Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by The Association for Science Education


  1.1  The Association for Science Education is the professional association for teachers of science with over 20,000 members in schools and colleges throughout the United Kingdom. The Association is committed to raising the quality of science education through the development and sharing of best practice. The evidence that we are submitting is based on the views of our membership, which represent a sizeable proportion of the science teachers in the UK.

  1.2  We welcome the Select Committee's enquiry and believe that it should make a valuable contribution to ensuring that science education in the UK continues to excel in international comparisons. We believe that it is very important that the Committee should start any report by recognising the success of science education—it is too easy to focus on the failures and consequently compromise the successes.

  1.3  We would also urge the Committee to ensure that it keeps the broader context of the school environment in mind when making recommendations. As many of the issues facing science education are not unique to the subject, eg teacher supply, assessment, and continuing professional development, any recommendations that the Committee makes must be operational in a whole school context.

  1.4  One of the lessons that should have been learnt from the introduction of the National Curriculum is that any changes need to be holistic. For example, any change in the content of the curriculum needs to be mirrored by an appropriate change in assessment and provision of initial teacher training and professional development for teachers.


  2.1  In preparing learners for the 21st century, the ASE believes in working towards universal scientific capability. It is an essential component of the rounded education of any individual in the 21st century. It is also vital for the economic health of the UK. This capability needs to manifest itself in two ways; firstly, the UK must have a population capable of engaging in mature political debate about advances in science and technology if we are to take full advantage of the strong science and technology base that the UK processes. In addition, if this science and technology base is to grow to match the growing demand of the 21st century then as many students as possible must be in a position to use science in pursuing their careers.

  2.2  This gives rise to a tension which is particularly manifest at KS4. For a large number of students this may be their final encounter with science education and consequently it must prepare them to engage with science as citizens. For others this is a staging post in the development of their scientific knowledge and understanding as part of their continuing education in science. At present we do not believe that the qualifications available meet either of these needs. However, we are encouraged by the work that QCA has undertaken on KS4 as part of its work in ensuring that the Science Curriculum keeps in step with the 21st Century.

  2.3  Another issue of concern to teachers is the scope for flexibility within the present arrangements. There is little scope for teachers to provide pathways through science and technology that best reflect local needs or the interests and aptitudes of their students. We believe that a 14-19 curriculum offers the opportunity for students to gain a basic understanding across the range of sciences whilst studying particular aspects in greater depth. An important component in broadening the possible scientific pathways must be achieving parity of esteem for the vocational pathways. ASE believes that many students could find fulfilling and rewarding futures in technical careers given the right support and guidance. Vocational training in science and technology would contribute to meeting current skills shortages in a range of industrial and service sectors nationally as well as locally.

  2.4  For these reasons ASE would support steps towards making a more coherent framework for qualifications by developing a 14-19 framework.

  2.5  Feedback from colleagues in the further education sector and NIACE indicates that provision and uptake on adult learning courses in science is limited. This suggests that we should be wary of allowing students to drop science at too early a stage, even if a 14-19 curriculum makes it easier for students to restart their science education. ASE would encourage the committee to adjust its remit to consider the level, eg up to and including to NVQ equivalent level 3 qualifications, rather than a specific age range. This would ensure that the lifelong learning in science and current skill shortages could be addressed.

  2.6  In the short term we would be wary of radical change. In particular we believe that science must remain a core subject up until the age of 16.

  2.7  We hope that the Committee will find Appendix 1, Science Education for the Year 2000 and Beyond, (not printed), useful in considering what type of science should be taught from 14-16. This suggests that a balance of breadth and depth of scientific knowledge and understanding must be maintained, in addition to the development of problem solving, investigative skills and informed attitudes. The ASE believes that learners should spend a minimum of 20 per cent of curriculum time on the study of science between the ages of 14 and 16 in order to achieve breadth and depth in each area of science education.

  2.8  In the longer term, there is a need for dialogue as to what constitutes a basic scientific capability and how this is developed through the 14-19 framework. We would urge the Committee to consider ways in which the 14-19 curriculum could provide a mechanism for ensuring that all students attain an acceptable level of scientific literacy, perhaps by inclusion on a leavers certificate whilst guaranteeing that those students who wish to pursue their studies in science are able to do so at an appropriate standard and pace.


  3.1  In making recommendations about the type of science that students should study, we hope that the Committee will give due consideration to the impact of assessment on what is taught.

  3.2  There is no doubt that the SATS have had a major impact on the way that science is taught from 4-14. They have helped to clarify progression in science and have helped ensure England and Wales are near the top of the world league in achievement in science.

  3.3  Whilst the ASE recognises that SATS have evolved, there is still some way to go before they reflect the science curriculum required for the 21st century. In particular, there is still too much emphasis on recall of scientific facts and not enough emphasis on the assessment of the understanding, skills and processes of science. Some of the issues about progression arise from this narrow perspective of achievement in science. Where other subjects develop skills that can then be built on in different contexts, in science the development is frequently in the same context. This can make it difficult for teachers and pupils to see progression. This will only be addressed by putting the understanding, skills and processes that pupils need at the heart of assessment.

  3.4  The ASE believes that there is a need to help teachers measure progress so that teaching and learning can be adapted to reflect the needs of individual pupils. Therefore the ASE would actively encourage moves to support the professionalism of teachers in assessing the progress and needs of their pupils, by, for instance, raising the profile of teacher assessment.


  4.1  ASE is concerned that the continued prosperity of science is threatened by the difficulties in recruiting high quality graduates to the profession. The recent teacher training salaries are a very positive step, as are making entry routes to teaching more flexible.

  4.2  ASE believes, however, that teacher retention is as important as recruitment. Indeed recruitment is strongly influenced by the morale of practising teachers. ASE believes that rising class size has had a detrimental impact on the morale of science teachers. We welcome the Government's enquiry into teachers' workloads. We hope that the outcomes of this enquiry will take account of the additional workload facing science teachers and, in particular, those with managerial responsibility because of the practical nature of the subject.

  4.3  We welcome the Government's emphasis on continuing professional development and believe that this could also have a beneficial effect on retention. The professional development of science teachers needs to include the issues of supporting their teaching outside of their specialism, and providing ways of helping them to use contemporary science in the classroom. We would be happy to discuss the role that the ASE already plays in this and how we could achieve much more if greater emphasis, recognition and support were given to the individual needs of teachers in developing their own skills and knowledge.


  5.1  A frequent criticism of maintaining science as a core subject is that it has not resulted in an increase of the numbers studying science post-16. However, few of the advocates of "Science for All" envisaged the type of science curriculum that is now on offer, ASE does not believe that the present courses are sufficiently motivating to persuade students to continue with science. In addition, making science a core subject may well have resulted in less effective marketing of science to students at the age where they start to make career choices. ASE is concerned that careers advisers do not always have appropriate knowledge to give students guidance on the whole range of scientific careers that are available. ASE hopes that the large investment in the Connexions Service will enable all pupils to access accurate and inspirational advice about careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.


  6.1  ASE believes that there is scope for mathematics skills to play a greater role in the science curriculum post-14. In particular, there should be more opportunities for students to use mathematics as a tool of enquiry. In order to achieve this, more time needs to be devoted to developing students' mathematical skills and understanding in science. This suggests that students should make a more in-depth use of mathematics in fewer scientific contexts.

  6.2  An ASE Conference, Science and Mathematics Building Together, found agreement that a common vocabulary needs to be developed and that teachers need to be given time to collaborate on planning schemes of work and ensuring a common approach to the development of mathematical skills.


  7.1  ASE believes that well designed practical experimental work is an important part of every student's experience. As well as enabling the development of a variety of skills that contribute to students' ability to engage with scientific issues, practical work is a proven motivating factor.

  7.2  Safety concerns are often quoted as a reason for not doing practical work but we do not believe that current Health and Safety legislation justifies this. However the present climate of accountability and an overcrowded curriculum have led to a situation where practical work is often neglected.

  7.3  ASE was, and still is, a strong supporter of experimental work that attempts to give students a flavour of the enquiring nature of science. Unfortunately, the present assessment regime does not encourage this. It would appear that validity has been sacrificed in order to try to ensure reliability. The range of experimental work carried out to provide an assessment of student's experimental skills is very limited which leads to concerns about the originality of practical course work. In addition, many teachers feel that the time and effort that they and their students put into the coursework are not justified by the learning outcomes.

  7.4  We would urge the Committee to consider the impact of class size in the manageability of teaching science. A serious issue for our members is that class sizes in the 14-19 age range have been rising. ASE recently carried out a small survey (50 schools) into class sizes. Because of the range of options available at KS4 it is not appropriate to report statistical data; but it was clear that the top sets at KS4 were generally in the size range of 26 to 30 students. In these circumstances, it is not surprising that teachers are reluctant to carry out practical work. It is also interesting to note that this may have the greatest effect on the most able students.

  7.5  At present ASE does not believe it is possible to impose a statutory size limit in England, although it notes that this exists in Scotland and Northern Ireland. However, ASE believes that Government ought to make a commitment to reducing secondary practical science class size to no more than 20 students.


  8.1  As well as supporting teachers, the ASE plays a significant role in the support of laboratory technicians working in schools and colleges. There are now over 1,800 technician members of the ASE. We believe that technicians play a significant role in raising standards in science. The ASE and the Royal Society have published a joint report, Supporting Success: science technicians in schools and colleges. The report suggests that government should:

    —  investigate the levels of science technician support available in schools;

    —  set national guidelines on the management and deployment of technical staff;

    —  ensure a clear and properly remunerated career path including for science technicians.

February 2002

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