Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 265-280)



  Chairman: Welcome. You have seen the format of it now so you are not thrown in and you have seen how we work. I am going to pass over to my two colleagues David and Parmjit to talk to you and ask questions.

Mr Heath

  265. Shall we kick off with exactly the same format as last time and ask you to introduce yourselves but also to say the three areas that you see as being key to 14 to 19 science education. Who wants to kick off?
  (Mr Collins) One thing I wanted to say is quite pertinent to the discussion that has gone before. I know the focus is on 14 to 19 but I think it is worth noting something about Key Stage 3. It is very clear that is intended to be a foundation for what follows on and it is becoming increasingly the case—this is my personal view—that by the end of Key Stage 3 we have probably taught most of the science that we would want everybody to have been grilled in. I think the Key Stage 3 science strategy, which I have not heard mentioned, was enormously welcomed. I would like to be a bit more up-beat than I have been hearing in this discussion. Certainly the Key Stage 3 strategy is a massive investment in the professional development of science teachers and also how to teach practical work and investigation work better, which they are pretty good at but to get better at. That is fairly healthy. I would say Key Stage 3 is still overloaded because it does not leave enough space for the more investigative work. I am glad to hear you mention awe and wonder because I also find that you do not have to do very much to get awe and wonder out of 11-year-old students. Realising that an image in a mirror is not actually on the mirror is sometimes enough. For post-14 I do not think there is a clear view about why we are making students study science. I think we should but I do not think the answer is the same for all students. It is clear that it is recognisably academic preparation for further advanced study but that really is not appropriate or necessary for all students, and yet I think still GCSE syllabuses are structured around that idea, that that is what the course is for, and for those who are not going to study further what they get is a watered down version of it, which is not very motivating and it becomes very repetitive. It is probably the case that students will be repeating exactly the experiment you described in Key Stage 4, having done it at Key Stage 3. It might be the teacher's intention to tackle it at a theoretically higher level, but the students are experiencing the same experiments.

Mr Dhanda

  266. Is that a feeling across the board? Is anybody going to disagree?
  (Ms Thomas) Which particular bit? Mike said a lot.

  267. The repetition in particular but any other aspects of what Mike said.
  (Mr Walsh) Mike is absolutely right to raise the issue of Key Stage 3 science and what is going on there and to look quite critically at the way the Key Stage 4 is built on that. One of the things that ought to be characterised in Key Stage 4 is that there we ought to be homing in more on particular case studies and particular examples that students find interesting, stimulating and motivating. If we are smart in the way that we plan our strategies and the way that we plan our lessons, we can integrate the process skills that we want to communicate with the particular case studies such as energy provision, cloning and genetic engineering, so we can put the subject across in a more topical way. An awful lot of what we teach at the moment is bread-and-butter stuff and some of it is fairly repetitive. The other thing I would like to add on this is that a very important element of Key Stage 3 is that, as you are probably aware, the qualifications and curriculum authority has produced a scheme of work for Key Stage 3 which is not compulsory but one of the things it does that is very, very valuable is to integrate good practice in the lab with the aims and objectives of lessons. So it means that when staff are working from this that there are lots of good ideas for sparking lessons up and making them interesting, stimulating and motivating. What is happening in Key Stage 4 is the exam boards have become very concerned with what is taught and how it is assessed and less concerned with how it is taught. That is the point with which we are starting to have difficulties.
  (Dr Susan Turner) Scientists in general would welcome the Key Stage 3 national strategy and the changes that is going to bring to the style of teaching and the focus not just on content but on the way that it is taught and delivered working on good practice in Key Stage 2. Like these other two teachers here I would also say that what we provide at Key Stage 4 does not meet the needs of all of our students, it does not meet the needs of the least able because we cannot motivate them by what we show them.

  268. Can you be specific in terms of the changes that you would make to the syllabus?
  (Dr Susan Turner) Yes. One of the main things that really motivates students is practical work and for my work as well I find that it is the human interest, it is the stories behind science, that fascinates some students. I would want to make sure that there is a huge amount of practical work, so they see the explosions of the sodium on the water, they smell the smells, they experience science first hand, that is still incredibly valuable for everybody. But on top of that I would like to see perhaps an academic add-on to that for students who want to take it post-16, perhaps science in society along the lines of science for public understanding that would pick up—

  269. Science in society?
  (Dr Turner) Yes, like the AS science for public understanding that looks at science in the modern world and how that fits in sociologically. I would like to see some things about science at work to try to encourage more students especially in our part of the world, the South East, to take up careers in science and become science teachers so we have more science teachers because we are short on those.

Mr Heath

  270. Can I ask you because you have not had a chance?
  (Ms Thomas) I am just listening.

  271. I am inviting you to do more than listen!
  (Ms Thomas) I am extremely positive about science teaching. My experience in the three schools I have been in recently is that there is an extremely good set of science teachers out there and I do not think they get enough publicity personally. There are a lot of good ideas and a lot of good curriculum innovations but perhaps they are not coherent enough. I suppose my points are more philosophical in a sense. I have not got a hang-up about practical or lack of it at all. We put practical in where we think it is needed. I do not necessarily think kids are as enthused as they were in the past about practical. I think I have got a slightly different opinion there. I think if you have got the right way to teach something and you have got the right strategy you can enthuse a kid about anything and I have seen that happen, even a blast furnace. If taught properly in a way that is going to stimulate, it will happen for them. I think this all boils down to good professional development, which is where the Association for Science Education is making great leaps and bounds here because they really are supporting good staff development for science teachers. My feeling is that a lot of the problems boil down to the narrowness of the assessment tools that we use. I have a huge hang-up about failing kids right the way from primary school upwards, it is something the English education system has done all the way through. I have taught GNVQ and AVCE and various other things and it is terribly motivating for those kids who—I have got two kids who have come back to teach with me who were both failures and in special needs classes and they have now gone through what was GNVQ Advanced, did their degree, went to teacher training and are back teaching with me now. I found that tremendously motivating for myself to think that these kids were written off as failures lower down the school and yet managed to make it through. I believe in diversity. I come from an area which is very deprived, the parents are not very educationally motivated, let us say, so the kids are not either. I welcome the discussions at the moment. I am very positive about what is being discussed about diversity of the curriculum. My one worry is the apparent lack of coherence. You speak to people from QCA and each person you speak to has a slightly different view of what is going on. I do welcome these discussions, I really do. I think it is going in the right direction, I just hope it does not fall at the hurdle where all these nice innovative ideas are going around in people's heads and then it does not go any further. What I do not want is the assessment tools that are being used now and undermining kids all the way through perpetuated throughout these new diverse courses. I think one size does not fit all, that is absolutely obvious, the National Curriculum does not fit all in the sense that it is now and we need diversity and I think that is the direction we are going, I am absolutely positive, but it just needs careful watching I think.

  272. Before we leave the subject of the curriculum, many of us as Members of the Committee have spent the last few weeks visiting schools in our own constituencies, a range of different schools, talking to kids directly and some of the points that were brought out to me were first of all this issue of repetition, which I had reported to me in every school I visited I think, they were fed up with seeing the same thing being done, they were saying they had seen it at primary and middle school as well and although it was at a different level of understanding it was very hard for them to get excited about seeing the same demonstration three or four times. The second was a feeling that in comparison with humanities they were being asked to learn an awful lot of facts and that was putting them off because it was difficult, science was considered by most of them to be a difficult subject even if they were able at it compared with other subjects. The third was the narrowness of the curriculum, that they were not able to explore some of the things that really excited them which we might think were peripheral to the core curriculum but nevertheless were the things that really turned them on, things they see on television, astronomy, palaeontology, whatever. The fourth was the transitions between the different assessments, the fact that from Key Stage 3 on to GCSE they found a big jump between GCSE and AS level and an even bigger jump between AS and A level. Does all that ring bells with you? I see there are lots of nods. From your side of the fence would that be your assessment as well?
  (Mr Walsh) I think one of the things that has happened is in some ways our colleagues who are teaching in areas like geography and history, to take those examples, have grasped a nettle that we have backed off from a little bit. They do not try to teach the whole gamut of history or the geography of the whole world but I think we are still hung up at Key Stage 4 in trying to cover all areas of science and that is a mistake.

  273. So we do too much 19th Century science?
  (Mr Collins) We are jumping to the tune of the National Curriculum and the exam boards. They have taken a bit of a pounding this afternoon and I think that is because of our experience of them organisationally more than what they demand that we teach. They are jumping to QCA's tune. There is not a lot of choice about what goes in the science syllabus, it has got to be the National Curriculum, so in a sense our beef is with the National Curriculum post-14. I am getting the sense that that is behind the Green Paper so I just want to echo what Sylvia was saying, we want different science courses rather than just GCSE because one size does not fit all. I would like people to be clear about what they are for. Some will not be to train future scientists but they may well be to train people to not have a hostility towards science because they can talk about it and engage and understand some of the processes that drive things. I think we need different courses.
  (Mr Walsh) I think one of the difficulties is because we are insisting on dragging people through the whole gamut, the whole range of sciences between 14 and 16 that, therefore, it is turning people off. Sometimes we do not quite appreciate the difference between difficult and challenging. When people turn round and say "science is difficult" it almost becomes like a badge of honour if we are not careful, "Of course we are people who understand difficult things". I think the challenge for us is to change it from being a difficult subject into being a challenging subject. I think the way forward on that is for us to look more at the kinds of examples of work that pupils are quite capable of understanding and making sense of, exploring, because they are topical and they are relevant and they are challenging, and also that they have dimensions beyond straight science as well because they have moral and ethical dimensions and quite often those are the ones that pupils will pick up on and get enthused about.

  274. Do you feel able to teach that, as a matter of interest?
  (Mr Walsh) I do, but I am not sure that all science teachers do.
  (Mr Collins) One of the points I want to raise is we are painting this beautiful new future but there is a huge professional development issue. Also, if we are to teach science in real contexts, which I think is really important, some of the science that we do should be engaging with real work contexts and schools are not equipped to do it if it needs a large workshop or complex machinery. They are perfectly capable of learning about it and doing it, I have seen 15 year olds on work experience quite cheerfully operating gas chromatography machines, but we are not going to find those in schools. So there is a different way of operating post-14 education which is outside the boundaries of schools which needs to be there as well.
  (Mr Walsh) One of the interesting ways forward is the vocational GCSE starting from this September which is giving an alternative route up to completing the National Curriculum, but it is reducing formal content and applying a narrower content in a wider range of contexts.

Mr Dhanda

  275. We have got a lovely spread of you from across the country, from Bristol, Walsall, Woking and Truro. Sylvia, you have mentioned working in a deprived area. I would be interested to know some of the differences and particular challenges you find in your patches, whether they happen to be particularly deprived or working class or rural areas.
  (Ms Thomas) Can I make a comment on this business of science being perceived as difficult? I think it depends on the ethos of the science department. It becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy if the teachers are exuding this idea that science is difficult. We do not do that, we say that you can do it, and the children do not come into us feeling that science is difficult. It is just as difficult as any other subject in the school. So I think it comes down to the ethos of the department, but that is just an aside. In terms of our area being deprived, it is more the resource implications than anything else. We do a lot with our kids—and I am sure that a lot of other schools do—taking them out and about and doing extra things with the booster money we have got which has been very welcome, I have to say. You have got to be innovative with the money that you have got. It is whether people feel they can go off and do what they want to do or whether they feel they have got to stay within the restrictive bounds of what is down in black and white. Our major problem is ICT, simply because there is a major requirement for us to be involved in ICT. The National Curriculum demands it anyway and, even if it did not, I would expect us to be at the forefront of ICT in schools. We are going for science specialist status just so we can get more technology in our school. It is completely against my philosophy but if we cannot get money any other way we have got to look at ideas like that to get more money into the school. I would suggest, echoing the previous group, that the resource implications and quality teachers are major issues. We get some absolutely appalling supply teachers in who I do not want anywhere near the laboratory let alone near my kids. I am disgusted at what we are having to employ. I would much rather put in one of my technicians.

  276. Is that particular to how deprived your area is?
  (Ms Thomas) They do not want to come to Darlaston, that is for sure. The people in there do not have a problem. But, yes, we do struggle to get decent supply. We are having people coming in from abroad, with no disrespect to them personally, who cannot even speak our language properly and they are expecting to stand into front of a class and teach science. It is absolutely ridiculous. Poor long-term supply is the thing that is letting us down more than anything else at the moment.
  (Mr Collins) It is not exactly the same but it is a very deprived area of Bristol that my school serves. It is odd; supply is difficult nationally but we are not having a particularly acute problem. I think it might be quite a local thing. We do not experience quite the same difficulty. I am glad you have mentioned it because one thing for me that is missing from the Green Paper is some notion of inclusion and I think there is a huge gap because it is talking about the standard of five A to Cs and potentially that excludes 20 per cent of the population from the possibility of graduating unless alternative routes are accreditable. Certainly in our area we have an issue with disaffection.

Mr Heath

  277. Can we do the rural bit, because Ed comes from a school in the poorest of the areas represented?
  (Mr Walsh) There is quite a big issue for us in terms of widening horizons. If we are putting science in context, I think it is very important that there is some immediate context of agriculture and fishing, but there are other contexts which are much much harder to communicate effectively. That sometimes has greater resource implications in terms of how to get pupils to understand what heavy industry is like or working in populated areas is like. Those are the challenges that we face.

Bob Spink

  278. I am going to quickly slot myself into the role of agent provocateur, I can see, Chairman. We have talked about so many things tonight. We have talked about resources, supply teachers, the curriculum, the subject content, the exam boards. One area we have not looked at is the kids themselves. Do you think that part of the problem might be that modern day children just are not as bright as they were 10, 15 or 20 years ago? Let me finish. Do you think there is a possibility that they are sat too long in front of computers and with calculators in primary schools and they do not now learn the basic mathematics of operations so they just do not understand it and that is one of the factors why they find science harder and are more turned off and it is more difficult to teach and that means it is more difficult to get good teachers? Is that a factor?
  (Dr Susan Turner) I think children are different now. Children would expect to respond to TV, to Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and who perhaps have shorter attention spans. Our teaching should reflect some of that so that we grab their attention and give them the awe and wonder from their point of view rather than trying to teach them science from 30 years ago. Yes, they are different. I am not sure they are worse; I think they are very different.
  (Mr Walsh) They are quite discerning and not easily impressed and they are more prepared to challenge authority, not necessarily in a destructive way. If they think that what you are trying to palm them off with is bunkum and does not hold water, they are more inclined to say so.

Dr Iddon

  279. I do not think we can let the two groups of teachers go without asking at least one of the groups what is the importance of your colleagues who teach mathematics to your ability to teach science?
  (Dr Susan Turner) We are all teachers of mathematics. Every teacher will teach some mathematics in their classroom, whether in science or English or maths. Certainly maths is strongly needed for the higher levels of science. I think all of us now know about numeracy across the curriculum and we make sure that we teach in a congruent way to the mathematics teachers to ensure that we use the same language so the students are not confused by what we teach. The content of the syllabus is now far less mathematical than it was when we were at school so I do not think it is something that ought to limit them.

  280. Do the children see the relevance of mathematics to science teaching?
  (Mr Walsh) There is quite a lot of research to indicate that pupils find it quite difficult to transfer knowledge from one classroom to another classroom. We take away all the visual cues, it is a different room, it is a different subject title, it is a different person in front of them, but we still expect them to understand scatter graphs and lines of best fit and then we are surprised when they do not immediately pick up on this. I agree with Susan very much. Part of the key to this is common language but also numeracy across the curriculum is absolutely essential so that we are singing from the same hymn sheet and reinforcing these skills across the board.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. It was very short and again we could have gone on for hours.


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