Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 281-299)



  Chairman: Welcome. We are very glad to see you here with a different aspect to science education in schools. Brian Iddon will start off with one or two questions.

Dr Iddon

  281. I can see that you are from a very diverse range of backgrounds and I am pleased about that. I am looking forward to talking to you. We will start off with the same question that we are throwing to all groups this evening and that is, can you flag up the three key issues for this age group that you think are important?
  (Ms Halton) The main one is practical work. The students love practical work. If you are going to do good quality practical work then a good quality technician is vital. They can provide good quality solutions, equipment and technical knowledge which can do an awful lot to help the students to understand what they are supposed to be doing.
  (Mr Peel) Obviously what Gill says is really important and all the science teachers here today have emphasised the importance of practical work and they know how important technicians are to that. One of the problems is that other people outside the science department do not always recognise the really important role that technicians can have in advising teachers and students. When I say "teachers", in particular I mean newly qualified teachers and student teachers, because many technicians have a vast array of knowledge, they are very experienced and have got a lot of skills and these new teachers come into teaching and the technicians can give them a lot of technical and health and safety advice. Therefore, their first experience of teaching can be a positive one and hopefully we do not have all this business about teachers giving up because they have not had a good experience of teaching early on. The role of technicians is not always recognised outside the science department.

  282. Jean, you have had a lot of experience.
  (Ms Skeggs) Yes, I have. I agree with what Chris was saying. The thing with newly qualified teachers, and we do have to emphasise this, is they take a lot of technician time because they come into the school, and I feel sorry for them actually, because they have to come straight into a full curriculum, they have not got the experience, they have not had the time to try out the practicals, heads of science and teachers have not got time to show them, not because they do not want to but they have not got time themselves, so what happens is the technician usually shows them what to do and supports them even in the classroom as well. That is fine if you have got a trained technician but not all technicians are trained, some are returnee mums, some are welfare assistants who have come into the job because they cannot get trained technicians. The problem is that it puts the teachers off teaching because they have not had those practical skills in college and I think that is so important. The other thing is they come in teaching outside their specialism and that is a real problem because what happens is if you have got modular science and say you are a biology teacher and you have got physics modules, they have not had the experience at college or within their training and they skim over those modules so the children get demotivated. There is a lack of good trained technicians in physics, usually they are retiree engineers from British Aerospace and people like that who come in and do physics. There are very few training courses for technicians to do physics and, therefore, they cannot support the teachers in the classroom. I would say that we really do need some training for technicians to support teachers. We are also supporting teachers in the classroom as well.

  283. I will come back to training in a moment. Catherine, would you like to add anything to what has already been said?
  (Ms Crocker) I think the biggest problem that I see is the lack of technician resource. In our college we are having problems in recruiting. The last three posts that we advertised had to be advertised twice, there just were not the technicians out there. I think the reason for that is there is no national pay scale, there tends to be a price for the job. In most places there is no differentiation between a trainee technician and a senior technician. I am paid the same, a little bit more, as a senior technician as I would be as a trainee technician, there is just a price for the job, especially in schools where there is maybe a chemistry technician, a physics technician and a biology technician. It is not a very attractive career to go in really. I think most of us who are technicians feel that it is a career and the teaching staff we work with see us as professional people but often at the science department door, that is where it stops.

  284. Let us look at training a little more closely. Near your school is there a training facility for technicians? How far would we have to travel from your school to gain training status?
  (Mr Peel) There is not a training facility as such for technicians. There are short courses which will support, perhaps, the NVQ that is offered now for technicians, but that is a skills base, it is not a training course itself, it is recognising the skills that perhaps technicians already have. There are short courses that are offered by various organisations where most of the technicians gain their skills at the moment.

  285. So, Chris, you are a chief technician, what do you think we should be doing in this sphere of recruiting and training more technicians?
  (Mr Peel) The problem with recruitment is what Catherine has already said. As well as the fact that there is no national pay and grade structure, approximately half the technicians in the country are part-time or term time only. It is really difficult to recruit when that is the case because it does not promote the idea of being a technician as a professional occupation, it is more of a stopgap job if you are only going to get a proportion of a salary. That is one of the reasons why perhaps there are not enough technicians. Another reason is that perhaps schools historically do not employ enough for the science curriculum they offer. The whole situation is based on the fact that many technicians, because there is no national pay structure, are paid incredibly low salaries, so it is really difficult to recruit. I have done some figures, which I will not bore you with now.


  286. Please submit them to us.
  (Mr Peel) In my role at CLEAPSS I am working on a document about technicians and their jobs, so I have been researching for seven months now, and many technicians' actual salaries are on average 9,000 a year, taking into account that they are term time only perhaps and perhaps 30 hours a week.

Dr Iddon

  287. Could I just pick you up on that term time only? How common is it for schools to employ technicians and pay them just for term time; in other words they have to fend for themselves the rest of the time?
  (Mr Peel) About half. That is what the report said. It is about half of all technicians who are paid term time only, it may be more.
  (Ms Skeggs) That is growing.

  Dr Iddon: So there is a real problem there.


  288. Which bodies represent you nationally?
  (Ms Skeggs) UNISON and ASE.

  289. There are trade unions who represent you?
  (Ms Skeggs) UNISON and people like that.
  (Mr Peel) That is the unions.
  (Ms Skeggs) And the ASE mainly.

Dr Iddon

  290. You are not represented by something like the MSF, for example?
  (Ms Skeggs) No.
  (Mr Peel) No. They will not take local council staff.
  (Ms Skeggs) If I could just carry on from Chris? The thing is that with the training what happens is, because they are term time only, they have no time to repair the equipment and this is where the safety issue comes in. I am very aware of that because certainly when I started as a technician you always got paid term time plus two or four weeks and within that time you could repair equipment but we cannot do that now and because there is a shortage of technicians within the schools they have not got time to do it during the day. There is long-term sickness with technicians as well and we do not have supply technicians. I was in a school the other day and they had had 26 supply teachers since Christmas because they would not stay, so what happens is the technician spends all his or her time sorting out the supply teachers, which is a terrible waste of their skills. Other technicians have not got training and do need that.

  291. When you started in—
  (Ms Skeggs) 1974.

  292. You have had a long experience in this profession, I can see that. When you started, were things quite different?
  (Ms Skeggs) Absolutely.

  293. Have they changed recently?
  (Ms Skeggs) Three full-time technicians in a school of 700, and two part-time.

  294. When did this progressive decline occur?
  (Ms Skeggs) What is happening is that my age group are now retiring and because we have got no career structure in place we are not recruiting young people into the profession and this is what we desperately need. The fact that we have been invited along today is very positive and we are very thankful for that. Also, the Government have put an NVQ in place supposedly alongside the Modern Apprenticeship Scheme. We have heard nothing about that just recently but that would encourage youngsters into the profession and would support teachers in the classroom.

  Dr Iddon: We need better salaries obviously and we have heard that before.

Dr Murrison

  295. Can I ask you about health and safety. It seems to me that as a profession you are in the forefront of health and safety in the classroom and one of the things that has occurred to us is that concerns over health and safety, which are ubiquitous these days, may be limiting the range of practical work that is carried out in science teaching. Have you got any views on that?
  (Mr Peel) Yes, the organisation I work for (CLEAPSS) as a part-time technician, advise all the schools in every LEA and most independent schools and they incorporate the colleges all over the country on safety as well as other science issues. They are very adamant that there is more that you can do now since the advent of risk assessments than you could do before those. It is a misconception that things are banned. All you have to do is a proper risk assessment. Schools often use the excuse that they cannot do so much practical work any more because so much has been banned. The reality is that have not got enough technical support to do the practical work that they want to do.


  296. Is the problem the number of posts? If we doubled the number of posts overnight, would there be technicians to fill them?
  (Mr Peel) Yes, but perhaps not trained. You would need an induction programme and a training programme. You may be able to recruit some if, again, the salaries were better. There might be some out there that would move across from other areas.

  297. How many empty posts are there now? Has that been estimated?
  (Mr Peel) 4,000.
  (Ms Skeggs) 4,000.

  298. You said that in harmony, that is wonderful, we can believe that figure. 4,000 and you all work in the kitchen place at the back of the lab. I went to one on Friday and there were four people climbing all over each other and there was not an inch of space. You always get the worst facilities in the labs and you are the last to be taken care of. Is that right?
  (Ms Skeggs) Yes.
  (Ms Halton) Yes.

Dr Iddon

  299. Can I go back to safety and ask Chris who is responsible for doing the COSH assessment of the control of substances?
  (Mr Peel) In reality I would say probably the head of science but the employer is ultimately responsible. What often happens is that the technicians take responsibility. Again, they cannot be held responsible because they do not get paid enough to be responsible for safety. They are responsible for the safety of the technician activities and that is all, but many of them do far wider risk assessments for the class activities because they have the expertise.


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