Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 1-19)




  1. Welcome, Minister, and your team. It is nice to see you here. I think this is your first appearance in front of this Committee. I do not know if it is your first time in front of a Select Committee; no doubt you have had experience of that in the past. This is a rough and tough Committee and we are looking forward to a good session. I do not know if you want to say anything to begin with.

  (Mr Miliband) Would you mind if I did say a few things just to kick us off?

  2. Absolutely—please.
  (Mr Miliband) It may be worthwhile saying, first of all, to inspire you to even greater rough and tumble activities, that we have behind us the Speaker of the Cape Verde Parliament who is here, not because of his outstanding interest in science, but because of his particular interest in the Committee system. I am told that, when he leaves after about quarter of an hour, that is not because of something I have said but because he has a busy schedule. Thank you very much for the invitation to be here. I am here with Janet Dallas, whom you have met before, from the Curriculum Division, and John Jones from the 14-19 Division. With your permission I will spend four or five minutes setting out some points. My own experience of science rather ill-qualifies me for this task.

  3. We were going to point that out to you.
  (Mr Miliband) I will happily own up to my travails in A-level science which were more to do with my own limitations than those of the teachers or of the curriculum. On a serious note, we have no view that we have a monopoly of wisdom in the Department in this area. We are delighted that you are spending time thinking about science and the science curriculum 14-19. We hope by the end of this hour that you will be able to offer us a re-grade from "unsatisfactory" to at least "promising" although, as you know, the Government has to steer very well clear of anything to do with assessments.

  4. You are an expert in A-levels. We prefer degrees.
  (Mr Miliband) We are hoping for a re-grade. I am sure we agree that science is absolutely critical to the future of the country, not just economically but as a community. I hope you also agree that Investing in Innovation, the Government-wide prospectus for reform in science, is a very positive document. We are absolutely clear that the so-called genome generation is going to need the moral and technical resources to make some very difficult decisions in the next 20 or 30 years and science teaching is obviously critical to that. Let me start in an unusual place, which is that there are some good things happening. It is a rather British trait always to talk about what is wrong, but you would not believe from reading a lot of the press in this area that the UK was ranked fourth out of 32 OECD countries in terms of scientific literacy. I think that is a tribute to teachers and to pupils and it is important in sessions like this that we recognise the outstanding work that is done all round the country and I am sure you would agree with that. It is important that we are doing some things right and we must build on those as well as correcting what is wrong. I just want to pick out three themes from your report and touch on them briefly and then answer your questions. They are to do with people, to do with the curriculum and to do with resources; in other words, effective teaching, how we get and develop an engaging curriculum, and how we make sure that we have the right accommodation and equipment to achieve high standards. In relation to effective teaching, we obviously want to have the right number of properly-rewarded, properly-supported teachers using the best possible teaching techniques. To that end you will know that overall the pay of experienced teachers has risen by about 15-20% in real terms over the last five years, and that obviously benefits science teachers as well as teachers of other subjects. In addition there are over £5,000 per teacher recruitment and retention allowances available to heads to use from their own increasingly-devolved budgets to ensure that the difficulties in the recruiting and retaining of science teachers are overcome. We are waiting for the STRB, the School Teachers' Review Body, to give us their view on the need for specific allowances in relation to science teachers. In relation to the spreading of best practice, you will know about the £25 million pledge from the Wellcome Trust to the National Centre for Excellence in Science Teaching. We will soon be coming forward with the Government's proposals in this area. I would also like to flag up the 24 specialist science schools and the 58 applications we have had in the October round for specialist status for science schools. Finally, in relation to support staff in this section on people, you will know now, which you could not know when you published your report, that the Government has some very ambitious plans for bringing expertise into the classroom to support the work of teachers. We anticipate over this Parliament over 50,000 extra people. Some of them are just secretarial but increasing numbers are at a higher level to support teachers in the teaching enterprise. We are working closely with the Royal Society and others to ensure that we have the right framework for designating and qualifying those staff but technicians fit very squarely in the middle of that agenda. They are highlighted twice as priorities for the support staff reforms that were published two weeks ago. In relation to the curriculum, I personally see absolutely no contradiction between the emphasis we put on high standards in what are called the basics and the enrichment and the creativity that comes not just from science but also from other subjects that sometimes are seen as supportive rather than centre stage. I would say in relation to the science curriculum 14-19 that we will never get anything right if we start at 14. The Key Stage 3 science curriculum is absolutely critical and that is why I think you will applaud the reforms that we are bringing in at Key Stage 3 so that we can get to encourage much more active learning, more engaging pedagogy at 11-14 to inspire young people. In relation to the 14-19 curriculum itself, you will know that just this year students started some new style GCSE courses and next year we are starting a pilot of a hybrid GCSE that has a common core and then some options beyond that core. We are at the early stages in trying to re-energise and re-engage pupils in the science curriculum at GCSE. No-one has completed their courses yet. Personally, at constituency level, I am getting very positive feedback from teachers about that. You will know that the 14-19 Green Paper flagged up the potential for longer-term reform in this area and we will be coming forward with our response to the consultation in due course. Obviously, other matters in relation to A-levels and AS-levels have taken precedence in the last couple of months but we certainly have not forgotten about the issues raised in that Green Paper and we will be coming forward with them at the appropriate moment. Finally, in relation to buildings and accommodation, you will know that when we came into office in 1997 the total school building budget for 24,000 schools around the country was £683 million, which does not add up to very much per school. It is now £3 billion and it is growing in the spending review estimates up to £5 billion a year by 2005-06. The DfES guidance to the local education authorities puts real stress on the importance of some of that money going towards science laboratories and their importance in that and we trust the good sense of local headteachers and LEAs to put that money to good use. The Asset Management Plan is prepared by every LEA to give due significance to the importance of science in that investment. That is our agenda. We are clear that the next stage of educational reform is not about central diktat but about us setting the right framework of accountability for teachers and for LEAs to respond and to empower them with the resources to make change at local level and that is why delegation in our education system is rising and why the DfES spend is falling and why there are fewer pots of money to bid for and less bureaucracy attached to that, but with the right accountability we believe we can get, not just science right, but the rest of the curriculum right too. Thank you very much.

  5. Thank you very much for that, but I guess that what we say is that we have very much a different view about what is happening in science teaching in schools and that comes from us going round the schools, both as a Committee and as individuals in our constituencies, talking to science teachers and talking to technicians. In some respect we may be looking down the microscope at the finer detail of what is going on in the schools, whereas you are looking at the broader picture and relating it to education in general. We only called you back because we found your Department's report turgid, complacent and showing lack of any sensitivity about the real problems that face our young people in science in this country, and that is not us taking a very dogmatic line. That comes from the people we have talked to, both in Scotland and in England and, as I say, in many of the constituencies. We feel that science does not get its fair whack in terms of interest from your Department and perhaps that may be because some of you have not done much science and so on and seen the importance of it to the British economy at a time when the Chancellor and the Prime Minister have highlighted science as predominant almost in developing the economy in this country; it is so important that we build on that and ensure that the science we teach is world-class. This Committee thinks that we are some way from that yet and we will now try and illustrate that with some of the questions in terms of areas that you have already broadly referred to, but I think in probing you will hear a bit more detail of what is going on out there at the coal face. I guess you are saying that you do not feel from your report that you have to act on anything we have said whatsoever. Is that the case?
  (Mr Miliband) It is quite the opposite. I take quite the opposite view that because we agree with you and confirm that we are taking action in areas where we agree with you, it seems to me strange therefore to seek areas of disagreement. Throughout our response to your report we agree that you have identified important issues and we set out the ways in which we are trying to address them, so I would take quite the opposite view from you. We have deliberately not written a sensationalist report in reply to you that tries to find areas of disagreement where there is none. Instead we have given an honest appraisal of where we think you have hit the mark, which is a large number of areas. They are areas that we have identified as well and I think that we can have a very productive discussion about how we do better in a number of those areas but I would really urge you not to feel that, because we agree with you that areas need to be addressed, somehow we are complacent; quite the opposite. I feel that we have a shared agenda in terms of pushing science forward. I hear what you say about the evidence base but, with all due respect, the OECD study which I cited, showing the UK's performance in science, has not been challenged by anyone and whatever the anecdotal comments that might come forward from the front line the overall situation is as I described it. We agree that there are real pinch points, real problems, real areas where we need to do better as a country and we have tried to highlight where we are addressing those issues. It is precisely because we share some of your concerns that we have taken a lot of action to change those things.

  6. So what is your strategy to reverse the trend of many young women, for example, not going into the sciences, many of whom we have talked to, some real high fliers? You said quite clearly that they are not going into science for all sorts of different reasons career-wise and so on, and also a lot of teachers who now are talking about not having the proper equipment, not being able to allow individuals to carry out their own experiments, having to watch demonstrations and so on. What is the Department's strategy for developing science teaching in this country to world class level other than just scraping the surface? How do we get to those young people who are running away, indeed, from maths and physics and indeed some of the other sciences as well, where this country really does need them?
  (Mr Miliband) With respect, those are two very different questions so let me address them separately. Although you say we are scraping the bottom of the barrel as a country there are 28 countries who are performing worse than we are in a national survey of 32 countries, so let us not do ourselves down. In relation to young women, which I agree is a serious issue, the overall position in our schools actually is that the young girls are doing much better than the boys, including in science. If you look at Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3 the gender gap is against boys. Girls are doing better. Where you have highlighted an important issue is how we then translate that into study at post-16 and study at university, and obviously there is a whole range of issues associated with that. One is the curriculum and the extent to which it motivates all young people. I would be nervous of making changes to the current curriculum before we see the effect of the new GCSEs that have just been brought in this year. The second issue I would raise with you is the pedagogy, if you like, the teaching and learning strategy and the extent to which it gets the right balance between course work and examination and the extent to which the learning is genuinely active learning as opposed to passive learning. I do not want to become too jargon-laden, and there I see an important role for the specialist science colleges being genuine beacons of good practice that spread the best methods of science teaching around the local schooling system. We are going to see the same in relation to sports colleges, in relation to technology colleges where there is a greater critical mass and where we have seen progress, so that is the second thing I would mention. The third aspect of this is that we want to give young people—when they make their choices about 14-19 science—the sense that they are moving into a growing field where there are future possibilities for them at university and beyond and that is why it is so important to locate our discussion today in the context of the Investing in Innovation overall strategy. We can only succeed as part of a growing science base. We cannot do it in the absence of that.

  7. This is a personal question in a way. What turned you off science? You must have had the opportunity to develop your career along scientific lines. Were you stimulated by science or were you an economist from the day you were born?
  (Mr Miliband) I was not very good at it and there is nothing like a "D" to make you think twice about whether or not you want to carry on pursuing a subject. Frankly, I would not have got into any university to do university degree physics. Such is life. As I say, it was more my problem than the system's problem. The system is probably quite lucky that I did not pursue science any further.

Mr McWalter

  8. I very much agree with what the Chair has said. I do think that there is an extraordinary sense in which there is no real sense of urgency and passionate commitment in the kind of response that you have made to our report. We are looking at a situation where we have students at school needing to be taught by people who are qualified to teach them and yet at the same time we are seeing chemistry departments and physics departments close all over the country in universities. This is partly because there is a market system that the Government seems to be employing which says,"You can go to university but once you are there you can do whatever you like", and people increasingly are voting for moving away from the sciences which you and we think are absolutely vital to this country's wealth and economy, and are moving into many other sorts of courses. That is partly because it is much cheaper for people to lay on courses in the humanities than it is in engineering or physical science. Do you really think that the Government has grasped the nettle on this and understood that you cannot just delegate; you have also to indicate a sense of direction and make sure that the quantum of resource is sufficient to be able to deal with these needs? I do not want an overall figure. I want a figure for science.
  (Mr Miliband) Anyone in the social sciences at university would give their right arm for the degree of investment that has gone on in the natural sciences.

  Chairman: It is expensive.

Mr Heath

  9. That is totally irrelevant.
  (Mr Miliband) No, with respect, it is not irrelevant. I was asked by Mr McWalter whether the Government was willing to give priority to science. In our spending decisions we have given priority to science. It is absolutely in relation to infrastructure, in relation to funding of personnel that the Government has responded to the demand that we give greater priority to science, and we have. Those are funding choices we are making to build up the capacity of science departments. I am skiing off piste here; that is outside my area, but we have put significant sums of money into science and not into the social sciences. You can rightly say, and I will agree with you, that it is long overdue, it is long needed, the money is necessary, we need more, but the Government has flagged up in the most obvious way it can its own commitment there. I would ask back to you, what are you saying to me about the choices that students are making? I do not see how we can run a university system by us making the choices for them; I am sure you would agree with that. They are making the choices about what subjects they want to study. We are making it possible for them to study to a high standard by expanding the science base in universities. We want to do more of it. We are committed in a whole number of ways. I do not need to rehearse how we hope to do that, but I do not see what you are suggesting about an alternative model of getting people to do science at university other than the choices that they make.

Mr McWalter

  10. University vice-chancellors are trying to operate budgets and finding that if they operate a budget where they have a significant amount of engineering and science in their portfolio they run into deep financial difficulty. If, on the other hand, they cut them,—chemistry at Salford, civil engineering and physics at my local university, all over the country there are science courses shutting and the people who might have graduated from those places as a result are not being made available to teach in the schools, so we end up with the schools being the only place where people do not have the qualifications they need. We need some direction from the Government, not simply a laissez faire system that says, "We want 50% of students going to university", when most of those will inevitably not be doing science with the current investment levels.
  (Mr Miliband) We must not let this discussion close without having on the record that there are 12% more people doing science in university than there were six years ago. That is a fact that I have not invented. Between 1994 and 1995 and 2000 and 2001 total enrolments in full-time science-based first degrees in UK institutions increased by 12%.

  11. We know that there is an increase in medicine. There is not an increase, as has been said repeatedly, in the physical and mathematical and engineering sciences. If we look at our report, in paragraph 57 we say, "Students may be dissuaded from studying science at A level if they think it will be harder work than other subjects and more difficult to achieve a high level grade." In paragraph 59 we say, "The mathematical requirements, or students' perceptions of the mathematical requirements, of A level sciences puts students off choosing to study these subjects. This particularly applies to physics." What we have is a system where, as it would appear, students vote with their feet against things they find difficult and we end up with science courses, particularly with a significant mathematical content, being increasingly a rarity in our universities with departmental closures an inevitable consequence.
  (Mr Miliband) Let me come back on those two because I think they are important points. My figures are that there are 40,000 more undergraduates studying science than there were six or seven years ago.

  12. Mostly the biological sciences.
  (Mr Miliband) They cannot all be doing medicine, with all due respect.

  13. Sports science.
  (Mr Miliband) I take seriously what you say about the content of science at A-level. However, I will never be party to saying that we should make science A-level easier. That gets the Government into very hot water, rightly, and I am not saying that. I hear what you are saying about maths but I have seen no research, either from the universities or from anywhere else, showing that the maths content of science A-level is a determining factor in putting people off. I am open to it and I will certainly pass it on to the QCA who are responsible for this, but I cannot direct a change in the maths content of the science A-level without significant research evidence that is independently based showing that.

Dr Iddon

  14. How do we stop people studying tap dancing BSc and encourage them to go into productive subjects which we are so short of in this country to make the engineering and manufacturing and science base tick?
  (Mr Miliband) How many undergraduates are there in tap dancing?

  15. I chose that as a trivial example, but you and I know that students want a degree and they will take the easy route unless they are attracted into the difficult routes. Everybody around this table knows that to do science, engineering or technology at university is a tough option, and if you do not get grants to go to university and you want to take the safe option then you take a subject which is easier to study, frankly, and we have got to reverse this.
  (Mr Miliband) I know of no students doing tap dancing.

  16. I withdraw that. You know what I mean.
  (Mr Miliband) I do not want us to demean the choices that people are making. People often say that media studies is a load of nonsense but actually the employment rates of media graduates and some of the emerging technologies in that area show that there is a market for them. In relation to science and the like, as a personal view I am not convinced that they are seen as hard for people who have shown skill at science A-level. If I tried to do undergraduate physics I would not find it possible but for the young people who are doing well at A-level, as a personal view I do not think it is the fact that they are seen to be hard. I think that there is an issue about the extent to which the world of science holds on to its graduates and the extent to which they float out into other occupations, which is a different thing. That relates to the place of science. Someone referred to engineering, the economic base of the country; there are some very big issues there. I am interested if you have got some evidence showing this is because it is perceived to be hard. For kids who are talented at science I am not convinced that that is the problem.

Mr McWalter

  17. Imperial College itself is saying that its engineering course will shut in seven years' time.
  (Mr Miliband) Why?

  18. We have a situation in which there is a widespread view that there is an easier way to achieve becoming a university graduate than to pursue this route and huge numbers of students exercise that choice. We are asking you for a sense of direction but apparently you think that there are lots of people around who have got these talents and who find it natural and easy. All we can say is that we have no evidence of that in our inquiries.
  (Mr Miliband) I do not want to end this session on a false note. What I have said is that the Government is committing significant resources to expand the capacity of science departments of universities to offer more and better degrees to science students. That has resulted in 40,000 more people doing science at undergraduate level. You say the distribution is not as it should be. The Government's commitment is to a bigger, better science base at university level. It is up to students then to make those choices. Our job is to get right the science teaching at Key Stage 3, GCSE and A-level so that you have the right flow coming through.

  19. These figures, I am afraid, are absolute balderdash. Teesside University has got 31 courses in its engineering faculty and they are all just different varieties of graphics and computing and using the word "technology" in the sense of information technology. The basic engineering, whether it is civil engineering or the physics of structures, all those classical areas of scientific investigation, are being completely and increasingly completely ignored because the statistics you are working from put all of these things in the same pot and you do not have the expertise to understand, collectively, as a department, that there are whole areas of science which are being completely neglected in your new arrangements.
  (Mr Miliband) I take very seriously what Mr McWalter has said. I think we should commit in that case to go away and do a breakdown, with you if that would be helpful, subject by subject, course by course, cross-cuts, in whatever way we can. I have no interest in saying to you that everything is fine and then to find in seven years' time, you said, that everything has gone to pot. I have got absolutely no interest in doing that at all. I am more than happy to commit to detailed discussions, subject by subject.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2003
Prepared 22 January 2003