Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 540-556)




  540.  I think we are only going to resolve this, frankly, I will have to be a tough Chairman here and say we are only really going to resolve this when we get the figures, and we will look at them again.
  (Mr Timms) I will be very happy to do that.

  541.  You know the questions, you know the mode of questioning here, what we are trying to find out; either agree with us or deny it, when you get your figures together.
  (Mr Timms) Yes, okay.

Dr Iddon

  542.  And perhaps, Chairman, Ms Dallas could make some comment on the lack of specialist teachers in the teaching of science. I have even come across non-scientists trying to teach scientific subjects and they are hopeless at doing the practical because they have never done it themselves?
  (Mr Timms) Let me make it very clear to the Committee, I am not, for one moment, suggesting I do not think there is a problem here, there certainly are problems, some major challenges, for us to address, and I hope I am not giving the impression that I think everything is fine, I certainly do not believe that; but I would be very happy to respond in detail about the figures.

  Chairman: It is easy to get, the percentage increase in computer sciences should balance out the decrease in the others; even I could work that out. Brian, could we move on then to the next one, about teachers.

Dr Iddon

  543.  This is an easy one and probably not controversial. Could you tell us where the Department is at, in establishing the National Centre for Excellence in Science Teaching, and when it might begin operating, Minister, please?
  (Mr Timms) Yes, I can. We are consulting at the moment on the National Centre; that consultation runs until 8 May. We will then obviously be reviewing the consultation responses, and I would hope that the Centre will be up and running in some form by next year. Now whether it will be fully up and running by next year will depend on whether there is going to be a new building for it, where it is going to be located, there will be some decisions of that kind still to be made; but, certainly, within two years I would expect the National Centre to be fully operational.

  544.  During the lifetime of a science teacher things change dramatically, the frontiers of science are going faster than anybody in a university can keep up with, very often, and that involves a process of retraining, I think, for science teachers. Will this new Centre for Excellence give teachers that opportunity for retraining?
  (Mr Timms) Yes, it will. I think that will be a very important element of its work. And what we envisage is a network of establishments, the National Centre but perhaps ten regional bases as well, where it will be possible for teachers to receive continuing professional development in science, and that is going to be a very, very important element of the Centre's work. We have got an ambitious and, I think, quite bold strategy for continuing professional development of teachers, and I agree with you that in an area like science that is particularly important, and we do see the National Centre playing an important role.

Mr Harris

  545.  Minister, one of the issues that has come regularly, when we are speaking to young people, is the importance of keeping subjects relevant. Can I ask you, as the Minister responsible for science education in schools, how relevant you personally believe the teaching of creationism is to pupils, to teenagers, as an alternative to science?
  (Mr Timms) Not very, I think is my answer to your question. I am aware of reports about one school; my understanding is that creationism is not taught as part of a science curriculum in that school, although the Chief Inspector has written to the school to clarify the position. But, of course, creationism is not part of the National Curriculum in science, nor should it be.

  546.  But we can assume that the Government and yourself would be concerned about any other schools going down that particular road?
  (Mr Timms) I do not think schools teaching the National Curriculum will be going down that road, and it is not part of the National Curriculum, nor should it be.


  547.  Are there any other subjects you fear might be taught in science that would create great dilemmas, philosophical dilemmas, if I might use that; are there any other things that we can foresee might come up, has the Department looked into that?
  (Mr Timms) I am not aware of any, no.
  (Ms Dallas) I suppose that one thing that you could get very tied up in knots about are things like genetic engineering. But, in a way, if you are to open up the science curriculum so that it is the subject of informed debate, you need to have the scientific facts and the basis for rational discussion, so that pupils are able to be informed and able to draw their own conclusions, based on fact, and the opportunity to look at a range of views across the piece, as part of the whole process of scientific literacy, which was where we started off.

  Chairman: If I could just add, one school I went to, called the Notre Dame High School, in Norwich, they taught the problems with stem cells in their religious classes, and not in science, which was quite interesting.

Dr Iddon

  548.  Can I just follow that up and say, Chairman, that some of the evidence we have had, in this investigation, has suggested that scientists do not feel comfortable about teaching the ethical and other issues, apart from the pure science; so do you think it is the science teacher's job to teach the ethical and moral issues, or whether that should be taught somewhere else in the school, as the Chairman is intimating?
  (Ms Dallas) I think it can happen in a number of ways, depending on how well equipped an individual teacher feels themself to be. Certainly, with the issue of creationism, that is often covered in religious education, as are other sensitive issues. Or, for example, within PSHE, if we are looking at personal choices and personal decisions, some of those might be backed up by scientific fact, like the effect of taking drugs, or the effect of alcohol, but often the teacher concerned would probably be more comfortable as a PSHE teacher than a science teacher, I think that probably is true.

  Mr Harris: I take it that the Department has no knowledge yet of any school teaching evolution in religious studies classes?


  549.  I am sure there are some, somewhere.
  (Mr Timms) I am sure there are, yes.

  Chairman: Okay; can we move on. Tony, please.

Mr McWalter

  550.  Just looking at the Roberts report, and to echo my colleagues' thoughts, that clearly the Roberts report wanted to increase the number of people choosing to continue with science to a higher level, and, I think, Minister, you have made very clear that that is the Government's intention. I feel, like several members of the Committee, that intention could be frustrated, through a number of mechanisms, one of which is that, if funds are given in a very open-ended way, and science is expensive and history is less expensive, a school may wish to emphasise the cheaper area rather than the more expensive area, as the Chairman perhaps has indicated. But, given that we are trying to increase the number of young people choosing to continue with science, is your first perception of the Roberts report that, actually, it offers a promising agenda for achieving that result?
  (Mr Timms) Yes. It is a helpful report. I think it highlights quite a number of issues that require careful thought on our part, including, as I say, this rather, I think, quite difficult and interesting conflict between, on the one hand, making sure that A levels in these subjects are not too hard, and, on the other, making sure that the students, having got them, once they arrive at university, do have the skills and the knowledge that the universities expect of them. So I think all of that will require a lot of thought. But, in terms of an agenda for us to be working on, yes, I think it is a very valuable contribution.

  551.  What would you say to the Roberts discussion about it being more difficult to achieve higher grades in maths and sciences than in other subjects; because is not that going to be one very vital component of people, rational people, voting with their feet, away from a subject where they are going to get a D, compared with choosing a subject where it is relatively soft and easy to get a B? Is not that something that the Government should tackle, not necessarily by looking at the sciences but by looking at the relative ease of some of the other subjects?
  (Mr Timms) Against that, I think you have also to take into account paragraph 3.20 in the Roberts report, where it says: "Many HE staff believe that current science and maths A level syllabuses, while covering a wide variety of interesting areas, do not necessarily equip students with the intellectual and conceptual tools required at degree level. Reductions in the depth of knowledge required at A level in favour of breadth and relevance of study are seen by some to weaken the usefulness of the A level."

  552.  If I may say so, Minister, all that indicates is that this problem gets exacerbated at degree level, so it is a lot, lot harder to get a maths degree or a physics degree than it is to get a degree in some subjects, which, of course, I will not name, which have no prerequisites and which you can do ab initio and pretty much guarantee yourself a lower second before you start. The Government has an obligation here to be a custodian of standards, and some of the things we have heard in this hearing suggest that perhaps it is not really willing to grasp that nettle, and, if it does not, that is highly detrimental to the supply of scientifically-literate people who are emerging into the market-place?
  (Mr Timms) I very much agree with you that it is the Government's task to be the custodian of standards, and I would be very unhappy about signing up to a significant reduction in standards, in order to make things easier. So that is why, I make the point, I think that a lot of care, a lot of thought, will be needed to work through how to address all of the Roberts recommendations in a way that deals with both these concerns, and to conclude that we should just make things easier, I think, would almost certainly be a wrong conclusion to draw.

  Bob Spink: But there is the alternative, Chairman, of making the other subjects more difficult, to balance the equation. I think that was your thesis, was it not, you do not have to make science easier, you just have to make the others more equal?

  Mr McWalter: Because, given the choice between—I have to confess that in my own academic history, when I was doing a philosophy degree, and saw forbidding-looking courses in mathematical logic, or little soft essays in ethics, or something, I tended to go for the latter and not the former.

  Chairman: (That does show ?), I am sure.

Mr McWalter

  553.  Not least because in the former you might, even if you know the stuff, go into an exam and have a bit of a ment-out and get zero. And I do actually think there is a real issue about the extent to which you can have people expected to do these very challenging things, understanding the Schrödinger model of the hydrogen atom, or whatever, doing very demanding stuff, and people are only getting an upper second for doing that, compared with some areas, where, quite frankly, the students themselves say that they are not very challenging. And I think the Government has got to look at whether that system differentiates and discriminates against science, and hence the needs of the country?
  (Mr Timms) Chairman, I did a maths degree.

  554.  (So did I ?), I have to say.
  (Mr Timms) I think the reason I chose maths was because I found maths fascinating, and I think that is what we have to do to persuade young people that maths and science, physics, chemistry are exciting and fascinating subjects, and if we are able to do that then I think we will find many young people, the numbers that we want, coming forward to study them. I would be very hesitant about saying that we need to make things easier, because I think that is probably, in the long run, not in anybody's interests.


  555.  In terms of coming up with your final programme for science, and this will be the last question, how much interaction is there with other Departments? I cannot think of any Departments that would not want science in the curriculum for ever, we have Ministers for Science, chief advisers to Government, and so on; are you talking to them, are you getting an input from them about the kind of science, and indeed industry, and that would really fashion a different type of science from each Department and make it very difficult to come up with the course that satisfies everybody?
  (Mr Timms) We certainly are talking to other Departments, and, perhaps you are right, maybe more in this area than in others. Sir Gareth Roberts' report was commissioned by the Treasury, for example, and Sir Gareth came to see me and we had a discussion, and, of course, we do have lots of discussions with the Department of Trade and Industry about science. Lord Sainsbury expressed a strong view about whether science should be a compulsory part of the key stage 4 curriculum, as you can imagine; and another example where we work closely with the DTI is in the establishment of the Science and Engineering Ambassadors scheme, that was launched jointly by Baroness Ashton and Lord Sainsbury. So, yes, there is a lot of discussion with those two Departments, in particular, and the DTI above all, about science.

  556.  Let me bring it to an end by saying thank you very much indeed for taking time to come and speak to us today, it has been very helpful, and we have learned a lot about what is going on, and I hope we have encouraged you to plod on and get it right, because we all know the value of science and we will achieve quite a lot if the young people come through after we have worked together and developed a new type of course. Thank you very much.
  (Mr Timms) Can I thank you, Chairman, very much for giving me this opportunity, and say how much I am looking forward to seeing your conclusions, when they are reached. Thank you very much indeed.

  Chairman: Thank you. We know how committed you are to IT technology. Thank you very much.


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