Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence



Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320-332)

MS JANE CLIFFORD AND MR CHRIS ROBERTS

MONDAY 25 MARCH 2002

  320. This is a really serious issue?
  (Ms Clifford) Yes, a very, very serious one.
  (Mr Roberts) It is a widespread problem. I am interviewing tomorrow for a third time for a biology teacher and in the meanwhile we have great difficulty.

  321. Normally biology should be the easiest to fill?
  (Mr Roberts) You might think so, yes.

  322. You must have terrible difficulty with physicists and chemists?
  (Mr Roberts) We have difficulty right across the range in science, yes we do.
  (Ms Clifford) Can I just say that the problem we have got is that we have got a declining population of science students in FE sixth forms and in universities.

Chairman

  323. Have you quantified that down in numbers?
  (Ms Clifford) They have been quantified in the AoC paper. We have also got a recruitment problem. I have got staff now who are coming up to retirement. I think we are going to reach a stage at which there will not be anybody to teach science. So there are two problems; the problem about motivating the students—and I think we probably do that through the curriculum—

  324. Where has that been flagged up before? It has never been screaming headlines that I have seen.
  (Ms Clifford) The Association of Colleges flag it up quite a lot.

  Chairman: Okay. Andrew?

Dr Murrison

  325. Can I touch on something which to a lot of people may sound a little prosaic—health and safety. One of the things that has concerned us is that the advent of health and safety might have limited the range of practical work that is carried out in science teaching. Have you got any thoughts on that?
  (Mr Roberts) It has not limited the range of practical work in my experience, no, providing you prepare properly and thoroughly for what you are going to do. It has limited a number of practicals, for example, in biology with body fluids, that kind of thing, but I would say there is a rich variety of practical work that we can still do.
  (Ms Clifford) I agree with that, but I also think that there is a decline in practical work particularly in AS and A2 that we are dealing with which has been brought about by the funding issues which came about through Curriculum 2000. The Government wanted to broaden the curriculum but because we have had to reduce our teaching hours and the timing of examinations has been squashed, and given the specifications we have got, which are very purist and very theoretical, we just cannot get that knowledge across and do practicals, so the practical element is fast disappearing. It is that that hooks the students, it is that that interests the students. If you can do practicals you have got a curriculum which relates to the students' lives, relates to things that are going on around them, and if they can see that then you are in with a chance.

Chairman

  326. Has anybody ever come up with a perfect practical curriculum? Has anybody been that bold and said what every young person should have in their science teaching?
  (Ms Clifford) Salters and Nuffield have been very good specifications but, honestly, although they are issues based, they are skills based, they grab the students' attention, they are very much student centred so they are focused on what students want to do, there is a time constraint on what you can do and most FE colleges choose not to do them because of that time constraint.

Mr McWalter

  327. You said, Jane, that somewhere pupils get turned off. I think that is probably why we are having this inquiry. You have indicated that you have some ideas about how you might turn them on but it is by having a course which is perhaps not called physics but something else and it is orientated around students' interests and application. Have you solved the problem?
  (Ms Clifford) No, I do not think I have—

  328. Can you help us solve the problem?
  (Mr Roberts) The problem has been partially addressed by the GNVQs which have had a rather colourful history, but they did address the needs of a whole swathe of young people. These were young people who were not attracted by the exam dominated AS/A-levels but preferred a more practical, contextualised sort of course. Unfortunately, the GNVQ is hamstrung by being a very complex, unnecessarily complex, bureaucratic course, but at the heart of it it had something that students valued. We managed to get students into the college who otherwise would not have continued with their education after 16. I am afraid that because AS/A-levels seem to be seen as the pedagogic model, the AVCE, as it now is, has drifted closely to that kind of curriculum and it is turning students off. We are seeing a decline in interest and a decline in success rates in students who would have come in that area.

  329. Do you think it is rationalised by students in that if they carry on with science it is poorly remunerated—and we heard from some people who get paid 9,000 per annum—whereas if they go into other areas such as law, accountancy, whatever, they, apparently, have a much brighter future in terms of earnings and comfort of lifestyle and so on. Is it not rational for them to say, "I do not really like that. I do not want to do it. I am going to do something which is much more prestigious, much more remunerative and much less hard work?"
  (Mr Roberts) We are not being fair to students or offering them the kind of curriculum that engages with their interest. There are lots of young people who are interested in science and careers in science and the doors are closed to them because the courses that provide the pathways are very, very restrictive.

  330. I am particularly interested in the mathematical side of this. One part of the rationality is do a course with lots of maths, go into an exam and get nought, which will not happen if you are asked to write an essay. Even if you are good at it, you have the sense that, "I can manage this but the next step on looks horrendously difficult. I have looked at the back of the book and the equations for the hydrogen atom are appalling." People know that it is going to get really, really tough if they stay on so they get out. Is it not the case that it is rational for people in the end to vote with their feet if they are offered, on the one hand, a course that looks as though it is going to get very, very difficult and on the other a course that looks as though it is going to get easier?
  (Mr Roberts) Maybe in my area we have got different experience to other science departments. We have experienced a year-on-year growth in AS-levels and A-levels. The students clearly do value those qualifications, but even more so in the vocational areas. What drives our curriculum development is the expressed interests of the people that come to us. If they say they are interested in getting into ophthalmics or pharmacy or sports, or whatever it is, we will try to find the courses that will engage those young people. That is the way the curriculum needs to go. It is not a matter of trying to fit the students into the existing courses. It is trying to develop the courses that meet student need. We have been very unsuccessful in doing that in science.

  331. All of your examples are biological sciences and not mathematically based sciences. Every single time you mention relevance it is all biological sciences.
  (Mr Roberts) Opthalmics and pharmacy are very, very mathematical. Believe me, ophthalmics has some very sophisticated mathematics.

Chairman

  332. So does philosophy, I seem to remember, have mathematics. I am sorry but your time is up. Again you have contributed to our knowledge and I am sure that the Committee has been very stimulated by some of your ideas. I know you feel it is not enough and you could go on for hours but that is the nature of the Committee.
  (Mr Roberts) Could I leave you with one inspirational example. It is four female Asian students from my college who got between them grade Ds, Es and Fs in their GCSEs. One is doing a degree in bio-medical science, one is a pharmacy technician, and two are still studying. I would like to leave those for your perusal.

  Chairman: I am sure that will stimulate us. Thank you very much for taking the time to come.


 


 
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