rose to call attention to science teaching; and to move for Papers.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I would like to say how grateful I am that such a distinguished group of noble Lords, who are so knowledgeable about science teaching, are taking part in this debate.
There can be little that is more important to our nation’s economy and to its intellectual standing than the teaching of science. Everyone should have a basic understanding of science—to ensure scientific literacy in society as a whole and because our industrial and financial competitiveness depends on the creation and application of new science and technology. Everyone should possess this understanding, not just those who are going on to be scientists and engineers. It is equally important that our scientists and engineers possess a grounding in the arts, humanities and languages. At present, our education system encourages students not to do this but to specialise at the age of 16, which I regard as far too young. I will return to this issue later.
Joined to this debate is the debate on the report of the Science and Technology Committee—which I chaired—called Science Teaching in Schools, published last November. I take this opportunity to recognise the very valuable contribution that all the members of the committee made to the report. It focused on schools, of course, but this debate is broader in scope. So while I take our report as my starting point, I shall then range more widely and consider the state of science teaching in higher education.
The report observes that the number of young people opting for science subjects at the age of 16, especially the physical sciences, has remained more or less flat or has declined over the past decade. There have been modest increases in some subjects, such as biology, and worrying falls in others, particularly physics. But all these figures have to be seen against the backdrop of rising A-level take-up. Linked to this relative decline were difficulties in recruiting and retaining adequately trained science teachers and the quality of school science laboratories was poor. Since 2001, the Government have displayed impressive determination in attempting to reverse the decline in student numbers and to improve the supply of talented science teachers. Ambitious goals have been set, but the difficulties persist and more needs to be done.
With respect to the practical teaching of science, the Government have fallen short. They failed to deliver the £200 million promised for school science laboratories before the 2005 election, despite the fact that the lack of motivating practical science has been a key factor in the loss of interest by students, and they failed to take adequate advice in the design of practical laboratories. The difficulties in delivering exciting and interesting practical classes were made worse by the lack of adequate career opportunities for laboratory technicians. We need to ensure the future of practical science in schools and overcome the reluctance of teachers to make practical science exciting and relevant.
The committee called for a central website on practical science to help address health and safety fears, and urged the Government to improve their unsatisfactory exemplar designs for science laboratories by consulting more widely with experts in the field. The low quality of so many new and refurbished science laboratories is both regrettable and avoidable. We were mystified that the Government, in developing exemplar designs as part of the school labs of the future programme, failed to consult acknowledged authorities such as the Consortium of Local Education Authorities for the Provision of Science Services—CLEAPSS—and the Association for Science Education which have first-hand experience in school laboratory design. We recommended that the Government rectify this omission.
We also criticised the Government’s obsession with testing. Current tests focus on too narrow a range of skills and stop teachers using their own creativity to inspire students to study science. The preoccupation with testing at all school ages takes much of the fun out of studying science for many children and destroys teachers’ morale. It is difficult to take pleasure in one’s actions and achievement with the heavy hand of government for ever interfering in everything one does.
On the critical issue of attracting and retaining talented science teachers, the committee recommended that schools should be encouraged to offer higher salaries to science and mathematics teachers. Schools already have some flexibility with regard to pay, as the Government’s response points out, but these powers need to be made more explicit, and the Government should encourage schools to use them more widely.
The Government have accepted that the current situation is unsatisfactory. They have asked the School Teachers’ Review Body to advise on ways to improve the use of these powers. But this is an urgent problem, and rapid and effective action is needed. We also called for a better paid and faster route for those people with substantial expertise in science and mathematics in industry to allow them to gain qualified teacher status. Many scientists and engineers are attracted to teaching later in their career, and they should be encouraged to do so, rather than hindered by bureaucratic hurdles.
Science and engineering are highly dynamic subjects. Every day there are advances and changes, and those who teach modern science and technology need continually to keep up with these advances. The Government have attempted to link continuing professional development—CPD—to career progression, but the committee remains unconvinced that teachers will take advantage of the opportunities available. Indeed, they may be discouraged from doing so because of the cost of providing replacement teaching while they are studying. We therefore recommended that teachers, whatever their subject, be required to undertake a certain number of hours of subject-specific CPD each year. We further recommended that the Government provide schools with ring-fenced funding to cover the cost of the CPD and any replacement teaching. It is encouraging that the Wellcome Trust is in discussion with Government and industry to provide long-term support for CPD.
Let me return to the narrowness of our secondary education system. The committee felt that this was one of the factors leading to the decline in the number of students opting for science subjects. In many cases, students are being advised that to gain entry to science and engineering courses they should study only science and mathematics in their A-levels. In other words, they are being forced to make a decision that will affect the rest of their lives at the age of about 16, which, as I have said is far too young. I do not know of any other country that does this.
The problem is compounded by the fact that science subjects are perceived to be more difficult, which in turn may jeopardise pupils' ability to obtain the high grades necessary to gain entry to the university of their choice. It is also not in the interest of the schools to encourage students to take science subjects, because it puts at risk their ranking. We recommended that the Government should replace A-levels over the long term with a broader-based syllabus such as the International Baccalaureate. We have noted that they are giving some support to the IB. We are not alone in recommending this type of change. The Tomlinson report reached similar conclusions, but no general proposals have come forward.
In their response to the report, the Government claimed that all A-levels were of equal difficulty, but data produced by the Curriculum, Evaluation and Management Centre at Durham University and reproduced in our report, suggested that this was not true.
The Durham University data showed that there were differences in difficulty that could lead to a two grade difference in predicted A-level results. Admittedly, the methodology used is not universally accepted, but no one seems to have proposed an alternative, so the Durham data remain the best available. In the absence of supporting evidence, the Government's constant refrain that all A-levels are equally difficult carries little weight.
AS-levels have also been introduced in an attempt to broaden the subject base, but in many cases, students just take more science and mathematics subjects not, for example, English and a foreign language, which would seem to be essential ingredients of a balanced school curriculum.
The fall-off in the proportion of students opting for careers based on the physical sciences and engineering is alarming and a matter of serious concern to industry and business. If we look beyond secondary to higher education, the difficulties of narrowness persist, leading to the need to rethink the way students choose their careers and the way in which we structure our university courses. Too many university courses are narrow and inward looking and constrained by faculty boundaries that have changed little since the middle of the last century. For example, an engineer today needs knowledge of a range of subjects many of which had little prominence 50 years ago. Examples are molecular biology, computer science and nanoscience.
As an example of what others have done, first-year engineers at MIT are required to study biology. This increase in breadth inevitably means that some depth will have to be sacrificed in the traditional core of the syllabus, and it is unreasonable to expect students to arrive at university as well prepared in the core subjects as they were in the past. It is better that they come with a broader knowledge base, although in delivering that, the fundamentals of science and mathematics should be maintained in school curricula.
To accomplish breadth and at the same time bring students to an adequate level at graduation, it will probably be necessary to lengthen the courses for those who intend to become professional engineers and scientists, but this greater length is not needed by those studying science and engineering as a general education. For them, a broader base would prepare them better for what in future are likely to be far more diverse careers with periodical retraining and realignment during the working lifetime.
Both needs would be satisfied if we adopted a three-year plus two-year structure, where a relatively broad three-year undergraduate degree was followed by a two-year master’s degree. Those seeking a general education would leave university after three years or go on to broaden their horizons by studying non-science subjects such as law, economics or management, while the professional scientists and engineers would go on to take a two-year master’s degree. The latter would also better prepare them for a PhD. At present, an increasing number of students studying for a PhD have to spend their first year reading to bring themselves up to the level at which they can commence their research. Hence, science and engineering PhDs end up taking four or more years.
I am concentrating here on the physical and biological sciences, engineering and mathematics. Arts, humanities and social science subjects provide different postgraduate challenges and, in particular, one-year master’s courses have proven especially successful in these subjects and should continue. However, our four-year science and engineering master's courses, in part justified because of a perceived slippage in our school education standards, themselves fall between two stools. They are longer than is necessary for those who are not going to be specialists and too short for those who are. The three plus two format, which was more widespread in the middle of the 20th century in the UK, and which has now emerged in the Bologna agreement, is better suited to future needs.
No matter what the format, it is important to avoid asking young people to decide what they want to do before they have the knowledge, intelligently, to do so. For example, it is not necessary to ask students to commit to the majority of professional careers until the second or third year of university, and it is certainly wrong to try to persuade them to commit to given professions while they are still at school.
Good science teaching both in schools and in universities is of extraordinary importance and must continually be adjusted to take account of the ever-increasing reservoir of human knowledge. We are not seeking some ideal system that will last us for decades. We need to adjust our syllabuses and the way in which we teach them every few years and it is not clear that we have been doing that. Change is overdue.
In concluding, I would like once again to draw attention to the recommendations in the Select Committee's report Science Teaching in Schools and compliment our Clerks, Christopher Johnson and Tom Wilson, on the outstanding way in which they co-ordinated our inquiry and drafted the report. The recommendations, if implemented, would significantly improve the present standard of our science teaching in schools and I encourage the Minister to look once again at those recommendations that the Government have chosen not to pursue. I beg to move for Papers.
My Lords, this is a slightly curious situation when we have two debates in one. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Broers, on his outstanding contribution in chairing the recent inquiry, but also an introducing this debate, which is of immense importance. There is an echo in this debate of the one that we just had on stem cell research and it is interesting how much they are linked. One that came up during that debate was that of public engagement and the notion of public responsibility that scientists have. There is a real need now to consider how important that is, particularly in teaching in universities and, to a large extent, in schools, which is essentially where we change the fundamental culture of our society.
There is a huge job to be done if science is to remain both wanted and respectable, and something that is seen as promoting and improving the quality of life for individuals in this country, overseas and for the protection of the planet. The first thing that we need to be thinking about in terms of public engagement, is how we try to do better at university level. It is interesting that recently HEFCE introduced its Beacons for Public Engagement initiative. There are a number of issues about how that initiative was introduced—in my view, rather too hurriedly with not enough thought. It is also true that it might have been better focused in some ways on the real issue that we are facing this afternoon—science. But it is good that that initiative has happened and perhaps, over the next few years, we may see it develop.
One of the things that concerns me as a scientist in a university is the poverty of ability of so many young scientists to communicate their science to other people, both in written material when they write reports when they are eventually published, but also in how they communicate their science outside. That should be an essential part of the university course. We should also recognise the relevance of science to society and face the fact that we as scientists do not own the science that we do. It is a public matter and something about which we need to listen to the public and understand.
It is also surprising that, as far as I know, no university in the United Kingdom teaches ethics as a matter of routine to its science undergraduates. We do so in medical schools in that part of university, but not in general to the rest of our undergraduates. That is something that we should address now and think about more carefully.
The nature of science is something that we too often neglect. We think of science in terms of certainty rather than uncertainty. Seeing that he has been mentioned already once this morning, the sad thing about the title of the book The God Delusion is that it implies a kind of certainty about the universe that a good scientist should not entirely share. In an important echo of the previous debate, we need to understand the nature of commercial activity. To hark back to that debate, if we allow too much private funding on stem cell research, that may be the worst solution in terms of how we exercise control over what is done in the public's name in universities.
With regard to teaching in schools, it seems to me that the report has made some really valuable recommendations, and I hope that the Government take them seriously. I shall address just two aspects—the issue of continuing professional development for teachers and the issue of practical science. There needs to be recognition that continuing professional experience must be audited, properly monitored and rewarded. There needs to be dedicated time out for teachers to do this in a constructive fashion and it needs to be specified with validated teaching materials.
What turned me on to science at the age of 13 was a boring chemistry lesson—my first such lesson ever—when a master at St Paul’s stood in front of the class for 10 minutes, with his hands behind his back, describing some abstruse piece of chemistry while we all went to sleep. He was an exceptionally boring man—but suddenly behind him there was a flash of light, a huge bang, and the entire room was filled with smoke. Mr Langham, the teacher in question—and I see the noble Lord, Lord Baker, smiling at the memory of this man—caused such a commotion in the form that we were completely glued to chemistry ever afterwards. Sadly, the Health and Safety Executive would now have something to say about that, but we are too timid in that regard. In my own laboratory at Hammersmith we cannot even put posters up showing the work that we have just published because the Health and Safety Executive says that it would be a fire hazard. How ridiculous.
Practical work is something that we need to concentrate on much more. It is quite shocking; I go to about 20 schools a year, some of them primary schools but most of them secondary schools, to give various informal tutorials. It is shocking how many poor laboratories I have visited that are in disrepair right across the sector in secondary schools. That is a matter of public shame.
There are many other aspects to this subject, but I conclude with a recent example in New Zealand. I was incredibly impressed at a recent visit two weeks ago, at the Liggins Institute which is run by a fellow of the Royal Society, Peter Gluckman. The institute has employed a science teacher inside the research institute who brings in pupils from schools throughout Auckland, and about one-third of the pupils doing science in Auckland have visited already and have been absolutely turned on. It is extraordinary the response that those children have. There should be a better connection in all sorts of ways between school teachers, children at schools and the universities.
My Lords, there can be no doubt of the importance of today’s subject if Britain is to retain its economic success in today’s competitive world. There are few areas of industry and commerce in which a sound and innovative knowledge of science, technology and maths is not essential. That means attracting young people into careers in those fields who have a good understanding of those subjects enabling them to keep up with worldwide progress and pursue new ideas themselves with success. That is now not happening enough, as is clearly shown in the tables in chapter 2 of our report. It is vitally urgent and needs action.
There are several reasons for this decline: a shortage of inspiring teachers, although there are many good ones, and careers advisers; and the view that scientific subjects are difficult, which leads to easier choices of A-level and degree subjects by young people and their schools. Maths, physics and chemistry do demand bright answers and our report shows clearly that they are difficult subjects. Therefore, the Government need to do all that they can to recruit inspiring teachers and careers advisers into these subjects. Science commands good salaries elsewhere, so good science teachers need good salaries if they are to be attracted into schools—and golden hellos are a good idea. People who have worked in industry and decide to change careers need positive action, too, and I am glad that their numbers are increasing. Their working experience could do much to make the subjects more interesting for young people and persuade them to make scientific career choices.
I have declared my interest as an engineer and as patron of the WISE campaign—Women into Science, Engineering and Construction. Marie-Noelle Barton, the director, gave valuable advice as a witness. Females form 52 per cent of the population at schools and as adults. Therefore, we need to do far more to attract them into these fields—otherwise they can be regarded as male subjects, which they are not. WISE and the Women’s Engineering Society have provided a database for the ambassador scheme so that successful young women can come into schools and describe in an exciting way the rewarding nature of their careers. All the problems in need of solution, as I shall describe, make girls less likely than boys to choose scientific and engineering careers, so urgency must be added to the solution if we are to make them attractive and see an improvement in these fields. I implore the Government—action, not just words.
Often careers advisers, who are mostly humanities based, can put young people off scientific careers. Their lack of knowledge and experience leads to their regarding work in these fields as boring. Anyone who has worked as a scientist or engineer knows that that is not true. Problems in pharmacy, aviation, the health service—or the production of mobile phones—are interesting to solve and give those involved exciting possibilities of success in their working teams. Connexions needs to encourage the least able, but not enough is being done in the careers service to attract technicians, chartered scientists and engineers to choose further and higher education leading to rewarding scientific careers. Again, urgent action is needed.
The schools are over-dominated by targets. They have recently been described as results factories. Dr Pike of the Royal Society of Chemistry said, “Scrap targets”, which I have a feeling might be a good idea. League tables can lead to young people being actively discouraged from these subjects. Science teachers need to be freer to teach their subjects in their own way. They also need to be able to take up continuing professional development in the knowledge that the money is available for CPD, if necessary ring-fenced, and to recruit supply teachers so that their classes are not neglected when they take their courses and they keep up to date. Those scientific supply teachers may later become full-time, which would be good news.
We were worried about the opportunity for practical work, which young people enjoy. It is absolutely necessary that better labs should be available. Their design and improvement must be carried out with the advice of the experts in local authorities, the Association for Science Education and the scientific institutions, which will need capital investment as soon as possible. That is an urgent matter, too, as some labs are very unsatisfactory indeed. Those labs need well-trained technicians to support science teachers if they are to teach practical work in an interesting way. Experiments need to be well prepared and the ASE’s proposed career structure for technicians with good salary scales will make that an attractive career option.
There are encouraging things in the Government’s response: the ambassador scheme, student associates, the international baccalaureate expansion, science regional centres and Project Faraday—but none of this will come cheap.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Broers, for introducing this important debate. I am a former science teacher. I taught general science in a comprehensive school—a boys’ school—and biology up to A-level. That was a long time ago, but I think that I can assure the noble Lord that, at least at that time, I was rather creative. Indeed, I can honestly say that many of my boys will never forget some of my demonstrations.
We have two clear tasks when teaching science: to provide a rigorous foundation for the young professional scientists of tomorrow and to produce scientifically literate young citizens. In relation to the first group, there are so many opportunities available to bright young people, and we need to attract the brightest of them into science rather than other often better-paid jobs. Science subjects are perceived as difficult with the result that they are avoided by many. Therefore, we need to make the subject interesting and relevant. Coincidentally, these are exactly the same criteria needed to attract the second group—the scientifically literate citizen. How do we do that? It boils down to motivation, which comes from three things—teaching, resources and curriculum. First, we need enthusiastic, confident teachers trained in their subject, who undergo regular CPD. That is why I support the committee’s Recommendation 6.19 that all teachers be required to take regular subject-specific CPD, with the appropriate support for the school to enable them to do so.
This ongoing training is particularly important when it comes to practical work both inside and outside the school. Many of your Lordships will have received the briefing from the Field Studies Council, which gave the horrifying statistics that less than 5 per cent of GCSE students will have the opportunity for residential science fieldwork while even at A-level nearly half of biology students will do no fieldwork at all, or have only half a day’s experience. One has to ask oneself why this is. The Field Studies Council has 17 field studies centres and there are others, but there are clearly nowhere near enough. If schools demanded them, I am sure that the market would provide them, but schools are not demanding them because the national examination system does not require, or cannot assess, field studies skills. But they are crucial to any serious science course and are very motivating to young people.
To study biology without going into the field is like trying to study music without ever going to a concert: it is impossible. It is clear that the decline in field work has been partly responsible for the decline in the number of students choosing to study science. The committee rightly points out that good quality fieldwork helps to improve educational standards and student motivation. That is my personal experience. It also develops a wider range of skills and qualities than are normally assessed in the national tests. Therefore, I join the committee in calling on the Government to review the place of practical science within the national tests and to look at how a broader range of skills can be assessed.
Of course, most practical work is in-school and here we come to another problem—resources. Many school labs are too small for the groups working in them and that is downright dangerous. The Government have failed to deliver the £200 million promised for school laboratories. Whether this is due to the failure of the Building Schools for the Future programme I do not know, but I do know that a good, spacious, well-equipped laboratory block enhances a student’s experience and keeps him safe. I therefore welcome Project Faraday, which will provide model laboratory designs and demonstration buildings. How are the Government monitoring how the Building Schools for the Future money is being spent on science laboratories? How are they collecting data on the quality of provision and the impact it is having?
Children with disabilities and other special needs often require a learning assistant or qualified classroom assistant to help them and to keep them and their classmates safe in the laboratory. That is why I welcome the Government’s commitment to ensuring that every school that wishes should be able to recruit at least one science specialist higher-level teaching assistant by next year. How are these people being trained? However, I am concerned that this should not be at the expense of a school having an adequate number of trained laboratory technicians. Teachers rely on technicians. Without them no science department can function properly. They are vital members of the team. Yet, until recently, there has been no proper career structure or training programme. Like the committee, I applaud the Association for Science Education’s recent career structure and training proposals and its findings on the almost universally low pay. When I was teaching I had two wonderful technicians without whom I could not have functioned. Their successors should be treated better than they were.
It is vital that the new GCSE curriculum is exciting and relevant; otherwise students will not achieve, nor choose to pursue, their science education to the next level. It must include real hands-on practical work, not just watching teacher demonstrations and videos. Internet searches and films may add to the interest and value of the science curriculum but they should never be regarded as a substitute for carrying out, evaluating and accurately reporting the results of experiments. There is real concern among teachers and others that too little time has been allowed for schools, awarding bodies and authors of textbooks to check the scientific accuracy and safety requirements of practical activities to be used for teaching and assessing the new GCSE science curriculum. They believe that the same issues may well arise with the new A-levels and the revised key stage 3 science.
This morning I visited Haggerston School in Hackney where the new 21st century science GCSE is being taught. I thank the girls, head, teachers and the school secretary for making me so welcome. I saw classes taking the applied science programme and the additional science. Both classes were engaged and interested. It was clear that they did plenty of practical work, mainly inside the laboratory. Both courses are very discursive so I worry a little about students for whom English is not their mother tongue. However, the teaching vehicles were varied and interesting and I had no qualms about the scientific rigour of both courses.
Those of us who learnt science the old way need to remember that today’s schools are teaching science to all children, many of whom would never have learnt it in the old days, because today’s young citizen is even more affected by science than we were. Maggie Kalnins, the head of the school I visited this morning, made a very interesting comment. She said, “I think this new curriculum will bring a wider range of types of people into science”. I hope that it does.
My Lords, I am very grateful to have the opportunity provided by the noble Lord, Lord Broers, to debate this matter. I immediately echo what he said at the end of his speech, which was picked up by the noble Lord, Lord Winston, on the importance of breadth—for scientists, who absolutely need to be able to communicate these days, whether they are going on to be pure scientists or, most particularly, if they are going on to do other things in life; and for those who are not centrally scientists who need to understand what science is about because it is such a large part of society today. That would help us to be less plagued by the panics and misunderstandings which populate our newspapers. In both those areas universities have a great role to play, although I very much hope that it will be done by encouraging some universities to go down what might be called the American route of providing much broader degrees, or at least broadening out what they offer at the moment rather than compulsion or moving from one pattern to another. I think that students, by and large, can choose. If Oxbridge wants to remain in the 15th century, it is entitled to do so, as it has done for instance in German, which is why those who really want to study that language go somewhere else.
I want to use my time today to draw out the case that the report makes for the reform of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. The QCA is centralised, controlling and stultifying. Everything goes through it. It is supposed to be the source of all innovation; all change has to be approved by it and all processes are minutely detailed by it. As a result, things happen immensely slowly, but when they do happen they happen in a sudden, unresearched, unthought-out rush. As we are seeing in the new science GCSE—although I approve of it in many ways—it is not happening in a scientific way. These things ought to be tried out properly, they ought to be evaluated and they ought to spread gradually. Changes ought to be taken up by schools as schools are ready to take them up, as would happen in a more organic environment.
Because the thing is so centralised, we are finding particular unitary views taking hold. The consultation on the new key stage 3 curriculum, for instance, only mentions “knowledge” twice, and then in very subsidiary contexts. We have moved from a curriculum that is entirely fact-based to one that is going to be entirely fact-free. That degree of prescription is entirely inappropriate. The QCA—I have it in writing—seems to believe that it is sole arbiter of these things and that politicians, in particular, should keep out.
The report details several problems that this has created for science teaching. There is the divorce of vocational and practical education from the academic mainstream. Science is being drained of practical content. There has been a failure to produce any form of vocational science education other than the elephantine diplomas, which are doomed to failure. What reputable institution is going to put a bright kid into something that takes up six GCSEs and deprives them of all the other opportunities that they might have at that stage? That is focusing a child not just at age 16 or at university, but at age 14. There is the lack of responsiveness of the QCA to what is happening elsewhere, and the narrowness of the testing regime, which is mentioned in this report. There is the dog in the manger attitude to IGCSE, which is extraordinary. The QCA awards points for cake decorating at GCSE, but it will not acknowledge the IGCSE, which is used by some of the best schools; except of course that it has had to use IGCSE maths in compiling the level 2 maths totals that have crept into the performance tables this year. So it is there and it is not there, and it is not there entirely because of the amour propre of the QCA. It did not invent it, and it does not control it, and therefore it should not be allowed to count.
We have a sick, bloated agency and we need to do something to reform it. We need a QCA for quality control and for providing information to the rest of us, including teachers, about what qualifications are about, which the QCA does not do at the moment, because they are all its own qualifications so it is not a source of independent information on what is available. We need it for facilitating innovation, which ought to flow from schools. It does in a small way flow from independent schools; Bedales has its own independent GCSEs, which are accepted by universities. There is a capability to innovate at that level. LEAs can innovate too. There is a great project, which is now half way through, in West Dunbartonshire on literacy, which is entirely focused, invented and supported at the LEA level. There is a great focus there. Being beyond the reach of the QCA, it is able to do it, and we should import that into England.
Exam boards can innovate too. The Cambridge board is bringing forward the alternative A-level; the Cambridge Pre-U. That is happening for academic kids, but what about the kids who want a vocational education? Absolutely nothing. There is no variety there and there is nothing on offer. We ought to have a scientifically based system where innovation occurs everywhere, so that there is a great bubbling up of ideas that are then evolved and tested locally, and if well proved they can be more widely accepted. That would present us with a range of ideas about how to engage children, particularly in science, and how to bring them forward into the love of learning and love of science that we all hope to see. Unless we free up the QCA, we are going to be stuck where we were, because change will be immensely slow, and when it comes it will not work.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Broers and his committee for their timely and perceptive report. I declare an interest as a former chairman of SETNET, which supports the teaching of science and mathematics by partnering with schools and employers to show young people that these subjects can be both interesting in themselves and lead to interesting jobs.
I suspect that most of us here share the concerns about the declining interest in physical science and mathematics at school that was highlighted by the committee’s report. However, we must recognise that we are not the only country that is experiencing those trends. They are seen in the United States, Japan and many other developed countries. That tells us that, although our solutions are necessarily local, our understanding of the problem can be helped by looking abroad. Those trends are less evident in India, China and other rapidly developing countries, where science and technology are seen as a rung on the ladder to national and personal economic success.
In my view, two languages form the bedrock of our school education—English and mathematics. They are fundamental because they open the door to so much else; both are essential for science and engineering, but I suspect that in the UK, at least, it is fear of one of those—maths—that deters many people at an early age from both maths and the sciences. We will not reverse the decline in science unless we crack the problem of school mathematics.
In 2004, Professor Adrian Smith submitted his report on the teaching of mathematics after the age of 14, Making Mathematics Count, to the Secretary of State for Education. The report summarised the role of mathematics in modern society, saying that,
“it has been widely recognised that mathematics occupies a rather special position. It is a major intellectual discipline in its own right, as well as providing the underpinning language for the rest of science and engineering and, increasingly, for other disciplines in the social and medical sciences. It underpins major sectors of modern business and industry, in particular, financial services and ICT. It also provides the individual citizen with empowering skills for the conduct of private and social life and with key skills required at virtually all levels of employment”.
If we do not ensure that everyone who goes through our education system achieves a reasonable level of numeracy we shall make problems of social exclusion even worse.
The report offers a detailed and constructive analysis of the problems of mathematics teaching in England today: a chronic shortage of qualified teachers, curriculum and assessment arrangements that are not fit for purpose, and a lack of an effective support structure for mathematics teaching. I know that the Minister has taken a close personal interest in the report and he and his department are to be commended for the progress that has been made in acting on the recommendations.
However, I have two concerns. First, some of the recommendations have costs attached to them. It is essential that these proposals be adequately funded, and not just in the short term. This will be a long haul and will require consistent policies for at least a decade if we are to make a step change in the mathematical literacy of the nation. Secondly, not only must there be sufficient funding, but it must be ring-fenced. There is an understandable resistance to ring-fencing. But we have to recognise that sometimes day-to-day pressures at a local level may simply not pull in the same direction as national priorities. It is unrealistic to expect that there will be a consistent long-term focused programme unless its funding is protected.
Turning to science more generally, unless we remedy the long-term decline in A-level numbers for physics, chemistry and mathematics—the prerequisite subjects for university engineering courses—we shall pay dearly. The world is now facing two major climate change challenges: adapting our infrastructure to deal with a more uncertain and extreme climate, and developing technology to satisfy our future energy needs without damaging the environment. Meeting those challenges will depend heavily on science and engineering. The message that must go out to our young people is: “If you want to save the planet, work at your mathematics, science and engineering”.
My Lords, I, too, welcome the committee’s hard-hitting and cogent report. The Government’s advertising campaign some years ago, “Thank a Teacher”, resonated with many of us who went into science, because we were lucky with our teachers. It is worrying that now, when opportunities should be much greater, there may be fewer good science teachers than there were in the 1960s. The committee made many timely recommendations, but it was right to prioritise the need for teachers.
Last year’s UCAS figures showed a rise in applications for university courses in physics, chemistry and maths. They were green shoots that, perhaps, signalled that the educational initiatives of recent years were starting to pay off; but overall enrolments are still too low. A downward spiral in these core subjects would bode ill for the goal of achieving a high-value-added economy. Indeed, we might end up being outclassed by nations such as India and Korea in frontier technology and importing our teachers from those countries. That would be a humiliating comedown, as well as an economic calamity.
To meet the Government’s Next Steps target of increasing the percentage of secondary science teachers who are qualified to teach physics, other measures are needed. Biology teachers can be given extra expertise in physics; mature professionals—engineers or scientists—can move into teaching; and more can be done to encourage scientists based in universities to spend time in schools as well.
Young children are easy to enthuse about science—dinosaurs and space travel are perennially fascinating—but this enthusiasm is not sustained. Under our present system, those who are turned off science and drop it at age 16 thereby foreclose their option of pursuing science at university. That is one reason, but only one of many, why it is regrettable that the Government did not support the broadening of the 16 to 19 curriculum proposed by Tomlinson.
During their school careers, young people tend particularly to lose interest in chemistry and physics, as my noble friend Lord Oxburgh reminded us. This is not a uniquely British trend; it is the same in Japan, the US and western Europe. There are many reasons for it but one, I think, is that the immense sophistication of the technology that pervades young people’s lives is actually a barrier. Inquisitive children in the mid-20th century could take apart a clock, a radio set or a motorbike, figure out how it worked and even put it together again. That is not so with the marvellous artefacts that pervade their lives today—mobile phones, iPods and the rest. It is hard to take them to bits. If you do, you will find few clues to their arcane mechanisms. They are “black boxes”—pure magic to most people.
Young people need hands-on reality, as well as virtual reality. They need laboratory work, field trips and the like. The Royal Society welcomes the curricular reforms for key stage 3, although it would, for several reasons, prefer them to be piloted locally before rolling them out nationwide.
The Minister may sometimes feel that the input from the scientific community is sub-optimum and not as helpful as it might be because it is rather discordant. I think he has grounds for feeling that on occasions. The Government have been confronted by a bewildering variety of advice on the science curriculum, which is not always concordant, and it comes from literally hundreds of professional bodies and learned societies.
However, key players in the science education communities have recently come together in a new partnership, with the acronym SCORE, under Sir Alan Wilson’s chairmanship. This consortium should help to generate a consensus and ensure a more effective interface between the ministry and the scientists.
But, even if supremely excellent education is in place, scientific careers will not continue to attract talent unless young people have a positive perception of science as a profession. Today’s scientists have an unduly low profile. Most people can at least recall the names of great scientists of the past; they can name dead engineers, too, from Brunel to Barnes Wallace. But those still living deserve wider acclaim. There seems no reason why our top scientists and engineers should not at least have the profile of our leading architects and be seen as exemplars for the young.
The young are not immune to financial incentives, but they are idealistic too. As my noble friend Lord Oxburgh said, supplying the entire world with clean, low-carbon energy is an immense long-term challenge. Earth’s optimum stewardship and a proper sharing of the benefits of science between all nations are goals to inspire the young, and they are goals where, in our own interest, the UK should seize the chance to play a pivotal role.
Science education is vital for tomorrow’s scientists and engineers, but it is important for everyone. All today’s young people will live in a world empowered by ever more elaborate technology, but they will also be more vulnerable to its failures and misuse. There will be ever more political and ethical choices with scientific dimensions. For informed public debate, everyone needs a feel for science. That is why the Royal Society supports the new range of GCSEs.
Finally, science is part of our culture. The vision of nature offered by Darwin and modern cosmology is inspiring—the chain of complexity leading from some genesis event to stars, planets, biospheres and human brains. Those who cannot marvel at that are culturally deprived. In summary, science education is vital to everyone, but it must continue to attract a good share of the talented young. The system—be it academia, public service or private industry—must offer challenging opportunities. For all those reasons, the debate is timely and we should welcome the committee’s report.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Broers, both on an excellent and timely report and on bringing forward the debate. There are four points on which I want to comment.
The first relates to student choices. To accommodate the challenges of the 21st century advances, we might even look beyond the baccalaureate-style teaching syllabus commended in the report to applying the traditional sciences to the new technologies. For example, information technology could be taught as an extension of physics; biotechnology as an extension of biology; and nanotechnology as an extension of chemistry.
A combined university course covering in equal measure all three technologies would have several advantages. It would cater for the new demand for convergent science mandated by the advances, for example, of biomedical applications and nanotechnology, in interfacing brain and body with the external world. Furthermore, a multidisciplinary degree could well inspire novel ideas and concepts, normally precluded by the inherited dogma of single disciplines. Then again, such a topical and varied course might prove appealing to a generation of school-leavers not normally attracted to highly specialised science.
My second point concerns the outreach activities by universities to science teaching in schools. The new beacons for public engagement are to be encouraged. But in many university departments, activities outside the normal teaching and research purlieu of the university are sometimes actively discouraged or, in any event, regarded as lower status compared with the white heat of research. However, such interaction between school and university science is vital: it excites and encourages the next generation of potential scientists. It enables the university scientists to see the wood for the trees, as they share their passion with a more general audience, which in turn helps them with their research and enables them to question the basic assumptions that perhaps have constrained the novelty of their own projects. Thirdly, and most importantly, it increases the school activity with re-enfranchising the science school teacher to be part of the scientific community.
There are already some excellent outreach schemes. For example, we have already heard of the science ambassador scheme, which aims for working scientists to visit schools, and another, which arose when I was a thinker in residence in South Australia. We pioneered a twinning scheme, whereby scientists had a one-on-one pairing with science school teachers. While being fiscally relatively modest to set up, the impact has proved wide ranging.
Already working wonderfully is the exemplar Step-Up project funded by the Northern Ireland Higher Education Council. Step-Up is a unique and innovative interventionist programme, which provides new learning opportunities in science for talented young people who live in areas of social and economic disadvantage. It involves an intense two-year programme of work, and has been operating successfully in Northern Ireland for about seven years. It actively involves the university, schools, local industry, local hospitals and government agencies. To date almost 500 students have participated in the programme. Universities UK has described Step-Up as follows:
“An outstanding example of best practice in the provision of educational opportunities for students from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds”.
Surely such a scheme could and should be implemented throughout the UK. In any event, it would surely be to everyone’s benefit and much more effective if all these diverse schemes could be co-ordinated.
The third area of the report on which I want to comment is the demise of the practical aspect of teaching science. The most basic aspect of science is the excitement of discovering something for yourself by experiment. Yet this is often neglected in the panic to meet imposed targets. Related here is the subject matter itself. I was deterred from science as a schoolgirl because no one told me what distilled water was or why its production was relevant or interesting. Compared with history or literature, it seemed an extraordinarily dull activity with little opportunity for initiative, creativity or my own ideas. The difficulty with many subjects in the science curriculum is that they exceed the time and space scale relating to our normal lives. Things happen either very quickly or very slowly, over galaxies or at microscopic resolutions not seen with the naked eye. The challenge when teaching is therefore to bring home the impact of such events and relate them to everyday life.
Then there is the problem of resources and time. Making mistakes takes time. Going down intellectual cul-de-sacs takes time. Laying on state-of-the-art experiments with back-up technical expertise takes time. Being mindful of the health and safety implications and having appropriate rather than knee-jerk and panicky risk assessment takes time and specialist knowledge. I welcome the introduction of the science centres mentioned in the report but would also like to flag that we at the Royal Institution—where I have the honour to be director—are hoping to pioneer a young scientists’ centre, where under-privileged schools especially will be able to enjoy state-of-the-art lab resources free of charge, and our staff can develop exciting and interesting questions in collaboration with teachers that may well be outside of, and complementary to, the syllabus. They will none the less excite the child to ask questions and, above all, perform their own experiments. Even one day can change your life and set in train an excitement that motivates you to stick with the most detailed of box-ticking courses.
Fourthly, on teacher training and retention, we now hear much of personalised training, meta-cognition and brain-based research. Essentially, the idea is that if we are to keep pace with current technologies, we must educate people to learn rather than just to acquire a set number of facts which they then sell back to society for the next 40 years. Knowledge of the latest advances in neuroscience is therefore invaluable. Again in Australia, I was delighted that we were able to pioneer a course for all teachers—primary and secondary, arts and sciences—to keep abreast of the latest developments in the pedagogic applications of neuroscience, and to start using them in experimental projects in the classroom. To this end, we have started the All-Party Group on Scientific Research in Learning and Education—the next meeting is on 15 May. Our remit is to explore how teachers, scientists, government and other relevant organisations can collectively ensure that classroom practice is informed by the best evidence from the brain sciences.
In conclusion, I support this timely report. There is no simple quick-fix solution to the diverse issues of science teaching. It is a multi-dimensional problem, and a multi-layered issue for a society growing up in the 21st century, but one that is among the most critical to shaping that society.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Broers, for securing the debate. Asking a science teacher for the biggest problem facing teaching science in schools, I got the reply “You just can’t get the staff”. There are no physicists and chemists out there clamouring for jobs to teach in schools, particularly not in our more deprived areas. Until we reverse the trend within society of undervaluing science, we will not tackle the core problems. However, there are, here and now, some solutions on the horizon. The new GCSE curriculum should help things. I will speak briefly about the Welsh baccalaureate which nobody has mentioned and which raises hope. There is also a need to save and value science in our society.
In their response to the report from the Science and Technology Select Committee, the Government said that science is not more difficult. I refute that, and so would the teachers I have spoken to. I am puzzled as to how a GNVQ in dance can be equivalent to four GCSEs, a double science, history and French. I am sorry, but I am lost on that. At Cardiff University, we found that when we take in as students children with these equivalents, they really struggle. They do not have the grounding or intellectual preparation to cope with the more difficult courses.
Why is learning science more difficult? You need a different set of skills. You must learn facts; as well as being able to interpret them, you must know what you are interpreting. Children are not brought up with scientific language. It is not ubiquitous, unlike the language of sports, fashion and so on. There is even discussion of social sciences in current affairs, but those wonderful TV programmes of my youth, such as “Tomorrow’s World”, are no more. They excited scientific discovery and inquiry.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Winston, I rejoiced when things went wrong. I would spend a whole term waiting for something to go wrong. My interest in physics and chemistry was stimulated by working out how to make it go wrong; that was much more fun than when it went right. I suppose that is why I enjoy pathology now because that is when things have gone wrong too.
The trouble is that the drop-off in science is mirrored by a fall in the uptake of languages. I wonder whether that is also part of our inability to accept that it is sometimes necessary to learn. My mother brought me up saying, “You learn by sitting on your bottom learning”. To a large extent, she was right.
Scientists in our society are generally poorly paid. The message that children get is that it is not an exciting area to go into. We have seen university science departments, particularly chemistry, closing down, which is cutting off our supply for the future. The RAE does not value teaching and does not value outreach teaching in the same way. I wonder whether a government target should require a minimum amount of engagement outside the university with schools in order to qualify at a minimum level.
It is interesting that with the new GCSEs, some schools are finding that results from one board are surprisingly high, and it will be interesting to see whether that persists when the additional science level comes through. However, schools in deprived areas may suffer a converse effect because their children are not brought up with the language of inquiry and debate. They may find that they can do better on the traditional curriculum and that they struggle with the new slightly more literacy-based curriculum. I know that some schools have chosen a more traditional curriculum because they feel that their children will do better. Targets can have unintended consequences.
In Wales, the Welsh baccalaureate has been introduced. After GCSEs, it aims to stretch and challenge youngsters at school. There are six key skills. Students must do communication skills, information technology, application of number, working with others, problem solving and a modern language. They do a work placement and they produce an extended essay. They also do two other subjects to A-level, which will give them three A-levels in total. The uptake to date has been slow and has been greater in South Wales than in North Wales. However, it is a brave and imaginative experiment by the Assembly to try to improve the breadth of knowledge of children when they leave school.
What about mathematics, which were mentioned by my noble friend Lord Oxburgh? At Cardiff University, we have sadly had to introduce remedial teaching in mathematics for students in many schools because they do not have data-handling skills. These are students from England as well as Wales, so it is not a reflection on education in Wales. It is just a reality that they do not have the maths skills. I was lucky. I was educated at a girls’ school, and all the evidence is that girls do better at such schools because they are somehow not inhibited in their formative early teenage years.
We have to light the fire in the imagination. As the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, said, the future lies with science. If we do not understand atmospheric pollution, we will not deal with climate change or understand the health issues that face this nation. The two are integrally linked around science and mathematics.
My Lords, I join in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Broers, for introducing this debate. It so happens that, in 1995, the then Government appointed me to carry out a review of qualifications for 16 to 19 year-olds. It quickly became apparent that there was a crisis in science and mathematics. I appointed an expert committee to look into what had been happening and why. That research showed that there was a rapid build up in the number of students taking A-level science and mathematics between 1974 and 1984—I believe that it continued to the late 1980s—but, by 1994, it had fallen like a stone. The fall has continued, except in biology, at a much lower rate since. The number of students taking chemistry in 2005 was one-third less than the number in 1984. In mathematics, the number had fallen by half. In physics, the fall was even worse, and the number was only 43 per cent of the 1984 figure. Biology has held its own. Those are absolute numbers, despite the increasing number of pupils staying on at school until the age of 18 or 19. I can think of no other area of learning where there has been such a serious fall that matters so much to our future. It bothers me that we have not successfully addressed this problem which was clearly identified 10 years ago. There is concern but we do not yet have the product.
I welcome the Government’s targets, but, based on experience, we need clear, firm policies to realise them. At the top of my list is investment in teachers and what goes on in the classroom; what is taught, how it is taught and the kids. The noble Lord, Lord Winston, told a story. I will bring it up to date. I was told the other day that in a survey pupils were asked which subjects in the curriculum were the most difficult. The answer was: maths, science and languages. They were asked: what would you do to improve things in sciences? The answer was: less listening, less copying notes and more big bangs. That is a true story. They wanted to do research in the laboratory.
There was a television programme the other night about some kids from state school going to a private school. What were the differences between the two types of school? The private school had smaller classes, and, whereas in the state school the teacher did the research work, in the private school there was enough money for everybody to do it. Therefore, I say invest the money there and, as has been suggested, ring fence it.
I took part in a study on language teaching. We proposed an expenditure of more than £50 million to rescue languages. The money is largely going into teaching, particularly for existing teachers. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that on the curriculum the QCA were very responsive and anticipated all I had to say about the need for new thinking on it.
I move to an issue that has not really been developed: the influence of the league tables and the differences in the standards that appear to be required in the different subjects. My expert group in 1996 identified big differences in the levels of challenge at A-levels between the different subjects. The House’s own committee has carried out a similar study 10 years on. The results were not exactly the same in detail but very much the same. First, the pupils and the teachers perceive that some subjects are much tougher. The statistical analysis has been the same for 10 years. We must face that. Indeed, 50 years ago when I was doing these subjects at school, I remember that the most difficult were physics, mathematics and chemistry.
The committee says that A-levels are fundamentally flawed. We must address that issue; we cannot walk away from it. Further, I suspect that too many subjects are being taken as A-levels rather than as, what we would have called in the old days, GNVQs. We must tackle that hard subject.
I turn to the performance tables. Head teachers are running very competitive businesses. It matters to them what their results are in the performance tables. If some subjects are more difficult than others, they do not discourage pupils who have the same perception and want to walk away from them; they may be rather relieved. Performance tables, like other incentives to perform and to inform, have unintended consequential effects. One side effect is to damage the very subjects which are the most challenging and which we need more pupils to take.
Since I may say no more, I just say that if there is one recommendation that I urge the Government to accept it is that on investment in teachers’ continuing professional development.
My Lords, I, too, express my gratitude to my noble friend for introducing the debate and particularly for a chance to discuss the Science and Technology Committee’s report. I think that everybody agrees that investment in teachers is the most important thing. The second most important thing is the need for really good teachers in science and mathematics, which nobody, except somebody with an axe to grind, could deny are the most difficult subjects and the most difficult to make people enthusiastic about.
As was noted, in years seven, eight and nine in schools, long before GCSEs are imminent, young children are enthusiastic about science, the universe and finding out how things work, but to a large extent they lose that enthusiasm when they move to secondary school, an extremely difficult transition in any case. One criticism that I have of many schools is that they do not monitor pupils carefully at the transition stage, so many lose their fire, creativity and interest without the school noticing. That general improvement ought to be made, whatever subject we are discussing.
In the case of the sciences, that lack of enthusiasm or beginning of an aversion is even more marked. I entirely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Platt, that it is far worse for girls, because they very quickly pick up the idea that science is not for them. They are made to feel foolish and get called nerds, geeks and so on, and they really do not want to be like that. So at that transition stage teachers ought to be particularly careful.
There is a difficulty in how to teach at that stage. The report recommended considerable flexibility during the first years of secondary school. Flexibility is crucial if people are to be allowed to maintain the enthusiasm that they have at primary school. There are two elements. One has already been touched on: the importance of practical work in the laboratory and fieldwork. People enjoy that because it is different from the rest of their school life. It is very important that money should be spent on good laboratories, and teachers must be able to take risks if they can, without constantly looking over their shoulder because of possible litigation under health and safety rules.
The other requirement, in my view, is that science should be treated as a historical subject. The history of science is one enormously important way to teach children to regard science not as learning simple facts but as finding out about inventions. If I may mention such a lowly book in this House, when I first read Bill Bryson’s eye-opening and horizon-widening book A Short History of Nearly Everything, I was especially struck by his observation that when he was a child he was interested not so much in what is known as in how it came to be known—how did people ever find it out?
If science is taught as a series of facts rather than a series of discoveries, it will be boring and misleading, because it will give the impression that science has, as it were, come to an end. I want science in those key years to be thought of as, rather, the history of science. In those first crucial years at secondary school, the sciences can be shown to be linked together. Physics, chemistry and biology and sciences other than the basic school three can be considered; for example, geology, palaeontology, oceanography and astronomy. All those subjects should be introduced, because they will stretch children’s imagination and make them understand that science is the greatest exercise of the human imagination there has ever been. It is that loss, as much as the difficulty of the subject in later years, which makes people begin to turn against it.
Most children in schools will never become scientists or even be interested in science; they will certainly be defeated by its difficulty, which is not merely a perception, and by the mathematical background needed. Many will find it much too difficult and too much like hard work, but if, in the three years at the start of secondary school, they have had a feeling for what science actually is, what it does, what it discovers and how mysterious it is, rather than how factual it is, they will begin to treat scientists in society, even if they are not scientists themselves, as people who exercise their imaginations, probably on our behalf but possibly not. It might be the beginning of people learning to trust and admire scientists rather than suspecting them, fearing them and regarding them, as people often do now, as wholly untrustworthy. That revolution must come about somehow or another.
My Lords, we have heard many good points. I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Broers for this debate. The topic could not be more important. Curiously, although I have never been a working scientist, or even a non-working scientist, I have an interest to declare in that I chair the Nuffield Foundation, which has had a long interest in science education and is responsible for the 21st-century science GCSE, in collaboration with the Salters’ Institute and the Wellcome Trust. Indeed, QCA set the current goalposts but did not develop the curriculum, pilot it or ensure that teachers were engaged. The foundation also has a long interest in questions of assessment, and particularly in the enormous amount of evidence that what counts for children is formative assessment, by which they learn to understand something about how they are doing, rather than summative assessment, which may give the right sort of information for a target-obsessed approach to education. Finally, we are concerned most of all with young people’s engagement in science, particularly by placing young people in sixth forms in laboratories for summer work experience with bursaries.
Under each of its headings, the debate has shown us much. Under the heading “curriculum”, the most remarkable thing is the degree of agreement among colleagues with long experience of science and science education that we now need a broad education throughout the school years. The time was when those of us in the humanities or social sciences would groan a little because so many scientists seemed to think that A-levels were an educational gold standard, although of course they required even the brightest to narrow their focus to three or four subjects, which, for physical scientists, were sometimes all too closely related. Now we know that scientists need languages as well as English. We also know all too bitterly that social scientists and many in the humanities need mathematics. Indeed, we have real difficulties of capacity and quality of capacity in those areas in this country.
If we reflect on these issues we return to the point stressed by the noble Lord, Lord Dearing. Once again, he made a passionate speech, and I believe that he was right in every respect. Tomlinson has disappeared. That may be a pity, but it has happened. That was a way of thinking about how we might broaden the curriculum for the older age group at school. However, the issues of curricula structure have not gone away with Tomlinson. We still need to think about what we are doing that is leading us straight into recurrent problems. In particular, we incentivise schools and pupils by stressing the number of passes or, as it is quaintly put, the number of good passes at GCSE, where good means A to C grades. That approach would make sense if we knew that a pass was a unit of account, so that four passes was more than three passes and so on. But as has been said repeatedly, nobody thinks that. We know that this is not a question of a proper unit of account, yet we incentivise schools, pupils and their parents to maximise the number of passes or, very often, the number of As.
The cost is immense. Our examination system does not provide good evidence for employers or universities, which are highly competitive in their recruitment, of what pupils can actually do or of the level of achievement of one pupil compared to another. It is not a fit-for-purpose educational system. We need to go broad; we need to be more ambitious about content.
Finally, we need to think much more deeply about engagement and enrichment for people who are still at school. We heard many comments about the way in which science can be made boring or can be made exciting. That is true for virtually every subject, of course; there are legions of ways of making them boring, exciting though they are. One of the ways in which we could make science more exciting is to think much more deeply about formative assessment and about putting summative assessment back in its place. Sometimes we need to rank people, but often we do not. Where we do not need to, we should not. I hope that the Minister will comment on that point when he replies.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Broers, on two scores: first, for introducing this timely debate; and, secondly—I speak as a member of the Science and Technology Committee—for being an excellent committee chair and for taking us through this extremely important topic and helping us to produce a very good report.
The importance of the number of graduates in science and technology has been emphasised throughout the debate. It is worth bringing to the attention of the House the CBI’s comment. It reckons that, over the next decade, the number of science, engineering and technology graduates needs to more than double, from 45,000 to 95,000. The key question that we have been looking at today is why this is not happening. Why is it that, over the past decade, when there has been a 10 per cent increase in the number of A-level entries as a whole, we have seen a fall in the number of entries in chemistry of 6 per cent, in physics of a massive 34 per cent and in maths and further maths of 13 per cent?
I should like to pick up the whole point about mathematics. Most of the statistics—this is true of our report, too—date back only to the mid-1990s, but, in the 1980s, we had many more A-level students in science and mathematics. In 1989, 64,000 students took A-level maths at age 17; by 1997, the figure had fallen to 56,000; by 2002, it had fallen to 44,000. Although it has risen slightly, to 50,000, there is still a crisis in mathematics. Like the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, I will quote from Adrian Smith’s report on mathematics. In his introductory letter to the Minister, he says:
“Mathematics is of central importance to modern society. It provides the language and analytical tools underpinning much of our scientific and industrial research and development”.
There is a crisis in mathematics. Perhaps we have turned the corner—let us hope that we have—but it is vital that we remember that.
Another key issue in our report was to point out the vicious circle. If we do not have enough graduates, we do not have enough people going into teaching. The fewer graduate specialists who go into teaching, the more students are taught by non-specialists. We know from all the survey evidence that, the more students there are who are taught by non-specialists, the more students there are who drop out of those subjects—they do not take them at GCSE or through to A-level. The fewer A-level students we have, the fewer university entrants we have, and the few university entrants we have, the fewer graduates we have. It is a vicious circle.
The committee looked at how we break that circle. We have given various answers, which have been touched on around the House today. First, there is the question of making science more interesting and enthusing young people. We have talked about the new GCSE syllabus in 21st-century science. Yes, good, but we still have to see whether it really provides a good grounding from which to take A-level. We know that the jump between taking dual sciences and A-level was extremely difficult, and questions are now being raised about the alignment of key stage 3 with 21st-century science and the new A-level syllabus that is being proposed and perhaps pushed much too fast. There are real questions here, and we need to look at this issue.
The question of enthusing people about practical science is a big issue. Careers are another. Here I pick up the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, that it is all very well having websites and careers teachers—10 per cent of our careers advisers are science specialists—but the students we need to get to are those who are aged 11, 12 and 13. That is when we can enthuse them and when we need to grab them, just as in the 1960s they were grabbed by the Sputniks, which led to a tremendous burgeoning of interest in science.
Then there is the question of widening A-levels. We on these Benches echo the thoughts of the noble Lords, Lord Broers and Lord Dearing, and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill: we should look at a much broader syllabus for 16, 17 and 18 year-olds in our schools. We are unique in the world in specialising narrowly in three subjects. The Government have answered the pleas from the committee by saying, “Well, we’ve got AS-level”, but we all know that AS has not worked to broaden the curriculum. It is used as a sifting mechanism for taking A-levels.
We regret enormously that the Government did not rise to the challenge of Tomlinson. Instead what we have are these hybrid diplomas. They may work out well; I hope they do. But the committee has received a very pessimistic letter from the Royal Academy of Engineering, saying that it has put so much into making these new diplomas viable and feasible, yet it is quite clear in the minds of many of those setting the syllabuses for A-levels and so forth that the bright students will not touch diplomas, and therefore the binary divide will be written big within them.
It is important that we look again at this subject. Seventy subjects can be studied at A-level. Do we not have too many A-levels? There is a very real problem of non-comparability. All right, it is a hoary subject, and the Minister does not accept that there is discrepancy in grades. However, the evidence we had from the University of Durham was compelling. The Government need to look at this.
A move to much broader-based sixth-form studies would, to some extent, solve the problem in itself. Just as the old Higher School Certificate required a range of subjects, so the IB requires that the student carries on with science, maths and languages to age 18. That inevitably narrows down the fields of study. The other side of the coin is that, if we are introducing all these new diplomas, perhaps they ought to cover some of the more practical A-level subjects.
I do not want to spend any time on buildings; they have been touched on. There are three questions for the Minister to answer, however. First, what happened to the £200 million we were promised in 2005? There is no answer to that in the report. Secondly, why is it that with the Building Schools for the Future programme we are still not getting laboratories that are fit for purpose? That is appalling and needs to be explained.
Thirdly, do the Government recognise that it is all very well saying that every school will have about £100,000 to spend on capital works at its own discretion, but how can you persuade heads to spend money on science labs when you have falling numbers taking A-level science? That has been a very real problem.
Many noble Lords have said that the key issue is the teachers, and there is no doubt that that is the case. Some 25 per cent of schools have no specialist physics teachers; only 70 per cent of maths teachers are maths specialists. Very large numbers are being taught maths and science by non-specialist teachers. The Government’s answer is targets for the recruitment of teachers, but you have to be careful about the figures used. In November, the Prime Minister answered a question about this in the other place, boasting that 7,500 new science teachers had been hired in 2005, 70 per cent more than in 1999-2000. But that figure was for trainee recruits to the science, engineering, mathematics and technology group, which includes business studies, textiles and graphics. The numbers recruited to physics, chemistry and biology were in fact 977, 568 and 383—about 2,000 recruits to science. There were also about 3,000 recruits to mathematics. Moreover, only 75 per cent of recruits end up in the classroom—25 per cent fall out in the process. Shockingly, two out of every five new teachers in the state sector drop out in the first five years.
Recruitment and retention are crucial. What are the issues that would help? The Government have rejected all notions of special pay rates for those teaching subjects in which there is a shortage. They should look to the flexibility that exists; heads should be encouraged to use maximum flexibility. The Government dismissed golden hellos and writing off student debt much too summarily. There is clear evidence, as 76 out of 226 students followed up in the evaluation said that paying off their top-up fees had made a difference.
I must finish, as I was supposed to take only eight minutes, and I have taken 11. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Broers, again, and repeat that this subject is vital.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Broers, on securing this very significant debate. It is invaluable to discuss the wider impacts that the teaching of science in our classrooms has on the UK economy as a whole. There are huge difficulties facing teaching institutions and improvements are long overdue. We must look beyond wish lists and see what the levels of investment directed into education have, and can be seen to have, reached and achieved.
Science is a universal subject; it should not be seen only as a collection of facts thrown at students in a manner that will disengage them from the classroom. My noble friend Lord Lucas graphically described the importance of innovation in ways vocational and academic subjects should be developed and taught.
Science has the power, when taught by skilled and enthusiastic teaching staff, to be exciting and provide powerful tools that can encourage young people in the education system with the knowledge required to perform effectively in an ever-more demanding knowledge and technology-led world. My noble friend Lady Platt of Writtle highlighted how essential good science teaching is for us to compete successfully in a fast-changing economy.
Serious questions need to be addressed by the Government on why science lessons in large numbers of secondary schools in England are being cancelled. As has been said by other noble Lords, we have to take the numbers into account; the numbers of those taking maths, physics and chemistry have fallen and are hugely worrying for the future of the UK economy. In a survey carried out by Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations, students between the ages of 13 and 16 thought that science was boring, confusing or difficult. You were regarded as uncool and nerdy. For science to appear exciting and cool, students must see careers in science as exciting and with financial benefit.
What assurance can the Minister give the House that current shortages in properly qualified teachers in physics, chemistry and maths will be addressed with urgency? I am sure that your Lordships will agree that it is not acceptable that two thirds of those teaching 15 to 16 year-olds in those subjects do not themselves have a degree in those particular topics. One third of them do not even have an A-level. The knock-on effect of that is that decreasing numbers of students are applying for separate science degrees in universities. That, as we are witnessing, is having a devastating effect on our ability to remain world leaders in innovation and technology.
The proposed changes to A-levels in 2008 will mean, once again, massive changes for teaching staff to incorporate in a very short timeframe. Will the Minister assure the House that the Government are putting into place proper training and support so that teaching staff are not faced with increasing pressures to meet government targets for league tables at the cost of the student? The current Government’s obsession with testing and targets has discouraged teachers from being more adventurous and passionate about how their subjects are taught. It is so important for teachers to have time and training to inspire students to study in particular subjects perceived as difficult. The constant pressure on students of failure or poor performance must be removed. As the Science and Technology Committee suggests, the focus must be placed on the involvement and participation of students and staff and not on the narrow frame of testing and results. It is therefore crucial that the new GCSEs are considered very seriously. They should stimulate not deter students from science courses at university.
My noble friend Lady Buscombe voiced her concerns about the new science GCSEs during proceedings on the Further Education and Training Bill last year. Those concerns remain. The Royal Academy of Engineering believes that university links with schools reflected in submissions to the research assessment exercise are excellent. Are the Government showing support for those measures?
We have heard countless announcements over the past few years about the investment that the Government are making in science. But it is not unusual for students to be taking non-mathematical subjects with chemistry and biology, which has put great pressure on universities to provide remedial classes in maths for students. Does the Minister agree that that is a costly exercise, uses up valuable time and needs to be addressed with urgency?
There is a strong belief that the new A-levels in 2008 and the review of education for 14 to 19 year-olds promised in 2005 should challenge the idea that they are currently failing the demands made by the UK economy. The Government need to respond with urgency to questions already asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. They are: what mechanisms are in place for collecting data on how much schools funding is being spent on science laboratories and on the quality of work undertaken in these laboratories? Is an improved career structure in place for science technicians? What plans are there to guarantee that there is in place adequate provision of qualified technicians and that they will not be used as classroom assistants when shortages in classrooms assistants arise?
Does the Minister agree with his colleague Bill Rammell, the Minister for Lifelong Learning, that science, technology, engineering and maths are of higher value, that they are more difficult subjects crucial to this country’s future competitiveness, and that, therefore, greater incentives are required for those opting for those subjects? Does the Minister believe that there is justification in criticisms that the new qualifications are too easy, fail to address the underlying principles and basics of the study of science and are unchallenging and uninspiring to both teachers and students?
The Conservative Party believes strongly that all students should be entitled to study biology, chemistry and physics as three separate subjects, as well as being offered the combined science GCSE. We also believe that they are worth more to school leavers going to university. Can the Minister assure the House that continuing professional development remains an essential part of the package for science teachers, as recommended by the committee, and that data should be available on the retention of teachers in those subjects? That is very much an area that needs to be supported, as the noble Lord, Lord Winston, so ably highlighted.
How much of the committee’s recommendations will the Government look to seriously? If we are to be leaders in scientific fields and remain leaders, we must understand the urgency in improving the image of science and its appeal to young people. When they have the tools and resources to be equipped with the knowledge, that will ensure that Britain’s scientific future is secured.
My Lords, the House is indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Broers, for opening this excellent debate on science teaching in schools and for the thorough report of the Science and Technology Committee, which he chairs. I thank also his committee colleagues, several of whom spoke in the debate, for their work on the report. I was glad to appear before the committee and am glad to respond today.
As a non-scientist, I was absolutely delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, mentioned Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. It was by far the most instructive book in this area that I have read myself in the past two years, although like the noble Baroness I was almost too embarrassed to mention it. The Royal Society of Chemistry, with our strong support, has sent a copy to almost every school in the country, and it has been very warmly welcomed, including by those who go on to study science themselves, so it clearly has something to say to the professional as well as the lay person.
Our starting point is precisely the same as that of the Science and Technology Committee: that science is vital for our national success, and so too is mathematics, on which so much science is based—as the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, highlighted. Every year now, according to a recent Economist article, 1.2 million engineers and scientists are graduating from universities in China and India. That is as many as in the United States, the European Union and Japan combined. It is good to note that the UK remains ahead of the pack, compared to China, India and the USA, in the proportion of its young people who graduate in science subjects. Our universities are also in excellent shape and take their responsibilities in respect of schools—a theme raised repeatedly in the debate—increasingly seriously, as our debate a fortnight ago on higher education demonstrated. We are pioneers in notable fields of research, including bioscience, and we are still the world’s largest exporter of pharmaceuticals. However, all those strong plus points are no grounds for complacency. As global competition intensifies, we cannot afford to relinquish this position of relative strength, and we must do much better.
Moreover, as the noble Lord, Lord Broers, so rightly said, science education is not just about producing scientists, any more than teaching knowledge of the past is about producing historians. A scientifically literate society means a society of people better qualified to make sensible choices about their health, to reflect upon the benefits and potential perils of technological advances, to appreciate the environmental challenges ahead and, as my noble friend Lord Winston emphasised, to appreciate the ethical dimension to all that they seek to do.
To take on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rees of Ludlow, we have respected and very much alive figures, such as my noble friend Lord Winston and the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, to thank for the generally positive tenor of public debate on science at present, but schools are, of course, the sine qua non for ensuring a good supply of scientists and engineers, and citizens educated properly in science who do not go on to careers in scientific disciplines.
The Government set out their objectives for schools in the Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-14, reinforced in last year’s Next Steps document. Our goals include increasing the recruitment, retraining and retention of specialist physics, chemistry and mathematics teachers; improving the number of pupils achieving at least level 6 in the key stage 3 science tests at age 14 and good grades in at least two science GCSEs; and encouraging more students to take physics, chemistry and mathematics at A-level. To support this, we have embarked upon a substantial programme of teacher recruitment and training; an updating of the science curriculum; investment in high-quality laboratories, ICT and other science teaching facilities in schools; and improved careers advice to encourage greater take-up of science beyond the age of 16, leading to science-based careers.
First, I shall address teacher recruitment and retention, which is a central part of our strategy for all the reasons set out so compellingly by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and the noble Lord, Lord Dearing. Last year, we recruited 3,390 trainees to science teaching—that is, science teaching narrowly defined—against 2,590 in 2000-01, an increase of more than 30 per cent. The number of secondary science teacher vacancies in maintained schools stood at 210 in January this year, which is half the peak figure of 400 in 2001. This is partly thanks to recruitment and incentive improvements across the whole teaching profession, which have led to a very substantial increase in numbers coming forward for primary and secondary teacher training. These improvements include the payment of training bursaries for PGCE students and the development of the graduate teacher programme, which allows large numbers of mature entrants to the profession to train in schools with a salary. A range of science-specific programmes have also helped, including “golden hellos” or, as my noble friend Lady Morgan of Drefelin famously described them in a recent debate, golden haloes, which rightly merits their place in society.
I was pleased that the Select Committee endorsed the new pre-initial teacher training enhancement courses to improve physics, chemistry and mathematics skills for candidates lacking a recent degree in those subjects. Following the committee's recommendation for loans to help would-be teachers, we have increased the bursary for pre-ITT enhancement courses to £225 a week for 2007, up from £150 last year. Recruitment to these courses has surged by 80 per cent in the same period, and feedback from participants indicates that the higher bursary levels are meeting their financial needs.
The Training and Development Agency for Schools is also reviewing the whole issue of financial support in post-graduate training. In the mean time, the TDA offers a £1,000 premium to providers who recruit science graduates into teaching via employment-based routes, including the graduate teacher programme. I should also mention the TDA’s support for the successful student associate scheme, which, by the end of this academic year, will have placed 30,000 science and mathematics under-graduates into schools, encouraging the students to consider a teaching career and the pupils they work with to go on to higher education.
On retention incentives, the Government are not inclined to write off some of the student debt of new science teachers, not because there may not be some benefit to doing that—the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, made that clear—but because we believe, on the basis of the research that we have done, that the incentive effect of up-front cash in the form of the golden hellos gives a greater recruitment benefit. Therefore, we intend to invest further in the golden hello and in bursary schemes, with a significant funding differential in favour of mathematics and science trainees. In these shortage subjects, the bursary has now been increased to £9,000 a year while the golden hello for new science teachers is double that of other priority subjects.
The graduate teacher programme meets at least some of the committee’s concern to improve the number of good mature entrants to the profession and to see them promoted quickly. It has expanded from around 30 participants only six years ago to 500 people training to be science teachers in 2005-06 and has been a significant contributory factor to the fact that for the first time the average age of new entrants into teaching has risen above 30. Taking up another point raised by the committee, I should stress that qualified teacher status is rapidly achievable for experienced candidates who proceed through the GTP.
The excellent new Teach First scheme puts first-class science and mathematics graduates straight into challenging schools in London and, from this year, in Manchester too and will be expanding to other cities. In 2006-07, there were 30 entrants for mathematics and 60 for science. A significant proportion of participants subsequently decide that a teaching career is for them. Teach First will be expanding considerably over the next few years and we envisage that the number of entrants for maths and science—these are highly talented and ambitious graduates—will increase accordingly.
On the wider issue of pay, flexibility and discretion are already available to school heads and governing bodies seeking well-qualified candidates in shortage subjects, and some schools employ them to great effect. That said, we recognise the points made in the debate and we have asked the School Teachers’ Review Body to advise on improving the use of existing flexibilities; we are currently discussing its conclusions. One aspect of the consultation involves publicising the full range of pay options at school managers’ disposal, including rewards for advanced skill teachers and those in leadership roles.
Another key recruitment issue is the supply of physics and chemistry graduates. We need far more physicists and chemists in our classrooms, and we need them to be offering the kind of stimulating, exciting and perhaps less dangerous tuition than that mentioned by my noble friend Lord Winston. Our target is that, by 2014, 25 per cent of secondary science teachers will have a physics specialism and 31 per cent will have a chemistry specialism. As it stands, only 19 per cent are physicists and 25 per cent are chemists. Taking up a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rees of Ludlow, from October a new accredited course begins for those teachers without a physics and chemistry specialism to gain the subject knowledge and pedagogy that they need to teach those subjects effectively. We are working through our current spending review settlement to determine whether participants at Brighton, Keele and Edge Hill universities will receive, in line with the STRB’s recommendation, a financial incentive to complete their courses in these areas.
Let me take up the theme mentioned in the debate of the contribution of school technicians to high-quality science provision. The Select Committee welcomed the TDA’s work with the Association for Science Education to devise flexible training and career pathways for technicians. We will be considering further the position of all support staff, including technicians, in the light of issues highlighted by the Select Committee and the report of the joint union-employer working group on fair pay and rewards. For both teachers and technicians, continuing professional development is, as the committee recognised, an increasingly important aspect of career progression and is essential to raising standards in schools. In a pathbreaking partnership with the Wellcome Trust worth £51 million, we have created a national network of 10 science learning centres to provide CPD that generates both innovative classroom practice and much deeper and updated subject knowledge. In 2005-06, the science learning centres delivered more than 11,000 training days, and we are absolutely committed to their further advance.
Regarding the committee’s recommendation that teachers be required to undertake a certain amount of subject-specific CPD each year, the STRB will be considering new statements of teachers’ professional roles and responsibilities, including a duty and an entitlement to engage in effective CPD throughout their careers. Following consultation, the STRB will report and propose next steps in March 2008, and the Government will take that very seriously.
In the mean time, the training of higher level teaching assistants, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Platt of Writtle, will help to provide the cover for teachers away on training. From August, we will train a further 2,000 science or mathematics higher level teaching assistants, so that every school can recruit at least one of those higher level teaching assistants by the end of 2007-08. The Training and Development Agency for Schools has already planned a publicity campaign to raise awareness of HLTAs, and we will continue to work with the TDA and with subject associations to raise the quality and profile of CPD across the board.
I was also very glad to hear the noble Baronesses, Lady Platt and Lady Greenfield, speak so positively about the science and engineering ambassador scheme, not least its work in encouraging girls to pursue the full range of science disciplines right through to A-level and into degrees. The Government are expanding the science and engineering ambassador scheme, bringing the total number of ambassadors to 18,000 by the end of 2007-08; while a pilot programme is set to open after-school and engineering clubs for 11 to 14 year-olds nationwide.
In addition, we are in discussion with the Wellcome Trust about the structure of the science learning centre network to encourage much greater take-up. Our discussions include the future of bursaries and ways in which to overcome financial barriers preventing teachers attending courses at the centre. All of that is being considered as part of the spending review, and I am working closely with my noble friend Lord Sainsbury on his review for the Treasury on the best ways to recruit and retain science teachers, as well as raising the level of professionalism among them. I was very interested in what the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, said about the young scientist centre, which I took her to say was being developed in conjunction with the Royal Institution. I would be glad to learn more about that proposed centre, and the Government may perhaps be in a position to support its work.
Let me turn now to curriculum and testing. Some 107,000 more 11 year-olds achieved level 4 or better last year in the key stage 2 science tests, compared to 1997. At key stage 3, the numbers achieving higher grades are improving, as are the numbers achieving grade C or above in science GCSE.
Well-constructed tests represent one part, but I stress only one part, of a strategy for driving standards higher. They offer clear measures of progress for every child. There is no evidence that good test results can be obtained only at the expense of the broader curriculum and engaging teaching. On the contrary, Ofsted has reported that the best schools achieve good test results in the context of a rich curriculum conveyed through excellent teaching.
Moving forward, we will continue to slim down the secondary curriculum to make it more manageable and to give more focus to the key conceptual underpinnings and relevance of science. We will continue to give strong support to the 21st century science syllabus referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley—I am afraid that I am now over time—and we will continue to invest in science labs as part of the wider Building Schools for the Future programme. I should stress that the commitment to investing in science laboratories has been incorporated into the wider investment in school buildings programme, which now stands at £6.4 billion a year—10 times greater than in 1996-97 and there is independent evaluation of how that investment proceeds.