Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1
MONDAY 4 MARCH 2002
Chairman: Welcome to the first session in our
inquiry into what for us is an extremely important area of scientific
endeavour in this country, the people who are taught in our schools
from 14 to 19, and, of course, there are issues of further education
colleges, and so on, and teachers; and we look forward to this
session today. Thank you all for coming, and, since there are
many of you, I am quite sure, as good teachers, you have got your
act together and you have a spokesperson; but, nevertheless, do
not let that deflect from other people who want to come in.
Dr Iddon: Chairman, before we start, can I declare
an interest, as usual. I am Parliamentary Liaison Officer to the
Royal Society of Chemistry, and I would like that recorded.
Chairman: Thank you, Dr Iddon. Let us start
off with Mr McWalter, who has to leave us briefly, so I will let
him have the first question.
1. I apologise for that. I have a Statutory
Instrument in a couple of minutes' time. I just wanted to raise
the question, as a maths graduate, do you think that science students
have the mathematical capability they need, to support their scientific
study; and if there is a problem with maths does it lie within
the maths curriculum, or does it lie rather in a lack of co-ordination
between, say, mathematics and the teaching of physics, as an example,
or other such subjects?
(Ms Wilson) Can I take that just initially and bring
my colleagues in. When the National Curriculum was first introduced,
there was a lack of co-ordination between the science curriculum
and the maths curriculum, and when the latest revision was undertaken
some of that was ironed out. There are some problems, in that
the conventions that the mathematicians use and the conventions
that the science teachers use for the same thing are sometimes
different. Certainly, for my own subject area, physics, our problem
is not particularly the content of the maths curriculum but the
degree to which students have the chance to practise their mathematics
and to develop their skills and to develop a firm foundation in
their skills. We do believe, post 16, as physicists, that if we
need mathematics then, to an extent, we should be prepared to
teach that mathematics, as and when it is needed, for the physics;
we do not believe that we should dictate to the mathematicians
what mathematics they should teach. And we believe there are actually
advantages if the teachers are capable of teaching the mathematics
through the physics context, because then the reason for studying
that particular aspect of maths is clear, and students develop
the additional mathematical skills within context and with a motivation
to learn that mathematics, because they can see why they need
to learn it.
2. I wonder whether Lucy Allen might wish to
comment on whether the mathematicians are maybe making it much
too difficult for people anyway to get the confidence they need
to want to carry on with sciences?
(Ms Allen) I think we would just reiterate, really,
what Catherine has just outlined. It is having the opportunity
to cross-apply between contexts, and there is probably a case
for mathematics and science looking at the links between the subject
areas within a curriculum and working out to make it more specific,
more explicit to the students how they are actually using maths
within a science context, because that makes more sense to learn;
and that will be the motivation, and they will be able to learn
how to apply what they are learning, rather than in a fixed context.
3. Perhaps I should just ask Nigel is it a worry
to The Royal Society?
(Mr Thomas) As you may know, The Society undertook
a study of geometry, around nine months ago; in particular, we
found that, post 16, the mathematics curriculum should be revised
and looked at. Looking at geometry, we found that there was a
lack of teaching of spatial awareness, which obviously has a direct
link into some of the stuff that they will be doing, as scientists,
in higher education. It is a concern to us. The Society would
certainly recommend, at a local level, at least, there is time
built into the school week to allow teachers to talk to each other.
We have certainly found that this is one of the main issues; teachers
are so busy teaching their own subject and do not have the time
just to sit down for an hour or two hours a week to say, "This
is what's coming up in the science curriculum; can we see any
links between what you are about to teach them in mathematics?"
(Ms Wilson) I will certainly reinforce that. As the
Institute of Physics, we had a joint maths/physics working party
within the last two, three years. We did not actually reach agreement,
necessarily, but, having the time to talk to each other and listen
to each other's point of view, we came to a better understanding,
and there is not time for that sort of discussion and linking
between science and mathematics in schools.
4. Can I put a simplistic proposition to you;
it is simplistic in the extreme, which is that there is a higher
correlation, as we know, obviously, a relationship between physics
and mathematics, but some children are not naturally able in mathsit
is not a subject that they like particularly; would you accept
a proposition that the National Curriculum insistence on teaching
across the three sciences actually has a drag effect on some children,
students, who are drawn to the life sciences but have an aversion
to the mathematical side of physics and find that they are unable
to progress because they are required to do a subject which, to
them, is entirely alien? It is probably a question to the biologists,
in the first instance, but I do not know.
(Ms Day) I think there have been some studies on this,
and, I think, if the support is there for the mathematics and
if it can be taught through the context of life sciences, and
so forth, that they will continue to do it.
5. Even though it is a subject which they may
not like particularly, or choose, and there are other options
available to them in the curriculum? I am thinking of that crucial
point where they decide what they are going to progress with,
and they think, "Oh, I don't want to do physics; I'd love
to do biology but I can't do physics. I'll do chemistry because
I can see it relates, but I don't want to do physics." I
am sorry, it is a simplistic proposition.
(Ms Wilson) Certainly, one of the problems with linkage
of physics and maths is the fact that, if you do physics and you
wish to continue with physics post 18 then you will have to do
maths as a second subject, and maths and physics are two of the
most difficult; the perception of students is that they are the
most difficult ones, and they want to broaden; so if they are
faced with a choice that they have to do physics and they have
to do maths, and they perceive them as difficult, that might be
a disincentive. In fact, the amount of mathematics that is required
now for GCSE science is such that I would not have thought necessarily
they would be put off very readily by their experience of mathematics
in science up to that level.
6. Thank you very much. You see Mr McWalter
has deceived me here; he has returned. Let me go back a bit to
the first question I was going to ask you, which is much gentler,
really. It was going to ask if you could say, just briefly, how
your institutions are involved with influencing science education
policy and with supporting schoolsif you could do it in
a few, brief sentences, which, as educationalists, I am sure you
will be able to do; each institution, what your role is, and the
(Ms Day) The Institute of Biology, yes, the policy;
we have regular meetings with fellow education officers and we
respond to issues as they come up, and we consult with teachers
to represent their views.
7. Have you been successful in influencing science
education policy, do you think?
(Ms Day) Yes, I believe so.
(Dr Osborne) I think I would agree with that. The
Royal Society of Chemistry has a large INSET programme for teachers,
and produces a vast amount of curriculum material, which is sent
to all schools, to enhance the teaching of chemistry and the wider
kind of investigative science. In terms of policy, I think we
are quite successful in influencing organisations like QCA, in
terms of formulating what they do and the way they should be moving
(Ms Wilson) Yes, I think one of the great strengths
that we have at the moment is that we do meet regularly, as education
officers, across the science institutions, including the Association
for Science Education. I think we would like to have more influence;
we do not think that science education is all that it should be
and would like to see changes introduced. But we do feel that
we have the ear of certain of the Government agencies; perhaps
we are a little concerned that we work, interact, very well with,
for instance, the QCA science team but we are not sure how much
what we discuss with them actually percolates up through the system.
(Mr Thomas) The Royal Society obviously
has a remit across all the sciences and mathematics, and so one
of our roles is to help to bring the other organisations together,
to see if there are any common threads, and often there are. Recent
successes, if I take the last 12 months, as I mentioned earlier:
the Society issued a geometry report, which is influencing the
National Numeracy Strategy; it is going out to all the regional
trainers at the moment. In science, as you may know, The Society,
with the ASE, recently did two reports on school technicians,
and it is pleasing to report that the Department for Education
and Skills has asked us to set up a joint working group to take
those recommendations forward. So I would say certainly we have
had quite a lot of influence, in the last 12, 18 months.
(Ms Allen) The Institute of Mathematics
is much smaller than the other organisations, and participation
in the secondary area of education is a recently new field for
us. We have actually been consulting with our members and providing
feedback to QCA, particularly at the moment, on the AS mathematics
review, and we are involved on the actual criteria review panel
and we have actually met with the Head of Curriculum Division;
but the focus of that is feedback, consulting with members. We
are in discussions with the Technology College Trust, at the moment,
to look at the criteria being set up for the new specialism, maths
and computing, and we have set up a group which picks up members
from the other maths organisations and mathematicians who are
practising in various sectors of the economy; so, hopefully, the
output of that will be a guidance document which will inform both
teachers and schools of the expectations of employers, and the
employers of how they are using schools.
Chairman: I will have to adjourn for ten minutes;
we have a vote; that is an indication of a vote. Thank you.
The Committee suspended from 4.38 pm to 4.46
pm for a division in the House.
8. I hope that we do not have any more interruptions;
it is discontinuous for us, too, and disruptive, but it is the
nature of the place. Let me ask you a question then, as professional
bodies, if you have official discussions about the content of
the curriculum; what sort of things could you influence, what
have you influenced, how do you go about it, have you got good
examples? For example, if I wanted to prevent Darwinian teaching
in schools, which is not unknown, how would you influence a process
(Ms Wilson) Our first vehicle is through the Qualifications
and Curriculum Authority, and certainly when the A level specifications
and the criteria were last revised we all had representations
on the QCA committee, relevant QCA committees, and fought our
pitches for our separate subjects, and generally asked for less
content, because we believe that curricula tend to be overloaded.
And when I said that we would like to influence science education
more, we would like there to be more time to explore the interests
that young people have, to look at the relevance of the science
that they learn in schools to their lives, to look at the issues
raised by science for society.
9. But the curriculum is overloaded, so you
have not been influential really in that, have you? Who are the
big hitters then, in terms of deciding the curriculum?
(Ms Wilson) That is one of the problems we have; we
can discuss with QCA at our level, but when it gets beyond that
we do not have, as the education officers, an opportunity to influence,
and likewise teachers do not have the opportunity to influence,
to the extent which we would like.
10. I would like just to reinforce the question.
Do you think that we drop enough of the "old science"in
order to be able to replace it with the new science, or do we
just overload the curriculum because we do not do the former?
(Ms Wilson) I think we very rarely start with anything
like a clean sheet of paper; and one of the things we see as an
advantage, of looking at the curriculum 14-19, is that there may
be opportunities for looking at the needs of youngsters, whatever
their aspirations, attitudes, ambitions are, to try to develop
a curriculum which is closer to their needs. And we would be delighted
if the current Government Green Paper, or this Committee, enabled
us to have more influence in that respect.
(Dr Osborne) I think also though that we have all
agreed that the current QCA proposals for a science curriculum
for the 21st century go quite a considerable way towards producing
a science curriculum for everybody, not just those who are going
to be future scientists. And we can see that, actually, possibly,
that may influence some of those students who would do such a
course then to consider taking sciences post 16, because they
are actually enthused by something that relates to their everyday
life, rather than abstract, if you like, almost last century science.
11. I will come to that in a moment, but, on
the science curriculum key stage 4, the learned societies, I think,
drew the conclusion that it fails to inspire and challenge, and
you are looking for both inspiring and challenging those students
who want to take science as a profession, later on, as a career,
and also just increasing awareness and engagement in science for
those who will be citizens and need an understanding of science
for their future lives. Bearing all that in mind, the Government's,
the DfES, Green Paper for 14-19s, that was published in February
this year, that proposed that science remains compulsory at key
stage 4, but that it needs reviewing and updating, shall we say;
what needs to be changed in the curriculum to make sure that at
key stage 4 the curriculum becomes appealing to both sets, the
professional scientist, in future, and those who would need science
as citizens; what needs changing; how can it be changed?
(Mr Thomas) As Dr Osborne has said, really the new
proposals on the table from the QCA for keeping science in step
with the 21st century, we believe, are very good. They divide
20 per cent of the curriculum dedicated to science into two halves
at key stage 4, roughly speaking, with one half for all people,
dedicated largely to science for citizenship, and then another
10 per cent will be taken by students, and that 10 per cent will
be determined by their aspirations, their abilities; if they wanted
to go on to do science at university, that may be a different
10 per cent than if they wanted to do another subject. It actually
ties into something that Dr Gibson asked originally, in terms
of the influence that the learned societies have. Those proposals
have been drawn up now for a year, or so, and currently are still
going through iteration, and at every stage the discussions we
have had with QCA influence that growth. And so, from the Green
Paper, when these proposals do come out and get piloted in 2003,
I think that was a concrete example of where the learned societies
have had an effect on the curriculum that is taught.
12. Clearly, QCA will lead the process, but
you think the learned societies should have an input to that.
Dr Iddon asked you the question about whether we cut enough of
the old when we bring in the new, or whether we leave the curriculum
cluttered; what would you actually cut from the science budget
to make space for this new science citizenship; what would you
cut; can you give specifics?
(Mr Thomas) From the science curriculum?
(Mr Thomas) The President of the Royal Society, Lord
May, was asked this question two weeks ago, and he said "anything."
Really, it almost does not matter what you cut out, if you can
get a coherent base for the curriculum that trains science for
citizenship; then arguing about whether it should be one aspect
of physics, or one aspect of chemistry, is almost a waste of time.
(Dr Osborne) I think there are some fundamental, major
ideas of science that all people need to have, but it is the way
you exemplify them; much of the exemplification is in very old-fashioned
terms, that does not relate to what young people see about them
today. I think another point to make is that this kind of science
is not a dumbing-down, in many cases it is more difficult than
the present kind of, if you like, science training for future
(Ms Wilson) The key stage 3 science strategy is being
developed around key ideas of science, which are the basic building-blocks;
clearly, one must have some basic building-blocks, you cannot
have a content-free curriculum, but we want to make sure that
those are exemplified in ways that give youngsters an interest
in the science and keep their enthusiasm. Each stage, I think,
will say, even higher education will say to us, we do not mind
if they have less of a science background, as long as they are
still excited by the science that they are receiving at the previous
level. We can add on to that, as long as the enthusiasm is there
and the basic building-blocks are there.
Bob Spink: I am delighted to hear you say that.
Let us forget we are in Committee now; let us think we are in
the pub, over a pint, just having a chat, do you actually yearn
for the days when you had the flashes and bangs and the smells
of old-fashioned science, that I used to have when I was a little
boy? Do you think that would do any good?
Chairman: It sounds like you do, though, Dr
14. I yearn for the pint.
(Dr Osborne) I have to say, with good teachers, they
are still there, and that is the way they get their students excited
with what they are doing.
15. To follow on, with Ms Wilsonthe Institute
of Physics actually withdrew from the joint submission, and submitted
separately, right at the end, and presumably that is because you
want to see the unique and separate identity of physics maintained.
Can you expand on that a little bit, just clear up what happened?
(Ms Wilson) What we have produced is a statement which
is complementary to the joint statement from the other organisations;
we are not arguing against that. We do believe though that physics
is in almost a unique situation, in that it is the basis of the
physical school sciences, physics in higher education and engineering.
We do not have currently enough people going through into higher
education to provide graduates going into the physics-based industries;
we do not have enough people of quality going on and getting degrees
who will want to come into teaching; we must safeguard that pool
of people who will study physics or engineering post 16 and post
18, but that is not to say that we do not support the tenet of
getting a more appropriate science for everyone up to the age
of 16. So it is an emphasis, not a difference.
16. I would still like to hear from you, though,
that there is something in the curriculum that you would do away
with, a load of nonsense that is being taught. Is Boyle's Law
nonsense, for example? I always thought it was, but I never understood
(Ms Wilson) We do not need to teach it now; there
have been things that have dropped out.
17. Oh, right; you have got rid of it at last?
(Ms Wilson) Like Snell's Law. What we do not like
is the scatter-gun approach to the National Curriculum, where
we have a bit of this and a bit of that; we want more coherence,
taking a story and seeing it through; now, to an extent, which
story it is is not important, as long as we have got the basic
there. At the moment, the young person studying science up to
the age of 16 does not get a feel for what the sciences are about,
because it is lots of little topics crammed in together.
18. Really, just to clarify it for me, because,
what you are saying about science and citizenship, I think, is
that you teach scientific principles and relate them to everyday
experience, which is absolutely what I am hearing from children
that they want from the curriculum and they are not getting at
the moment; they are just getting facts, rather than relevance.
But is there a risk of losing, in that approach, scientific method,
techniques, skills, or are they all acquirable later?
(Ms Wilson) We would see these as being most important,
as part of science and citizenship, as part of understanding science,
as part of our culture, the way in which science has developed
over the years; it is about just the sorts of things that you
are saying, so it is looking at evidence and how people arrive
at evidence, how theories are put forward, or disproved, not proved,
disproved. So it is the science process we see as important as
the science content. I think we are reluctant to talk about what
we would drop, because
19. It might be somebody else's subject, perhaps;
that is the problem, is it not, really?
(Ms Wilson) Yes; and it is not something to be entered
1 Note by witness: The Institute of Physics,
like the Royal Society of Chemistry, runs a varied programme of
in-service training activities for teachers, including courses
in physics for non-specialists. Additionally it provides some
curriculum enrichment resources and an electronic link-up/discussion
group for teachers. The Institute also runs activities for students,
aiming to portray the excitement, relevance and fun of the subject
through residential courses, one-day events and lectures. It produces
a range of careers material for pupils/students from age 11 upwards.
Having developed a successful new A-level physics scheme, the
Institute is about to invest in the development of an electronically-based
resource to support those who teach physics 11-14 , but who do
not have a strong background in the subject. Back