine before the very eyes of the students who were watching in fascination. Indeed, whenever they talked about a chemical, the chemical was there on the demonstration bench and many reactions were carried out, with wonderful colour changes, lots of smells and a few flashes and bangs. I must say that watching a teacher perform the thermite reaction was one of the highlights of the chemistry year.

I suppose it was those experiments that attracted me to become the first senior demonstrator in organic chemistry at Durham university, at the age of 24. That brought me into contact with the great demonstration lecturers of the day, for example, “Flash Porter”, otherwise known as Professor George Porter of the Royal Institution, and the famous B.D. Shaw of Nottingham university, who gave his famous lecture on explosives until he was well into his 90s; he also gave it on television. As a result, for 29 years I presented a demonstration lecture, which was 90 minutes long and called “The Magic of Chemistry”. I presented it at least once a month and many more times during the Christmas period. Indeed, Christmas lectures have been a tradition in many of our towns and cities in this country, especially here in London at the Royal Institution in Albermarle street.

I was on the “demo circuit” and came to know some of the “greats” in the business, people such as the Rev. Ron Lancaster, with his “Fireworks” lecture, and Dr. John Salthouse of “Son et Lumiere” fame. Ron, whose son is now a Conservative MP and is today sitting not very far from me, was a chemistry teacher at Kimbolton school in Cambridgeshire and became the only private individual in his day to gain a licence to manufacture fireworks. Kimbolton Fireworks is one of the few remaining manufacturers of fireworks in Britain today, and is well known for its public displays. In “Son et Lumiere”, John Salthouse takes the line of “Look what happens when you mix this with that”; the result, of course, is a flash, a bang or a wallop, and plenty of noise or light, or both. Now, imagine how much more interesting the teaching of science is when you have people such as that around the classroom.

Sadly, the classroom and teachers have changed. Of course, the fear of litigation should something go wrong and the health and safety regulations, such as the introduction of the control of substances hazardous to health—COSHH—regulations, have helped to put a damper on some of the more exciting experiences that a student can have in the classroom.. However, teachers very often use those regulations as an excuse. It is still possible to present science in an extremely exciting way, but the teachers are not trained to do it and few take the opportunity to engage themselves in reading the relevant and excellent textbooks on presenting demonstration lectures in the classroom. If they are not confident or able enough to present such lectures themselves, there are many visitors who can do so and they should be invited into the classroom or laboratory to fascinate the students with such demonstrations.

It is, of course, important, even mandatory, that risk assessments are carried out on all activities that are undertaken with young people, especially those working in a school laboratory. Learning about the hazards presented by all chemicals and the risks involved in their use is considered now to be a part of chemical education. However, recent statistics available from both local authorities and the Health and Safety Executive show that school science laboratories are one of the safest places in the school in terms of the accidents that may arise from science experiments.

In an interesting publication, “Surely That’s Banned?”, published by the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2005, the Consortium of Local Education Authorities for the Provision of Science Services, or CLEAPSS, and the Scottish Schools Equipment Research Centre, or SSERC, detail what is banned in school teaching. In fact, very little is banned, contrary to the perception of a significant number of science teachers. If teachers are unsure about what is banned, they can seek advice from those organisations and their publications, or from the Association of Science Education—the ASE—and the learned societies, or consult those societies’ publications.

Solvents such as benzene, which is a carcinogen, tetrachloromethane and 1,1,1-trichloroethane, which are ozone depleters, are banned, and there are restrictions on the quantity of thorium and uranium salts that can be kept in the laboratory. Not surprisingly, the amount of explosive materials that can either be made or stored in a school laboratory is also restricted.

I have been following closely the introduction of the new ways of teaching science in the classroom, and particularly the 21st century science syllabuses, of which there are a number. I recently visited two schools in Bolton—one in Turton and one in Westhoughton—that are teaching science using the new syllabuses and I was impressed by the enthusiasm of the two young teachers and the students I observed. I was also impressed by the way in which those teachers had prepared their lessons and I witnessed good use of modern whiteboards, plenty of interactive handouts, a laptop computer in front of every science student and excellent use of the large amount of material that is available on the internet.

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that part of the problem in schools is that specific sciences are often not taught by specifically science-qualified teachers, but by generalists or non-science-qualified teachers? That is part of the reason why teachers are afraid to go down the “flashes, bangs and smells” experimentation route, which is a great sadness.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman and I referred to the shortage of specialist science teachers, although the best schools are trying to recruit them. What the hon. Gentleman says is, however, important.

Unfortunately, some teachers have used the teaching methods that I mentioned to replace practical classes. Watching an experiment being conducted by video link is not the same as the excitement of performing that experiment in the school laboratory. In one lesson that I attended, I was fascinated to see that pupils were learning about embryology, and I was able to explain the contributions that some of us in the Chamber have made during Science and Technology Committee meetings on the legislation that is currently before the House on that important issue. Such anecdotes, and the fact that people such as me and others can attend lessons to relay them to students and pupils, can bring subjects to life.

When I spoke to pupils after the classes in the two schools that I visited, however, one thing came over loud and clear: “Please can we do more practical work?” Nothing is more off-putting than walking into a school science laboratory that looks like the pictures of laboratories in Victorian science textbooks. If we are to attract young people to study the sciences, their places of study must look 21st century, not early-20th or even 19th century. In its “Science And Innovation Investment Framework 2004-2014”, the Government committed themselves to providing

“capital funding to schools and authorities…to meet the Roberts Review target of bringing school labs up to a satisfactory standard by 2005-06 and to bring them up to a good or excellent standard by 2010.”

Their “Next Steps” document, which was published in 2006, makes the following commitment:

“The policy priority is to improve the state of school science accommodation by making school science laboratories a priority.”

Hon. Members should note the lack of dates in the second of those two commitments. Together with others I have questioned successive Education Ministers on the state of school science laboratories, but we have always been told that the building schools for the future programme is addressing those commitments. However, progress is just too slow, and none of the money that is currently allocated is ring-fenced for laboratory provision.

Sadly, even when refurbishment does take place, the quality of the work is not always good. There are reports of furniture that falls apart in a few years and bench tops that are not designed for the purpose, along with inadequate utilities and information and communications technology provision. The lessons to be learned are that school science staff must be involved in the design of new facilities and that adequate advice must be available from the local education authority or others to guarantee a good-to-excellent standard of provision.

In October 2006, with the support of the Royal Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry published the results of a survey of school science laboratories carried out by CLEAPSS. The survey estimated that there were 26,000 laboratories in secondary schools in England in 2005. At the time, the average cost of refurbishment—I should add that that was to an unspecified standard—was £38,000 per laboratory, with costs ranging from £2,000 to £125,000. The average cost for a newly built laboratory was £120,000, with costs ranging from £11,000 to £375,000. Those are high costs indeed. With only 34 per cent. of school laboratories in the sample surveyed rated as good or excellent, 41 per cent. rated as basic and uninspiring and a massive 25 per cent. rated as unsafe or unsatisfactory, the survey did not make good reading for the Government.

In addition, 13 per cent. of science classes are not even taught in a school laboratory, and teachers reported that an extra science laboratory was needed in each school, which equates to an estimated 3,500 extra science laboratories. Even when the laboratory space in schools has improved, the areas used by the technicians to prepare the science classes have often been ignored

The bottom line is that upgrading school science provision all round to a good standard in England alone would require an estimated £1.38 billion at 2005 prices. Indeed, a recent published estimate suggests that £2 billion would be required across Great Britain to upgrade school science laboratories that have not already been upgraded.

This is a most important debate, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing it. May I help him to set the scene and to explain why it is so necessary to improve our laboratories? Industry in this country relies heavily on scientists from abroad, but the supply of such science-qualified graduates, particularly from the sub-continent and China, may start to dry up as the economies there develop and mature. It is therefore essential for us to fill the planning gap by ensuring that we have decent science teaching, that we encourage women into science teaching and that we have good-quality science labs that will encourage students and teachers in schools and support science teaching in our economy.

Indeed. I agree and I shall produce some figures in conclusion to underline what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Let me turn now to another aspect of science teaching that has been on the wane in recent decades—field trips. Unfortunately, initial teacher education does not show fledgling teachers how to exploit the wealth of knowledge in the outside laboratory. I pay tribute to the Field Studies Council for the work that it does in that respect. It not only promotes outdoor education through its publications and lobbying, but walks the talk, too, by running 17 field centres in some outstanding parts of the country, such as Malham Tarn, in north Yorkshire, Brockhole, near Windermere in the Lake district, and Flatford Mill, which was made famous by Constable’s painting.

I still remember being taken into the countryside by my primary school teachers, who helped me to identify wild flowers, insects, birds, wild animals and trees. For a while, I was the proud owner of a flower press and I had quite a good collection of dried and pressed wild flowers, which I was able to identify.

An education officer at the London outdoor education centre has remarked:

“All we see these days are primary schools. We never see science groups from local secondary schools any more”.

The Government have argued that outdoor education is thriving in our schools, but the FSC’s evidence suggests otherwise. More than 96 per cent. of GCSE science pupils will not experience a residential field trip, while nearly half of all A-level biology students will do no field work, with the possible exception of half a day’s experience near their school.

Last year, the FSC and the ASE jointly published a report on the training of pre-service teachers to support the development of outdoor teaching in secondary science education. The report contains nine recommendations on how to halt the decline in the use of field trips to teach science outdoors and, inter alia, lists the barriers to such teaching, such as the lack of minimum requirements, the failure to recognise the potential of fieldwork, the lack of training among initial teacher education tutors and teacher mentors, the lack of a communication and organisational structure to promote fieldwork, the low status awarded to fieldwork by Ofsted inspectors and, inevitably, the cost of field trips. Let us hope that the new standards set by the Training and Development Agency for Schools will be fully implemented by those responsible for initial teacher education, and that the Malham protocol, a set of minimum standards for teaching science outdoors within ITE, will be adopted by the TDA.

In May the Institute of Biology published “Dissection in Schools”, a survey funded by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry. Eighty-five per cent. of the respondents believe that less dissection work has been carried out in schools since 1986, when the new national curriculum and compulsory science at GCSE were introduced. Time pressures because of the current nature of the curriculum, costs, doubt about what activities are permissible, difficulties in acquisition of materials, a shortage of skilled technicians and the need for a resource handbook were commonly cited reasons for that decline. Again, there appear to be problems with ITE. If dissection is not a minimum requirement of the curriculum, it will not be carried out by the teachers.

There are, again, incorrect perceptions of health and safety regulations. For example, contrary to a commonly held belief, cheek cell and saliva sampling is permitted, as long as students work only with their own cheek cell and saliva samples, the cotton buds and disposable cups are disposed of appropriately, and the glass slides are sterilised in a chlorine-based disinfectant. The taking of blood samples is not ruled out either, providing that the COSHH regulations are adhered to. Dissections of eyes can be carried out, but there are some rather complicated restrictions. There can be regional differences. Unlike those in the rest of Britain, pupils in Northern Ireland cannot take samples of their own cheek cells, saliva or blood. Dissection was encouraged in only 69 per cent. of the institutions surveyed. Only 17 per cent. of respondents cited dissections as a cause of students being turned off science. There appear to be increasing concerns, too, about animal welfare. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has recently introduced requirements about the disposal of live material, which has caused biology teachers some concern.

Dissection is, however, regarded as bringing science to life. It enhances a student’s knowledge and understanding, makes it possible to understand the complexity and efficiency of animal anatomy and engenders an appreciation of the fragility of tissues. Students can relate animal anatomy to an understanding of how their own bodies work and dissection improves hand-eye co-ordination. Ethical issues about the use of live animals in research can of course be discussed in the context of dissection.

When the Connexions service was established, its staff concentrated, unfortunately, more on those with learning difficulties than on the most able pupils. Consequently, high-quality schools career advice failed to reach many of the most gifted pupils, who were unable to realise the breadth and excitement of the careers that can be pursued with a science, technology, engineering or mathematics background. Regrettably, according to the report of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, “Science Teaching in Schools”, few careers advisers have a STEM background. In any case, the sciences are perceived to be difficult by teachers and pupils alike, and schools consequently adopt “softer” options to take their schools high in the league tables, which now seem to determine which schools are good or bad. In “Next Steps”, the Government largely neglected careers advice, and it has now become urgent that they address the deficit in good careers advice for the most able students.

By 2014, according to the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, the demand for science and technology professionals will increase by 20 per cent. compared to an increase in demand for all other occupations of only 4 per cent. That is the point that the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) was making. A recent study of our 15 year-olds’ ability by the programme for international student assessment of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development revealed that British teenagers have slipped 10 places in six years to a lowly 14th place in the world’s most prestigious league table charting scientific knowledge among schoolchildren.

It is worth reading out what the OECD said in its report on PISA 2006:

“As the first major assessment of science, the PISA 2006 assessment establishes the basis for analysis of trends in science performance in the future and it is therefore not possible to compare science learning outcomes from PISA 2006 with those of earlier PISA assessments as is done for reading and mathematics. Indeed, the differences in science performance that readers may observe when comparing PISA 2006 science scores with science scores from earlier PISA assessments are largely attributable to changes in the nature of the science assessment as well as changes in the test design.”

I am glad that the Minister has made that point, because I did not know that, and neither, obviously, did many people who have made the comparison.

In The Guardian of 3 December 2007, Dr Richard Pike, who is the chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said:

“The dramatic slippage of the UK to the 14th place in the league for science teaching should be seen against the backdrop of numerous, often failed, uncoordinated initiatives, and a reluctance within the whole community to stand back and look at education from a holistic viewpoint”—

which is what I have tried to do this morning.

I have tried to highlight the decline in what are regarded as important aspects of science teaching, and give possible reasons for that decline, which I hope that the Minister will address in future planning of science education. There is a lot of good will out there, in industry and commerce and in the teaching fraternity, and we need to tap it to the advantage of all those students who show an interest in pursuing a science career. Let us make science teaching exciting again in the classroom, as it once was, in my day.

Three hon. Members wish to participate and I intend to start the wind-ups at 11.55, so if they have done their science and mathematics they will know how much time they each have.

I am delighted to take part in this debate once again. We have pushed this issue half a dozen times, because it is recognised as important, and I shall quote something from the Sainsbury report about why that is. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on once more bringing the matter into the arena of debate. We have similar backgrounds, except that I was in Scotland and he was in England. We always get more money in Scotland, for some reason—or perhaps we use it better; who knows? That is another argument, for another time and place. Nevertheless, Scottish science has produced some excellence, as has English science, and we compete well in the world.

Lord David Sainsbury has just produced a document entitled “The Race to the Top: A Review of Government’s Science and Innovation Policies”, in which he talks first about the need for a

“major campaign to enhance the teaching of science and technology”,

including raising the number of qualified science teachers, increasing the number of young people studying triple science, improving careers advice, establishing a national science competition and rationalising the many schemes to inspire young people to take up careers in science and engineering. Indeed, although we are worried about the future, there is much going on in different localities, about which I shall say something in a minute.

Lord Sainsbury also points out in his review that although it is not clear where in the future the jobs will necessarily come for scientists, there will be many opportunities for UK companies, and therefore there is a need for science education and research. New industries will appear in

“aerospace, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, regenerative medicine, telemedicine, nanotechnology, the space industry, intelligent transport systems, new sources of energy, creative industries, computer games, the instrumentation sector, business and financial services, computer services and education.”

That is not a bad challenge for a small island and we play, I think, quite a hard-hitting role in those fields internationally now. We are of course worried about what will happen in the future, as we watch the emerging economies of other countries, such as China, with a university in every street, everyone getting a degree and large numbers of people flooding through. One need only go to Singapore to see scientific excellence being developed. The journey to such developments starts with early school days and continues through university and into the job market, whether the jobs are in research or industry.

I want particularly to mention the field of cancer. In the 10 years I have been in the House, that has been a major commitment for me. I have seen how well things have developed through Government support. There is now a cancer reform strategy, which recognises that science is moving on and driving a need for new policies. That is very important. We know that more will happen in that context. For example, personalised medicine will be a key factor in a world in which we target drugs to people to the advantage of their genetics, around which are many issues, such as how drugs are produced and paid for, the reaction of companies, the kind of partnerships that we adopt and how academia and the industry can merge, in which regional development agencies and many other organisations will have a role to play.

I am told that in the cancer field—this comes from anecdotes from a dinner party on Saturday night with consultant oncologists—many medics now have never seen a tumour. They might see one on a video screen, but they will not see one for real until they are thrust into their oncology work. In many ways I think that that is true across science. Many people no longer learn the kind of hard science that I had to do. I do not want to be too crude—I must watch my parliamentary language—but there is nothing like seeing a real heart throbbing, and operating or working on it, to get a feel for handling the job. It is no use just seeing it on the screen and saying, “It will be all right on the night.”

Furthermore, as my hon. Friend said, it is no use students thinking that they know how things work in the world outside without actually seeing it. A generation of young people has been brought up watching Attenborough programmes, which I find fascinating. I watch big cat programmes and am amazed at how lions get chased by creatures that they fancied eating. Those educational relationships are good for young people and allow them to pick up on, and try to understand, the behavioural patterns of animals and plants, which they can reflect on to themselves. That is somewhat anthropomorphic, but is important because it gets them asking questions.

Young people are stimulated by all sorts of things at a very early age. We have been talking about how different people are not working together or united, and about various initiatives and publications. I know of a nice book for young people, called “Have a Nice DNA”, by a friend of mine, Professor Balkwill, at Queen Mary’s college. I also know of the school garden which is pupils’ new classroom project, which has helped pupils to build a willow tunnel, research life forms in the pond, and build a bird hide to watch wildlife, giving them first-hand experience of ecology. That project was not set up by a teacher, but by a science technician—a dying breed. A Committee that I used to chair once looked into patterns in schools on either side of the Scotland-England border and found that, in Scotland, technicians are still valued. They are the backroom people who prepare the experimental classes, ensure that the equipment is available and make noises if it is not. In a way, that also aids young people’s education when experimenting in laboratories.

I sometimes joke about a school in my area—Sprowston high school—that produces good drummers. In fact, one is marrying KT Tunstall, although I doubt if any Member here knows who she is—

The Minister obviously does.

I would much rather that the person marrying her was a scientist than a drummer—but there we go. It reflects the education in that school; the music department is well run, has all the necessary equipment and attracts young people. The science department could do the same, but its laboratories use those dull brown-topped wooden desks with “Tony loves Cherie” and other such messages scratched on them, because young bored people spend time listening but not really taking anything in.

The school garden in Norwich that I mentioned is important and is really developing. One young person said of it:

“It makes more sense actually seeing and touching things than reading about them in a textbook. We are even going to go to the junior school and help them with their own garden.”

My Committee found the same thing. That is the kind of experimentation that we want.

Young people are also fascinated by boiling things and get a kick out of making colours in test tubes, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East said. I had a chemistry set as a child and remember applying to a medical school and saying, “Ever since the days of my first chemistry set, I have been interested in understanding how the world works.” However, that argument did not wash with the great deans of Edinburgh university, where applicants needed parents who went to the right school. But that is another story; hopefully those days are over, but I doubt it.

Professor Balkwill is also developing, at Queen Mary’s college, an outfit where a cell will be manufactured architecturally so that people can come in off the streets and get involved. I have always wondered why science and art museums do not mix. However, I shall come on to the interaction between science and the arts later. I do not have to tell Members about the fascination with dinosaurs and the Natural History museum, where people can learn what a dinosaur was and discuss, until the cows come home, how and why they died out.

I have some other books with me. One is “Why Can’t I… Jump up to the Moon?: And Other Questions about Energy”—perhaps the Minister will tell me why he cannot jump up to the moon—and another is “Why Can’t I… Sleep on a Bed of Bubbles?: And Other Questions about Materials”. They have been written for young people, but do not seem to have got into the classroom to the extent that I think that they should have. I know, too, about an anthology of poetry and artwork around science by children from Rockland St Mary county primary school and Framingham Earl high school, which is just outside Norwich. It is quite brilliant how they developed poems around scientific structures seen down an electron microscope and so on. It is wonderful to see the interest in the questions and the enthusiasm that it generates. That happened because a young woman doing a post-doctoral fellowship at the John Innes centre decided to do it. She is a high-flyer in her research field, but wanted to put something back into the community because she could see that there was a need for it.

We often talk about the shortage of teachers, but sometimes we could use people in universities, such as post-doctoral and PhD students, who are the lifeblood of research in this country. I learned that first-hand from Paul Nurse, who is one of our Nobel prize winners. They do all the work; they stimulate ideas, lecture among undergraduates and help them in practicals and so on. We should use that force, until we get the numbers that we need in physics, chemistry and biology. I speak from practical experience. I once went on a course to Murray house in Scotland for three months. I think that I passed, although I was told off for not wearing a tie—such is rebellion in Scotland. However, instead of teaching religion to a class, when I visited a school, I took the children outside to show them how to take corner and penalty kicks. I do not think that the two of us doing it were sacked, but we were moved on. Nevertheless, many stimulating activities can be undertaken.

I shall move on from the enthusiasm in practical school classes to postgraduate and undergraduate students, who to some extent get a rough deal. They cannot always see a career in front of them, because of the limited number of grants, which can be for one or three years, but not for five years. That is changing gradually; bright young people who want to stay in science are being given a career structure, which is necessary in that field.

Finally, one of the reasons why those students are giving up is that they cannot do exciting experiments on a Friday afternoon after they have been to the pub—hopefully not for too long. Nevertheless, they try things out—“I wonder what would happen if…?”. Science is about asking such questions. To a large extent, that has been taken out of their training. Research assessment exercises now require a safe pair of hands and safe experiments so that they can get the paper out. Much of the paper work is done by postgraduate students—although their names still appear last, after the senior professor and so on. They are not recognised properly in our society for their value to science education. We could do much more with them. Hopefully, at last, something will happen, because we have been talking about these things for some years. Things are happening in certain places—I gave a few examples—but not nationally.

I intend to make the briefest of contributions. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing this very valuable debate and pay tribute to him for his lifetime’s contribution to the world of science, which was reflected in his speech. I was delighted to be with him when the Royal Society of Chemistry presented him with the president’s award for a lifetime’s contribution to science. That was very well deserved.

I declare an interest as a parliamentary adviser to the Royal Society of Chemistry. When I first came to this House, I thought that I had the honour of being the first Member of Parliament who was also a fireworks maker, which is rather appropriate on the 400th anniversary of Guy Fawkes’ execution. However, I then discovered that the hon. Gentleman had beaten me to it; I understand that back in 1997 he dressed up as Guy Fawkes and blew up gunpowder in the Jubilee Room. I am not sure whether the Serjeant at Arms would let me do that, but I certainly intend to try. My plea to the Minister is, simply, let us make science fun again. It is certainly not his fault, but there has been a general decline for various reasons that I shall consider shortly. Science is not as fun as it used to be, and that has to be a crying shame.

I am a lucky chap. We have discussed having chemistry sets when we were young, and my set was probably the best in the world. It was a firework factory. One of my earliest memories is as a young lad, pecking over my father’s work bench to see him mixing wonderful coloured chemicals, and with a glint in his eye, he would take me with him to blow them up in the garden. We would bury them to see how big a hole we could create. My mother would be absolutely horrified when my father got slightly bored on a Friday afternoon, because he would give me the nod and we would creep out and blow holes in the garden. It was a wonderful way to start.

I shall never forget doing Nuffield physics as an A-level student and being able to do practical experiments. Much of my A-level was practical, and that was the joy of Nuffield—going out into the school fields and firing tennis balls out of 3-in mortar tubes to investigate the optimum firing angle. I was very lucky, because the Lancaster household is a strange one, and all I had to do to get hold of gunpowder was to go the bread bin, where my father used to keep it. I also discovered through that practical process that although 45° was the optimum angle to send one’s tennis ball across the fields, it would go just as far if one put it at 60° or 30°. If one put it at 60°, it went much higher and one could dislodge the tiles from the headmaster’s roof. If one put it at 30°, one could get it under the trees and bounce it off the windows. Those are the lessons that only practical science can teach us.

There are no barriers preventing such experiments in the classroom, although I always remember the advice about pipettes and burettes and not to suck too hard because it might take the enamel off one’s teeth, but it is important that we educate people. That is why the Royal Society of Chemistry’s publication “Surely that’s Banned” is so valuable. I encourage the Minister to try to get it to as broad an audience as possible.

There are, however, practical barriers. The hon. Members for Bolton, South-East and for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) referred to the importance of having more or better laboratories in schools, and although I recognise that the Minister will probably tell us that the Government’s building schools for the future initiative may go some way to address that concern, that better schools programme will not hit my constituency until 2013. He knows that my constituency faces considerable financial challenges already, and I am delighted that he has promised to do something about it. Generally, however, more must be done sooner.

I ask the Minister to recognise also that science is a changing subject. It is vital that teachers receive the opportunity constantly to retrain, which is why it is slightly disappointing to discover that science teachers are not entitled to science-related continual professional development. That is another area for the Minister to examine. Indeed, I should tie that issue to the debate last week about equivalent or lower qualifications, about which the Minister knows I feel strongly because of its impact on the Open university. I ask him to talk to his ministerial colleagues and press the point that if the Government pursue the policy of withdrawing ELQ funding, it will have a significant impact on science teaching.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak, although as I fear that I may not be able to stay for the closing speeches the Minister will be relieved to hear that I shall not ask too many questions of him. There is science business in the House of Lords today, and it may take me away.

Instead of going on the trip by the Select Committee on Innovation, Universities and Skills to a seminar, I wanted to attend today’s debate in order to support the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) and congratulate him on his work on the subject under discussion. This is one of a series of tributes that I have paid to him for his efforts in raising the profile of important science issues—not just chemistry and teaching—in the House. I agree with almost everything that he said today, so I shall stress just a couple of points.

There is a fundamental problem: the shortage of specialist teachers. It creates a vicious circle; if students are not inspired to study science subjects at university because they have not had an inspiring specialist teacher, they will not graduate in that subject and at least consider the option of a teaching career—in the state sector especially. The real issue is that the Government have to break that vicious circle. We must recognise that numerate graduates who understand science and are well trained in its methods are attractive not only to industry and teaching, but also in the City and in jobs that pay far better than public sector jobs such as teaching.

The Government must consider whether the huge burden of student debt imposed as a result of their student funding policies is a factor in the career choices of well-qualified science graduates. There is evidence of that, and although the Minister is quite right to point out that some statistics are misleading—as he claimed about the programme for international student assessment studies—one rarely hears the Government point out misleading statistics when it is not in their favour to do so. The Minister is smiling. I suspect that all political parties are guilty of such practice, so I accept that point, if it is the point he makes, but I campaign within my party to ensure that we improve our performance in that regard. There is, none the less, an undoubted impact when people are burdened with debt and have either the opportunity of a golden hello or the prospect of not being able to afford to buy their own house because they are in a less well-paid public sector job.

There are also issues about women in science teaching, women in science careers and female science graduates staying in science. There is clear evidence that debt has a particular impact on female graduates, and we will not solve the problem until we address the issues for women in science.

The Minister ought to consider the impact of the closure of science centres, which are an inspiration to many students, and indeed, to teaching staff, but are not Government-funded. The centres have an uncertain future because their business plans were approved without adequate scrutiny during the millennium handouts, and unlike museums that promote arts subjects, they do not receive Government funding, whether or not they have collections. I look forward to the Government’s response to the report by the Select Committee on Science and Technology on science centres.

There is an anti-science culture, and it may have an impact on the willingness of students—particularly the brighter ones with many options before them—to take up or at least to be enthusiastic about science. There is an anti-rational movement in this country. Today, there is a demonstration outside the House of Lords against certain aspects of embryo research, where people will wear rabbit and cow costumes or masks to imply that early-stage, inter-species embryos, which will be needed to study embryological and genetic matters, are somehow equivalent to the creation of chimerical monsters. That is ridiculous, but it is the sort of idea that the media promote, and we must ensure that in schools there is a fight against such anti-genetic modification propaganda and, for that matter, against some of the anti-vivisection material that gets into schools.

The Government must draw a line in the sand and say that they will not accept the teaching of creationism in schools, either in science lessons—as they and the official Opposition have said—or as fact in religious education lessons. In RE lessons, it might be taught that some people believe in creationism, because it is a sincere belief, albeit one that I think is wrong, but there should be no instruction that creationism is equivalent to evolution, only that it is a belief. It is not science, and it is not knowledge in that sense.

The hon. Members for Bolton, South-East and for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) mentioned the need to ensure that dissection can be performed in schools. Even if it puts off a few, it can encourage others, and the Government have a challenge to reintroduce such measures in schools.

I know that the Minister is interested in these matters, and I was delighted that he held his seat at the last election. He is one of my favourite Ministers, and I hope that he will look favourably on the subject of the debate.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing the debate. I have found it incredibly interesting, and it has been a great privilege to share the enthusiasm for science that has been expressed. It is a strong indication that we can and should do better.

There has been growing concern recently about the decline in the number of pupils taking up science at A-level and university and the high number of pupils failing to achieve the required standard in GCSE sciences. It must be recognised that that is a symptom of a long-term decline. The latest Government figures show that at more than 1,500 state schools—about half the schools in England—fewer than 50 per cent. of pupils reach the required standard of two grade Cs or above in science. An accompanying downturn in the number of state education pupils taking science A-levels has been reported by the Cambridge Assessment exam board: although 33.3 per cent. of grammar school and 27.7 per cent. of independent school pupils go on to study chemistry A-level, only 14.8 per cent. of pupils at comprehensives do so.

The falling number of pupils coming through science A-levels has meant that many universities have cut science courses. The University and College Union revealed last August that 10 per cent. of UK science and maths degree courses had been axed in the past decade. The sharpest decline has been in chemistry, sadly, in which 31 per cent. of courses have been cut. The continuing downward trend in the number of science graduates threatens our status as a leading knowledge economy, leaves us vulnerable to emerging economies and is having a direct impact on the number of specialist science teachers in schools.

I should like to mention the vicious circle described by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). Way back in a debate in 2004 I used a little equation: unqualified teachers plus uninterested students equals a drop in the number of people taking A-level science; fewer science graduates equals fewer qualified teachers; and round and round we go. I am sad to say that the trend has not been reversed since that debate, and we are still struggling to recruit the teachers whom we need to inspire children and encourage them to study science and maths at higher levels. I believe fundamentally that all children have a right to be taught by a teacher who is qualified in the subject or area being taught. In conjunction with that, all teachers should have a right to professional development, in which they should be supported. That is important, and it is coming to the fore at last, but it is still a long way down the line.

Lord Sainsbury’s review of science and innovation, published last October, warned that Britain would be involved in a race to the bottom of the global economy unless more was done to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics—STEM—development. Similarly, the Confederation of British Industry estimates that more than 2 million graduates in STEM subjects will be needed by 2014 to avoid jobs going abroad. The Government have responded belatedly with the announcement of conversion courses for teachers to retrain as science specialists, and there is a £5,000 incentive. We also need supply cover if teachers are to be released for such important continuing professional development courses.

The Government are moving in the right direction, but it is too little, too late. We are four years on from the Treasury’s original proposals to increase investment in science and technology, and only a handful of teachers are being retrained. It is time that the Government understood the principle of compound interest: start small and early and the target is attainable, leave it late and it becomes unachievable. That is what is in danger of happening to their target for science teachers.

Crucially, the Government are still failing to make teaching a more universally attractive profession that is valued in society. Instead of one-off financial incentives and differential pay scales, which cause resentment and unhappiness and even risk some teachers facing salary cuts after their incentives have run out, teachers’ salaries in general should be addressed and consideration given to the many reasons why so many are demotivated—teaching to targets and so on, and being unable to carry out practical work. That would help to tackle the poor retention rates as well as aid recruitment. After all, about one in five science teachers who find a job in a maintained school have left the profession after three years, according to the Government’s own figures. We must work on generating enthusiasm at primary school level, and consider extra training for primary school teachers. Has the Minister made particular reference to science in the primary review that will be undertaken by Professor Rose?

Although the Government have made a lot of noise about curriculum changes designed to make science more accessible and attractive, movement has been slow. We have heard this morning about the new GCSE syllabus, and I hope that it enthuses students, but it will not be enough just to have exciting topics: there must be practical work. The Royal Society has congratulated the Government on the new syllabus, but we must consider that against the fact that it is still not possible for many pupils to take three separate science GCSEs—68 per cent. of state comprehensives do not even offer three sciences at GCSE, and the science diploma will not be introduced until 2011. Diplomas have been trumpeted as

“the biggest development in examinations anywhere in the world”,

but their staggered deployment, with science to be one of the last available, seems to continue the undervaluing of the subject.

The Government have also been slow to invest the £2 billion needed to upgrade school laboratories, about which we have heard a lot this morning. That investment is absolutely essential. Taking part in experiments and going on school trips are widely recognised as both engaging children in science and aiding their learning, a fact clearly recognised in the revamped gallery recently opened at the Science museum. Sadly, high levels of bureaucracy and a lack of resources mean that more and more teachers are cutting back on such activities. As has been said, a lot of attention needs to be given to making it easier for field trips to take place safely, and to initial teacher training.

Pupil engagement with science through more innovative teaching practice is still only part of the battle. We must get careers advice right. Again belatedly, initiatives are coming through, but I can only plead that much more needs to be done. The science ambassadors are of great importance, and I might mention that a retired scientist came to me recently and asked why we in Dorset were not making more of the Olympics and the sailing school through science and technology projects. I have suggested that to the county council but not had much of a response. We need governors and local education authorities to be engaged in the mission to make science more relevant and, most of all, more exciting.

Data management is still woefully inadequate. The Royal Society’s state of the nation report last year on the UK’s science and teaching work force concluded that

“Governmental statistics do not capture fully the acute problems faced by schools and colleges in maintaining a strong science and mathematics teaching workforce”,

and that

“no accurate estimate of the population of science and mathematics teachers in the UK exists.”

We must have good data on the supply of, and demand for, specialist teachers before we can have policies that work.

If data management is bad in the schools sector, with the new staffing survey overdue like its predecessor, it is effectively non-existent in further education. We worry about the loss through retirement of the physicists who entered teaching in the 1970s, but what about their colleagues who went into the FE sector? Does anyone in Government know the state of STEM subjects there? Does there need to be a retraining programme to match the one in schools, or are pupils studying in schools without sixth forms, who progress to FE post-16, of no importance to our economy? In light of the Education and Skills Bill, we need urgently to ensure that we provide parity in the FE sector. Many colleges will provide the technicians to support our future Nobel prize winners and their needs, and it is important to take them into account.

Time is running out, with even selective schools unable to recruit physicists when they advertise in The Times Educational Supplement. There is so much more for the Government to do, and they would do well not to ignore the warning signs from such august bodies as the Royal Society.

I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing this important debate. He has contributed greatly to the discussion of science and maths in this place, and we have been privileged today to hear from parliamentarians from all parts of the House, who have brought into Parliament not just their expertise in science but their passion and enthusiasm for the future of science in our schools—none more so than my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster). He gave us an exciting insight into his own childhood, including the keeping of gunpowder in the bread bin—not something that I shall mention to my own son—and, more importantly, into the practical physics and science experiments that he undertook, such as firing tennis balls at 45° angles to see where they hit and how far they went. I am sure that he took a practical application of that into his career as a bomb disposal expert in the Army, and that his practical science experience came to good use in his military career.

The importance of science is not to be underestimated. It is an important part of education, in the same way as history or modern languages, equipping the next generation to think about and deal with some of the most important issues facing the country—whether biofuels, energy, climate change, genetic modification or mapping the human genome. Those are all science-related issues, and we need young people, whether they are budding scientists or destined for other careers, to appreciate the importance that science has in all our lives.

Of course, science also has a vital role in our economy. My constituency, in north Hampshire, has one of the largest centres of employment. The pharmaceutical industry is at the heart of the success of my constituency, so I know at first hand how important science is to local business employers. The Leitch report clearly says that the demand for science and technology professionals will increase by 18 to 30 per cent. between 2004 and 2014—far higher than for any other occupational group. As my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) has pointed out, we cannot rely on overseas expertise to ensure that business needs are met, because those people can too easily return home, taking their skills with them.

The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East focused on the importance of practical science, but the pathway to achieving high-quality practical science in our classrooms has to be through our teaching staff and teaching professionals within our schools. It will be difficult for the Minister to disagree that there is a crisis in science in our schools today. Many hon. Members have stated their concerns about science teaching in our schools and the ability of schools to secure specialist science teachers. We have heard figures on the shortfall in the number of specialist science teachers: only 19 per cent. of science teachers have specialisms in physics, and only 25 per cent. in chemistry. Indeed, one in four schools in the state sector do not have a specialist physics teacher. That is another issue of which I have first-hand experience of problems in my constituency.

The failure to attract new science teachers is worrying, particularly given that many science teachers are nearing retirement. We must also make international comparisons. When one considers that 90 per cent. of teachers in China have some sort of science degree, one realises that, in this country, science simply is not as ingrained in the teaching of our young people as it is in our economic competitor countries. It is important for us to examine that issue and to hear from the Minister what he intends to do about it.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) spoke about the impact that the situation has had on the results achieved in schools, and on GCSE numbers. The number of young people who are able to take three separate sciences is low indeed: just 26 per cent. of comprehensive schools are able to offer the three sciences separately—clearly as a result of the shortfall in the number of specialist teachers. That has had a knock-on effect on the number of students able to study at A-level and a further knock-on effect on the number studying science at university. There has been a 40 per cent. fall in demand for undergraduate places in physics, and I know from my experience in south-east England that the physics department at the university of Reading, which provided an excellent opportunity for students in my area to study physics close to home, has recently closed.

The Royal Society of Chemistry has warned that too many science students need remedial lessons when they arrive at university, which causes significant problems for university teachers. Most sobering of all, it says that 30 per cent. of university physics departments have closed since 1994, and that only 47 out of 125 universities now offer physics places. It is estimated that only six chemistry departments will be left by 2014.

What has been the Government’s response so far? We should not be surprised that it has been to set a target. The target is that by 2014, 25 per cent. of science teachers will have a physics specialism, and 31 per cent. a chemistry specialism. Those are admirable objectives, and I am sure that the Minister will touch on them in his remarks, but the Royal Society felt that those targets were somewhat short on detail when they were announced. Indeed, the Institute of Physics did not feel that there was a well-defined strategy in place for achieving the goals that the Government set out. Perhaps we should not be surprised that in the past decade, parliamentary answers obtained by my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) have revealed that, year on year, the Government have failed to meet their targets on the recruitment of more science teachers into this area, despite the considerable effort put into golden hellos and bursaries, which simply have not been hitting the targets on improving recruitment or other targets that the Government wanted to achieve.

The most concerning statistics of all must be that 40 per cent. of science and maths teachers who qualified in 1999 were not teaching a year later, and that 50 per cent. were not teaching five years later. Those figures come from the Royal Society. Why are we not retaining the scientists whom we have enticed into the teaching profession? Perhaps the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East hit the nail on the head by making the lion’s share of his speech about practical work, which brings science to life, not only for students but for teachers. He talked about his experiences, in his early years, when he got a chemistry set from his friend and undertook his own experiments, thus finding out how exciting science can be for young people. For me, the highlight of biology at school was dissecting a cow’s eye, but I hear that, unfortunately, such dissections are not always offered in schools in my area.

The practical role of science was highlighted in the House of Lords report as an essential component of effective science teaching. The Lords also picked up on the problem of health and safety inhibiting teaching. Several speakers, including the hon. Members for Mid-Dorset and North Poole and for Bolton, South-East, have discussed the conditions in laboratories. I share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes that building schools for the future will not be available to many constituents until five years hence, which will be too late for the work that needs to be undertaken in our science laboratories.

Science teachers might feel let down by the Government, because many students do not have basic English and maths when they reach secondary school, and that affects the teaching of science in schools. How does the Minister feel about that? Surely, if children do not have a grasp of basic English and maths, it will be next to impossible for them to access physics, chemistry and biology. Does he not share our concern that that is a fundamental issue and that the Government must start to take it far more seriously?

I noted with interest that the Minister picked up on the fact that there have been some discussions on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development rankings of the UK in science. I am sure that he is not complacent in that area at all, and that he is as concerned as Conservative Members are that, in absolute terms, China—one of the countries that we must keep in mind as a key competitor in the future—significantly outperformed the UK on science and maths in 2006. I would appreciate some thoughts from the Minister as to how he will reverse that situation in the coming years.

The Opposition want specialist science to be taken seriously by the Government. Too little progress has been made on recruiting and retaining suitably qualified teachers for core academic science subjects. The Government need to share our pledge that all secondary school pupils capable of doing so should be able to do the individual science GCSEs if that is their choice. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole also picked up on that.

The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) mentioned the importance of firsthand experience for children in schools, and echoed many of the thoughts of other Members. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) discussed the importance of inspirational specialist teachers. There is a great deal of agreement on the issues that face us.

Will the Minister pledge that students who wish to study individual sciences will be able to do so? When will the Government be able to meet their recruitment targets and perhaps make up the shortfall of the past decade? The Government’s promise in the 2005 general election campaign of £200 million for school science labs has not been delivered, much to the annoyance of some sectors. Given the declining number of science students, how will the Minister guarantee that building schools for the future money will actually be used to improve science labs in schools? What will he do to help more teachers access the regional science learning centres?

Last but by no means least, will the Minister undertake a review of science teaching and take up some of the issues that the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East raised, to establish what can be done to enhance the excitement of teaching science in our schools? Science is the lifeblood and one of the most important aspects of the economy and the future of this country.

Like others, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing this important and engaging debate on science teaching. There is no greater champion of science in this House, and we have seen that not only today but through his work on the former Science and Technology Committee and now on the Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee. I shall comment later on some of the points that he made.

We had excellent contributions from all the speakers. It is unfortunate that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) has had to go to a Public Bill Committee—I shall say one or two things in response to his comments shortly. I was taken with the engaging contribution of the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster). We all enjoyed hearing about the holes in his lawn, and I agree that it is a crying shame that every young person is not taught science in a fun and engaging way.

I was pleased that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) thought that we were going in the right direction, and I share her desire and impatience for us to go further and faster. She thought that we needed to make teaching more attractive and spoke about teachers’ pay. I hope that she has had a chance to see the ministerial statement on teachers’ pay that we published at 9.30 this morning. It outlines the three-year settlement of 2.45, 2.3 and 2.3 per cent., which, according to the comments that I have seen to date, has been broadly welcomed by all but perhaps one of the teachers unions. Average teacher pay is up 19 per cent. in real terms over the past 10 years; for head teachers, it is up by more than 25 per cent. We have made some good progress on teachers’ pay.

Among his other comments, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) spoke about his worries that top-up fees would have a detrimental impact on recruitment of science students in higher education. A provisional figure from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service for 2007-08 shows that, in comparison with the previous year, there have been increases in first-degree acceptances for physics of 10.3 per cent., for chemistry of 8.8 per cent., for biology of 3.3 per cent. and for mathematics of 9.2 per cent. I am sure that all Members who have shown their enthusiasm for science will welcome those significant increases. They follow the signs of recovery in A-level recruitment into physics, which I shall discuss later.

I believe the Minister will concede that my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon made a particular point about the position of women and the burden of debt. Throughout this debate there has been great concern about the gender imbalance and the fact that more science teachers could be recruited if there were equality between the sexes. I would be grateful if the Minister addressed that general point.

I agree that there is a continuing need to redress the gender gap, particularly in respect of girls studying physics. There has been a slight narrowing of it, but it is not sufficient and we certainly need to do more. As ever, there is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation with such issues. If we could get more girls to study physics to A-level, there would be more chance of their going on to study it in higher education and then going into teaching, but which comes first is something that we have to address. I will say more about that as I go on.

The hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) made an interesting contribution as well and asked all the right questions. Beyond what I already said in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East on the programme for international student assessment, it is worth noting that only seven countries had mean scores that were significantly higher than England’s, and that England has the third highest proportion of students at the highest level of attainment in the world. There are some cultural as well as substantive issues—for example, gender was just mentioned—that we need to address. Only 38 per cent. of students said that they like reading about science, and only 55 per cent. said that they generally have fun when they are learning science. Those are the sorts of things that we have been talking about and that we want to deal with in our reforms. However, 61 per cent. of students—higher than the international average—agreed that when they leave school there will be many opportunities for them to use science. Some of the messages are starting to get through.

I agree that science should be exciting and engaging. I well remember my experience in school of lighting the magnesium, of wrestling with the ticker tape timer, and, in the days when I had hair, of static electricity having the necessary effect. I was delighted when I went back to my school last year that Paul McCartney, who taught me chemistry, and Jan Pringle, who taught me physics, were still there and still doing the great job that they did when I was a pupil.

I share the enthusiasm of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East to make science a more attractive option for young people to study and for schools and teachers to teach—almost as much as I share my enthusiasm for KT Tunstall’s latest album, “Drastic Fantastic”, with my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North, who is an enthusiast. Perhaps it describes how we want science teaching to change: drastically and fantastically.

We want more students to continue to study science, to make it their career and to engage with scientific issues as citizens. I want to explain today how we will achieve that by inspiring young people with science throughout their journey through the various stages of school.

The key to good learning is, of course, good teaching. We know that to help students enjoy and achieve success in science we need more specialist teachers, as has been pointed out—specialists who can communicate their love for and depth of knowledge of their subject. We are encouraging people to train and to qualify as science teachers, as the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said, by offering a teacher training bursary and a golden hello in the subjects that we need. That is working: the number of trainee science teachers recruited in a year has just reached more than 3,000 for the first time for conventional initial teacher training. Add to that the employment-based routes, and we are now recruiting well in terms of science specialists.

There is not an overall crisis in terms of the future numbers of science teachers, because the numbers entering training has risen by almost a third in seven years, but the hon. Member for Basingstoke is right to say that there are still not enough specialist physics and chemistry teachers. We are doing more so that teachers in other subjects can gain the specialisms that they need in science, through funding the development of the new accredited training courses that were mentioned. To ensure that those courses deliver the quality that is needed, the Training and Development Agency for Schools has worked with the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Chemistry, and together they have developed courses that allow science teachers—normally biologists—without a physics or chemistry specialism to gain the knowledge and teaching skills that they need to teach these science subjects well. In gender terms, that is significant, because many of those biologists are female, and we are now, through the use of this qualification, engaging them to become specialists, especially in physics, so that we can then address the gender imbalance in the physics teaching profession, which I hope will encourage more girls to stay on doing A-level physics and go on to study it in higher education.

In the children’s plan, we announced a further new programme, “Transition to teaching”, which will be a partnership between employers and the TDA intended to attract staff with science, mathematics or technology backgrounds who may wish to take up teaching to come out of industry and take on a second career in teaching. That programme is being developed under the leadership of Larry Hirst from IBM.

We do not just need more specialist teachers, we need to ensure that science teachers get the continuing support and development that they need to remain inspirational teachers. Continuing personal development is important, as all hon. Members have said. We fund schools to provide CPD for staff. Today is the fifth anniversary of the social partnership that the Department for Education and Skills developed with teaching unions, one of the main outputs of which has been the work force agreement, giving more planning preparation and assessment time for the teaching staff, and using Baker days—the in-service training or INSET days—that were developed by the previous Government. The combination of funding and time ought to be able to improve CPD, but we do not prescribe nationally how that should be developed.

In partnership with the Wellcome Trust we have set up a national network of science learning centres, as hon. Members have mentioned, to provide professional development for science teachers and technicians. Those centres focus on high-quality, innovative and inspiring courses, ranging from “Putting the wow into year 2”, through to “Creative brain warmers” for 14 to 19-year-olds, to ones using cartoons and puppets to encourage pupils to discuss scientific issues. However, I am not sure that those courses extend to blowing holes in the garden.

The take-up of CPD at science learning centres has been strong, and although it is not quite up to half of science teachers attending the equivalent of a day at the centre last year, it is not far off. However, the best measure of the success of science teaching is beyond that, in the classroom. The journey into science begins in primary school. We agree that it is really important, across the whole range of subjects in the curriculum, that young people have a mastery of reading and mathematics. That is where we put the priority throughout the past 10 years and why 100,000 more pupils every year are now leaving primary school with the national competency that they need in English and maths. That is 100,000 more than in 1997, when we took over as a Government, but we accept that we need to go further. That is why we are introducing the synthetic phonics, developed by Sir Jim Rose, in the “Letters and sounds” programme and why we are developing “Every child counts” to further improve mathematics and extending the use of one-to-one classes for catch-up for those that need it.

We have seen the enthusiasm of young children enjoying the hands-on science or looking in awe at the rockets on display in the Science museum. Teachers have been harnessing such enthusiasm with increasing success. In 1997, seven out of 10 pupils were achieving level 4 at the end of key stage 2, and now it is almost nine out of 10. Again, that is a good improvement. Building on these excellent results, we look forward to teachers having more opportunities to inspire children.

Hon. Members asked about Sir Jim Rose’s review of the primary curriculum, which he began last week. That will have a strong focus on scientific understanding, as well as literacy, numeracy and the effective use of information and communication technology. We have to ensure that the enthusiasm of primary children, who are doing so well, survives the transition to the next stage of their journey through education to secondary school. That is why the secondary national strategy is working with schools to promote high-quality interactive teaching, including imaginative use of practical work. At the moment, almost three quarters of pupils achieve level 5 at the end of key stage 3, and 41 per cent. achieve level 6. Those figures are much better than 10 years ago, but they are still not good enough—I am confident that the hon. Member for Basingstoke will agree.

I should like to pick up on the point that the Minister made about the importance of imaginative practical work. The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts has estimated that 87 per cent. of science teachers have been prevented from letting their students undertake practical work because they believe that health and safety regulations prohibit them from doing so. What work are the Government doing to help science teachers in this area, which is critical to the issue that the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East has raised?

I was going to address that. To help smooth transition and keep the excitement in these subjects, from this September schools will start teaching the new key stage 3 curriculum to their year 7 pupils, which some of the hon. Lady’s colleagues have been less than enthusiastic about. That will let the teachers engage the pupils by focusing more on the applications and implications of science and its relevance to and importance in everyday life. The new key stage 3 curriculum clearly says that there should be opportunities for pupils to experience science outside the school environment.

We agree that school trips are important. That is why we have developed the “Learning Outside the Classroom” manifesto to promote the value of trips and help overcome some of the associated obstacles, such as insurance and risk management. Equally, outside the timetable, 250 science and engineering after-school clubs are harnessing the interest and potential of thousands of 11 to 14-year-olds, bringing the real-world application of science into schools for them: how their iPod works or what chemistry is going on inside their brains when they fall in love. Perhaps they can do more of the science poetry that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North mentioned. From September we will be doubling the number of these after-school clubs that we fund.

Results are improving at the next stage in the journey through school, at GCSE level. In 1997, 44 per cent. of pupils gained at least one higher-level GCSE in science; last year, the proportion had risen to 51 per cent. The statistics are similar for pupils taking two sciences, showing that when they do one well the chances are that they will do the other well. However, we want to go further.

We are offering a revitalised GCSE curriculum with more choices for students and more recognition for schools that offer quality science teaching. We have already slimmed down the secondary curriculum at key stage 4, giving teachers more flexibility to structure the lessons the way they choose. We have reduced prescription while maintaining breadth, depth and challenge, giving teachers the chance to concentrate on the big ideas and the excitement, importance and relevance of the subject—the approach that captured those children’s interest when they started learning science in primary school. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East has seen in his constituency how enthusiastically the new curriculum is being received by pupils and teachers alike, and I hope that other hon. Members can see it in their own constituencies.

Beyond the changes in September 2007, we will go a step further in September this year, when all pupils who have achieved at least level 6 at key stage 3 will be entitled to study triple science GCSEs. I mention that in response to the question asked by the hon. Member for Basingstoke. That builds on what happened in September 2007, since which time all students have had a statutory entitlement to study science courses leading to at least two GCSEs.

From 2011, there will be a further option, from key stage 4, when the new science diplomas will offer another way to engage students in science and link them with employers and colleges. From this year, schools are getting specific recognition for good science provision, because we have added a new science indicator, for the first time, to this year’s attainment tables published last week. Parents can now see, for each school, the percentage of pupils with two or more higher-level science GCSEs.

As the study of science improves in numbers and quality up the school, I would expect more students to decide to carry on with science at A-level. Our “Next step” strategy, published in 2006, set out the targets, and in 2007 we saw a small rise to 23,932 in the number of A-level physics entries: the first increase since 1998. That is underpinned, equally, by expansions in the numbers doing physics at AS-level, and in the past few years there have been increases in the numbers of students doing chemistry. We are turning the corner in that regard.

One of the drivers of more students studying science at A-level and beyond will be the opportunities that are opened up in careers in science. We are working with schools, scientists and young people to let students see that science in the real world is well paid and works in various occupations. One day one of those occupations might be to follow the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East and be another passionate advocate for science in Parliament. We are increasing the number of ambassadors.

I should like to have time to respond in detail to the points about building schools for the future, but time is running out, so—

Order. Unfortunately, Minister, time has run out on this occasion. I do not like interrupting you, but to be fair I must do so, and move on to the next debate.