Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



Dr Iddon

  20. Part of the attraction of science, of course, should be getting into the laboratory and doing the practical work. I am very sad to see that in the joint evidence, physics excepted, in this case, you say that practical work has declined, and I would like to know what evidence you have for saying that, and why do you think there has been a decline in practical work? I guess we have to take subject by subject, really?
  (Mr Thomas) If I can start, if you are looking for evidence as to practical work declining. The QCA have an ongoing monitoring exercise; in their most recent report, which came out six, eight weeks ago, they are finding that an overloaded curriculum is encouraging teachers to teach less practical work. So, certainly in terms of evidence, I think there is sizeable evidence, and QCA is the most recent example of that. High quality practical work takes time to plan, it takes time to do properly, and when time is squeezed then quite often practicals are the first to go.
  (Dr Osborne) I think also there is a problem where people are teaching outside their subject specialism, and I think chemistry is probably the one that suffers most here, in that many biologists and physicists may not be confident in doing some of the chemical experiments; once upon a time you would have had an old, of my generation, chemist, who would have perhaps instructed the younger members of staff how to do some of these things; but, with the pressures on the curriculum and other whole-school pressures in school, that kind of CPD does not happen now. I think also some teachers rely too much on the health and safety excuse, and I really mean excuse, for not doing experiments, because there are very few substances that actually cannot be used in school; there are very few experiments which cannot be done; but if you do not want to do something it is an easy way out to say that it is not allowed.
  (Ms Wilson) Certainly, there are some schools where the resources are insufficient to support class practical work, or the technician support is not sufficient to allow practical work to go ahead in the way we would like, so practical work can become quite an arid exercise; whereas what we are looking for is providing interesting investigations, open-ended investigations. But, there again, as Dr Osborne said, you have to be fairly confident about your subject knowledge to open up investigations if it is outside your subject area.

  21. I am very disappointed, although I am not blaming you, to hear what you are saying, because it suggests that we are not going to have hands-on experience in schools, at least, and that does not bode well for practical scientists of the future, I am afraid. One of the things you have mentioned is resources, and I guess school technicians comes into that, and I hear teachers in my constituency complaining they cannot get technicians, either because the money is not available to pay them, even these very disappointing rates of pay, which I have in front of me here, not even able to pay those, in some schools, but there does not seem to be any professional route for these people to attract them into the profession of school technician. So what would you do to increase the numbers of technicians in schools, apart from the obvious thing, to provide the money?
  (Mr Thomas) I think, providing money would go some way to resolve the problem, actually.

  22. Is that a big problem, in your eyes, the lack of money to pay them?
  (Mr Thomas) It is both paying them a salary and, of course, setting up the system whereby they can be inducted properly, where they can have a system of career progression, with adequate training and CPD. Teacher CPD now obviously is recognised as a priority, and that is a great thing; technicians have tended to be the poor relation, over the last 20 years. I think you would see a dramatic rise in the standard, say, of practical work if there was a vital investment in the support structure, in technicians. You need a lot more in schools, but, more than that, you also need decent training and a career structure for those that are already there.

  23. Has anybody got any evidence to show us, across the country, which schools have no technicians, or which schools are very depleted in technicians; all schools teach science, of course, at this level?
  (Mr Thomas) The Society did some work on this last year, and we did a survey across the country, but we did not plot it as a geographical distribution. One of the problems we did encounter in our work was identifying how many science technicians there are in each school; as far as we could tell, the DfES collects statistics about technicians in schools, and that will include IT technicians and some other support staff, so actually pinning down how many science technicians there are in an area seems difficult.

  24. At one time, every local FE college used to have a training course for technicians; certainly this was true in Salford, where I used to teach, we could get our technicians from the local FE college, and there were lots of them; but I do not believe that every FE college is running them; in fact, very few FE colleges are running such courses. Is that a fact?
  (Mr Thomas) Certainly, there are large gaps in the provision of training and professional development for technicians. To look at the problem fully, you need to look at the profile of the technician workforce; a lot of them will have family commitments, so that travelling vast distances for training is not practical, doing training courses outside of the school day is not practical. So you are absolutely right in saying that there are areas where training just simply does not exist, but also there is this issue about whether they actually can get to the training, let alone the money to pay for the training courses when they get there.

  25. Perhaps we should have a New Deal for Technicians?
  (Ms Wilson) We would share your disappointment that practical work in school is not as healthy as it should be. The Salters' company, in association with the professional science institutions and the ASE, is looking at a scheme to reward technicians, to recognise the contribution that technicians make, through annual awards, to either individuals or teams of technicians, because sometimes it is very difficult to distinguish who makes a particular contribution; they do work in teams, where a school is fortunate enough to have more than one, but we feel that their status should be raised; they are essential members of the science department staff.

Geraldine Smith

  26. I was very interested in Dr Osborne's comments about health and safety, and sometimes that being used as an excuse really, because I have heard that put across as a reason, time and time again, why there are fewer experiments, and interested in your comments that maybe it is more to do with lack of confidence and the experience of teachers. Recently, in my own constituency, we had a school evacuated after an experiment had gone wrong, so obviously there are some concerns. But I think it is important that the practical experiments do take place, because that enthuses the young people and gets them interested. So can you just clarify, is that a general view, with all of you, that often it is used as an excuse, the health and safety, and maybe it does not stop as many experiments as people would lead you to believe, sometimes?
  (Ms Day) I think so, but also I think there is a perception amongst teachers, apart from using it as an excuse—I think some of them genuinely believe that there are restrictions, that they are just simply not aware of what they can and cannot do.

  Dr Iddon: Is it the absence of school advisers; there has been a great depletion of special advisers to schools; has that played a role, because teachers have nobody to go to for the specialist advice any more?

  Chairman: They are all in Government now!

Dr Iddon

  27. They are spin doctors!
  (Ms Day) And, because of the demands on teachers' time, it is also difficult for them sometimes to go and get the information that they require; and one of the sources often is technicians, and, obviously, it is all linked.

Dr Turner

  28. The supply of competent technicians clearly conspires with reluctance of unconfident teachers and turning to the health and safety excuse, because, there is no doubt about it, from my own experience, that the standard of school laboratory technicians is extremely variable, and most of it is very poor indeed, and the standard of school laboratory equipment correspondingly is very poor, and it does not seem to be improving. And it seems to me that, unless that is taken seriously, unless technicians are paid more than the derisory rates which they are currently, you will never get adequate support for science teaching. So are your institutions really going for this, are you really pressing it; because, to a certain extent, schools have it within their own power, because they have their delegated budgets, they can try to put more resource into their science departments for this purpose, if they really choose to?
  (Mr Thomas) The challenge is obviously to try to influence central government for more money for this, but, also, influence on the local level, that is to say, headteachers, governors, to distribute some of the funding this way. Some headteachers obviously are very favourable towards science; others are less so. It is an expensive subject.
  (Dr Osborne) Yes. I think, if you are going to refurbish any room in the school, the science laboratory would be the most expensive, and therefore heads think very carefully about doing these kinds of things. And I think also it has a bearing on why young people do not take science, because they go into a science laboratory that is probably like the one I was in, more years ago than I care to remember, and they think that is how life is in a laboratory outside, in the world outside, and it is not. If you go into a modern pharmaceutical company and see their laboratory, it is nothing like a school laboratory, it is almost just like an office, really, but with some equipment in it.

Mr Dhanda

  29. I would like to ask a question about assessment and forms of assessment, really. I certainly recall, back from my days at school, although I can barely remember Boyle's Law, that certainly one of the criticisms at the time, when I was doing GCSEs and A level, was that learning, and particularly assessment, tended to be about a recalling of facts, more so than anything else, rather than a deeper understanding. Would you say that is a fair criticism, that could still be made across the board about the sciences today?
  (Ms Wilson) Yes. We believe that there is too much assessment, and too much assessment which is through paper and exercises, which means that recall is the largest element of assessment. With our new scheme for advanced level physics, we have tried very hard to introduce a wide range of assessments, and relied more on the teachers to assess course work, which, of course, is quite demanding, in terms of their time, but it does mean you can assess a wider range of very important skills. And we would like to see more trust of the teachers to assess their pupils, not relying always on external examinations; now that will have implications in terms of the training of the teachers, to train them to be good assessors. But that is an important element of continuing professional development. If we want our teachers to be professional, we have to invest in in-service training to give them the skills that they need, but we think it will pay dividends.

Dr Turner

  30. Could I just add to the question about assessment and its effect on the curriculum, because my overwhelming impression of GCSE science syllabuses is that they are a bit like teaching by numbers; trying to get some sort of uniform and reproducible assessment structure cuts across the actual science content. And someone was foolish enough to talk about excitement; it is difficult to see any excitement in some of these syllabuses; even as a scientist, you look at these and think, "My God, it would bore the pants off me; God knows what it does to the kids." So how are you actually going to get some kick back into the syllabuses, to really excite kids and encourage them to take science seriously, if assessment is going to rule the day?
  (Dr Osborne) I think you have to use different contexts, to start with. One of the troubles with the current kind of examination papers that are set is that, if you are a good teacher, and there has been enough exam papers, you can find it pretty easy actually to train your students to answer the questions, because the questions repeat in irregular cycles. But giving them different contexts, where they have to apply their scientific skill in order to answer the question, I think, can go some way towards that. The other thing about assessment is, I think, it gives students, certainly in practical terms, a very poor idea of what real science is all about. They follow a series of kind of rota steps and think that this is the way that scientific discoveries are made, and it takes no consequence of areas of science, such as epidemiology, where these kinds of techniques are not used. So I think there needs to be a wider kind of number of examples that could be used for the practical assessment, and different contexts for the theoretical assessment.

  31. Yes. There is a new GCSE in applied science coming into being in September; how genuinely different is this from a normal science course; does it answer the problems that you have expressed in your own evidence about the present science GCSE courses?
  (Ms Wilson) I think it goes some way to addressing them; there is less content, there is more emphasis on the way in which people learn the science and the context in which the science is used, which we would applaud. If we take what happened at post 16, what was the GNVQ advanced started off as being a very different animal from the A level, but gradually there has been a coming together, and some of the better aspects of the old GNVQ have got lost in the process, and the style of assessment has become more of the traditional style of assessment; so we have lost out quite a bit in some of the initial thinking behind vocational qualifications.

  32. Is it reasonable that you should be able to expect kids that have done the applied science GCSE to go on to A level sciences; will they have enough grounding to be able to tackle an A level course? And can I just sort of add to that, there has been a tremendous quantum leap between what is expected of a student at GCSE and what is expected at A level; do you think that the applied science course is likely to make that leap even worse?
  (Ms Wilson) Certainly, that is a concern we have about progression routes from the GCSEs in applied science, particularly with the decline, and perhaps disappearance, of the intermediate science GNVQ, as it was. When there was an intermediate science GNVQ, we saw several schools where the youngsters continued with science post 16 in a different context, with more in terms of the vocational context, and actually succeeded, whereas they had not succeeded at GCSE, because of the different learning styles, because of the contextualisation; and some of them then were able to go on to a traditional GCE/A level from that point, but it was a progression through the post 16 years. The intermediate is likely to disappear, and we do have concerns, which we have expressed in the context of the 21st century science, that there must be a progression route which takes the youngsters from where they are, if they have done the single award science plus vocational, applied options that they can feed into, if they are switched on by the science process they have been through, they can switch into A levels, or something equivalent, post 16. So we are concerned about progression.

  33. And, at the moment, you think something needs to be done to facilitate that, over and above what is planned?
  (Ms Wilson) Yes; it is being looked at. For instance, if you go from GCSE, you go to AS qualifications, which are not of A level standard, and then you go on to your A2 and get an A level standard qualification in the GCSE. In the vocational pathway, the first year and the second year of a post-16 course are the same standard, and they are A level standard, so that we have got a problem with the discontinuity there, which needs to be addressed; and one of the things about planning 14-19 is that we should be able to address these issues.

Mr Hoban

  34. In talking to teachers in my own constituency about take-up of science post 16, one of the comments that has been made is that, because students perceive science subjects to be difficult to pass, the take-up rate has diminished, because there is more choice now, post 16. Do you believe that that is a factor behind the low take-up rate of science, post 16, and what other factors do you think might apply?
  (Ms Wilson) The first answer is, yes; we are very concerned about the amount and quality of careers advice in schools with regard to the sciences. There is evidence that boys will pursue something which they perceive as difficult, or even boring, if they can see a reason for doing it; girls are rather more easily discouraged. But a reason why you might want to continue with the sciences is, we believe, because sciences open up the best range of career opportunities that there are; but there is very little that is offered to youngsters, in terms of careers advice, relating to the sciences in schools at present; it has probably got worse in recent years rather than better. And we found, and I am sure the other organisations have, when we ran courses specifically for girls, post 16, one of the elements we built in was the fact that there was a wide range of career opportunities, and we had women there who were working in these careers. The girls' surprise was not that there were women doing these jobs but they had no idea that there were such diverse pathways that they could follow, and interesting careers that they could access. So we need a big investment on counselling and careers' counselling in the science area.
  (Mr Thomas) I would build on that, I think, certainly supporting what Mrs Wilson has said about much better careers advice. What would be useful to encourage take-up, post-16, is more links, with university and industry scientists going into schools; the idea of having role models in scientific careers talking to pupils has proved to be very stimulating to pupils, particularly with women, because there are not so many women in prominent roles in science, and those that do exist are not promoted to schools, largely. I suspect that one of the contributing factors to the low take-up amongst girls doing physics post 16 is that they do not see any obvious career opportunities in that; it is tied in with the careers advice, obviously.

  35. I think the comments you made, actually, are supported by the evidence I have heard, that science teachers are looking for positive role models and careers advice to help pull students through from GCSE science into post-16 science. One of the areas that has not been affected by the poor take-up in post-16 science actually is biology; could you explain why that is the case, Ms Day?
  (Ms Day) Yes. I think actually there are several factors involved with that; part of it is to do with the relevance, that students can perceive biology as being relevant and there are more opportunities for teachers to make links between students' experiences and what they are teaching in the classroom, because, for example, there is a lot more in the news that they can use to make those links. Also, girls tend to become more confident in biology, which makes it more interesting for them, because they are quite affected by how much confidence they have in the subject. And I think, also, it might relate to the fact that a lot of teachers, pre-16, tend to come from biological backgrounds, and maybe there is stronger specialist knowledge in biology, which helps enthuse and motivate the pupils, because teachers with specialist knowledge are more confident and teach in many different ways, of course. And biology is also easy to mix with other subjects.[2]

  36. Finally, do you think, and this is a question to all of you, that there should be new AS and A level curricula, to encourage students to take up science post-16, or what sorts of areas should they cover?
  (Ms Day) There is currently Salters'-Nuffield Advanced Biology, which I think will go a long way also for biology, it is very relevant and it takes contexts that would appeal to the students. And I think there are some proposals of that nature happening also in other subjects.
  (Ms Wilson) I think, in principle, we would support the notion of ASs which did not necessarily lead directly to an A level, which might be of interest as a contrasting subject in the science areas for a student who tends towards the humanities. One of the problems we have, though, is we must safeguard progression, and we do not have sufficient teachers to teach the diversity of courses, and until we get perhaps more modular frameworks, so that modules can be used in different pathways, we are faced with a teaching resource which can barely cope with teaching the standard science subjects post-16. So, yes, we would like to see a variety, but we have to be aware of the resource that we have to teach.

Dr Murrison

  37. I am concerned about the number of girls going in to study science subjects, and we have heard that there does not appear to be too much difficulty persuading them to study biology, but we do have some way to go with respect to physics and maths. I wonder if anybody thinks that perhaps a change in the curriculum might be able to address the discrepancy between the number of boys studying maths and physics and the number of girls?
  (Ms Day) I think, also, part of the reason for the gender differences goes back much earlier, even than, say, 10-14; I think they start earlier than that; there is quite a lot of evidence and research to show that; for boys, in particular, I think it starts earlier, between the years of 4 and 9, and for girls a little bit later. So I think some of the differences are maybe deep-rooted, cultural differences, not necessarily just of the curriculum.
  (Ms Wilson) I think that the curriculum can make a difference: teaching styles, the range of teaching, the repertoire of teaching. Girls tend to approach things differently from boys, and you need to take account of that in the teaching. Before we established our Advancing Physics project, we did do a survey of what it was that turned people on to physics or turned them off physics, post-16, and very often it was the quality of the teaching, or the nature of the teaching they had in the Key Stage 4 years; and, as Georgina Day said, probably we have got more physics taught by non-physicists than we have got chemistry taught by non-chemists, and biology taught by non-biologists in this phase. So the teacher supply issue is a major factor, I think, in determining whether girls carry on with physics post-16; if they have had a bad experience pre-16 then they will not continue post-16.

  38. But those influences bear equally upon girls as they do on boys, do they not?
  (Ms Wilson) There is evidence, as I say, that boys will pursue something if they can see the longer-term goal and they have confidence; and girls do not have the same confidence, in general. Now it is always difficult, if you start talking in stereotypical terms, but girls need to be encouraged that they can do things more, and if they are not getting the picture of what they could do if they continued with the sciences, and they are not getting the reinforcement from the teaching style to which they are exposed, pre-16, or they see it as the teaching style, post-16, as not being sympathetic to their needs, then they will not continue. There is some evidence, but it is only anecdotal at this stage—I have tried to get some figures to confirm it—that our Advancing Physics scheme has been more successful in attracting girls to study physics post-16 than the traditional schemes.

  39. It is quite an important area, because if there are issues to do with the curriculum then this Committee can make recommendations, perhaps; if there are more deep-seated, cultural reasons why girls are not pursuing maths and physics then perhaps our ability to influence the uptake of maths and physics by girls is rather more finite. The people who have not spoken on this particular issue, I wonder if you could comment, very briefly, on whether you feel there is a curriculum issue that we could pursue, or whether, in fact, it is mainly a cultural issue?
  (Ms Allen) In terms of maths, there is some indication that it is the nature of the subject, the abstract nature, so the children are not relating it to the world around themselves. And there are some projects which are looking at the teaching style; so where they are adopting in the maths lessons and also the interactive project base in their discussion, that raises the standards of attainment and the engagement of the pupils and their continuing with it. So maybe there is an issue there, actually to look at how maths is taught within the classroom. But then you come back to the issue of supply of maths teachers, and you have a shortage, from a recent date, of 1½ maths teachers short per secondary school; and there is currently a survey going on to look at the actual profile of teachers' backgrounds within maths departments, but that is not released yet, and that might be quite informative.
  (Mr Thomas) I have not seen any evidence to suggest that there is something in the curriculum which is putting off girls more than boys. I would suggest that, if this Committee were to recommend something which might have an impact on this, it would be for the Office of Science and Technology to fund schemes which put women as role models in the situation where they were accessible to school pupils, whether it be through the Science and Engineering Ambassador Scheme, or Athena project, or whatever, I would see that as having a positive influence on take-up, post-16.
  (Ms Day) Can I just add to that, very briefly, just to say that, even if a lot of the differences are cultural, they can be modified through taking into account those things in the curriculum and making it relevant to the girls, as they feel it, and as they come up with their perceptions of themselves and through the role models.
  (Dr Osborne) Yes, I think teaching styles is one of the factors, but also the kind of context in which you present the curriculum. It is too easy, actually, to go through a traditional kind of context, which would, necessarily, probably, often, be one which would influence boys.
  (Ms Wilson) But it is not a simple issue, and I think the history of science education in the last century was peppered with groups that tried to look at the girls and physical sciences issue. They could always come up with a variety of reasons why girls are put off subjects sooner than boys, and that all of them probably have an effect with one girl or another, but actually to identify which is the major one, is extremely difficult.
  (Dr Osborne) The fact that we have double award science now, of course, means that, at least, nearly all girls, up to the age of 16, do have the experience, which, of course, beforehand, they did not.

2   Note by witness: Biology mixes well with other subjects, so in post-16 take-up more pupils are likely to choose biology as an option when they are taking mixed combinations of science and other subjects than, for example, physics, which tends to be taken only with maths and sciences. Back

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