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Schools: Science

Volume 685: debated on Tuesday 24 October 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they support the introduction of the new science syllabus for schools, Twenty First Century Science; and whether progress in getting the syllabus into schools is satisfactory.

My Lords, the Government support the introduction of the new key stage 4 programme of study for science. It is as rigorous as the previous one; it is more engaging for all pupils; and it provides a sound basis for further study of science at A-level and beyond. The implementation of the new GCSEs will be formally monitored, but early feedback from schools has been largely positive.

My Lords, I very much welcome the Government’s support. In some ways, it goes back to the Science and Society report of this House, which contained a whole chapter on the need to reform the science syllabus in schools. The Minister referred to the piloting, which has been extremely successful and warmly welcomed by head teachers and science teachers in a great many schools. Does he accept that the new syllabus can offer pupils the choice of doing three separate science subjects, and is that not one of its very valuable points? However, does he also accept that, if this is to work successfully, more resources will need to go into giving teachers the money and the time to undertake continuous professional development?

My Lords, I am very grateful for the noble Lord’s welcome for the new science syllabus. He is absolutely right about the need for more resources for continuing professional development, and we are providing those resources. For example, we have our outstanding £50 million partnership with the Wellcome Foundation to establish the network of science learning centres throughout the country which has been much appreciated by teachers and is substantially improving the quality of in-service training for teachers.

The noble Lord is also right about the availability of the three individual sciences at GCSE. As he knows, earlier this year we announced policies to promote the availability of the three individual sciences at GCSE, including a new entitlement for all pupils who reach level 6 at key stage 3—the higher-performing pupils at the age of 14—to study the three individual sciences; and a new availability from 2008 for the three individual sciences to be taken in all comprehensive schools that have a science specialism. At the moment, there are 292 such schools, but that number will rise. We agree with all the points that the noble Lord has made, and we are seeking to advance both in-service training and the availability of the individual sciences.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, although the new Twenty First Century Science does an extraordinarily good job of presenting science in general and physics in particular as relevant to everyday life, there remains a need to cater also—additionally and perhaps separately, with appropriately qualified teachers—to the smaller number of students who have an aptitude for the mathematical, analytic character of the physical sciences, which can often seem arcane to the majority, for whom Twenty First Century Science is so sensibly designed?

My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord. That is why we are keen to make the three individual sciences available. It is also why we are promoting the study of mathematics much more vigorously in schools, including the take-up of further mathematics at AS and A-level. Numbers have significantly increased at AS-level, and that is very welcome. As the noble Lord will know, we are also introducing a new maths GCSE to further stimulate students who show most capacity in the area he described from the age of 14 and not simply leaving it to the individual sciences at GCSE or AS and A-level.

My Lords, the Minister said that Twenty First Century Science provided a good background on which to take A-levels. As we are extremely concerned about the fall in the number of pupils taking some of the sciences at A-level, particularly physics and chemistry, can he give us any indication of whether the pilots showed that those who were stimulated by the novelty of the new curriculum went on to study them at A-level?

My Lords, the picture at post-16 is not quite as straightforward as the noble Baroness suggests. She is absolutely right that the numbers studying the three sciences to A-level have declined, but the numbers studying at AS-level have risen quite substantially. Between 2001 and 2006, the number studying biology at AS-level has risen from 51,000 to 59,000; the number studying chemistry at AS-level has risen from 35,000 to 41,000; and the number studying physics at AS-level has also risen, although only marginally, from 29,174 to 29,659. The issue is in part one of progression from GCSE to AS, and the results of the pilot have been encouraging. However, the issue also—in some ways, more substantially for the immediate future of getting more pupils up to A-level—is to encourage those who start on the AS course to continue into the second year of sixth form to take the A2.

My Lords, the new curriculum may offer the three separate sciences to high achievers in the state sector, but why should not all pupils be entitled to learn the three separate sciences up to GCSE, not just pupils taught in the independent sector?

My Lords, I see that the noble Baroness has tabled amendments on this subject, which we look forward to addressing later. The number studying three individual sciences has risen. The new entitlement, which I described to her noble friend earlier, will see the availability of the three sciences significantly extended over the next few years. The number of pupils gaining level 6 or above in the key stage 3 science tests was 259,000 this year. That is the group to which we will be extending the entitlement in two years’ time.

We will not achieve anything in this area unless we have enough highly qualified and motivated teachers in our schools. Unfortunately, the party opposite left us with a massive deficit of highly qualified teachers in this area. We have increased the supply of science teachers by 30 per cent since 1997, but we have to make good decades of under-investment in this area. Neither I nor any other Minister can wave a magic wand and suddenly make things happen. It has taken decades of under-investment to get us into this position in the first place.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that making science more approachable to all pupils is to be supported? Does he agree that science has to understand the needs of pupils as much as pupils have to understand science?

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the problems, despite this excellent new curriculum, is that far too many students in comprehensive schools are still being taught science by teachers with no specific science qualifications? The initiative that he has mentioned is extremely welcome. The requirement for students to be inspired to study science is crucial, and I hope that the Government can say what action they are taking to improve the standard of science teachers.

My Lords, we have significantly increased incentives to recruit teachers into science and into the three scientific disciplines in particular. That is yielding fruit: the number of specifically trained physics teachers recruited between 2000 and 2004 doubled; the number of specifically trained biology teachers recruited in that period more than doubled; and the number of specifically trained chemistry teachers in that period went up by 50 per cent. We have a good track record but I fully accept that we have further to go.