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


UK Deans of Science Committee


  The UK Deans of Science Committee represents the academic science community across the United Kingdom. It has 77 universities in membership. Whilst its core focus is on higher education and research, it is also a keen and relatively well informed observer of the wider science scene as it involves industry, public bodies, schools and the general public.

  Having reviewed issues concerning secondary science education across the UK, we are convinced of the need for a fundamental and urgent review of the whole approach and focus which characterises the current curriculum.

  School science education should contribute to two fundamental objectives. First, it should provide a good basis of general understanding of science for the school leaving population as a whole. Second, it should excite interest amongst a proportion of able young people to pursue specialist studies through to higher education in science and engineering. Increasingly there are serious grounds for concern on both fronts.

  Broadly we agree with the analysis presented in the report Beyond 2000: Science education for the future (Miller & Osborne, King's College London, 1998). This criticised the traditional curricular approach for:

    —  engaging inadequately with contemporary scientific issues;

    —  presenting science as purely value-free, objective and detached;

    —  failing in general to sustain pupil interest in the power and significance of science;

    —  over-emphasising content, perceived by learners as a catalogue of discrete ideas;

    —  under-emphasising the major central principles and ideas of science;

    —  being assessed in a style which grotesquely reinforces the emphasis on minutiae of content.

  That Report argued for a radically revised approach to address these criticisms. The authors, whose own professional focus was largely on secondary education itself, argued for reform mainly in the interests of that majority of pupils not intending to pursue science or technology based education beyond school.

  For a number of years we have been concerned about negative trends in applications to pursue the core sciences in higher education. Proportionately, this reduction is most marked amongst the highest ability band of school leavers. Our colleagues in engineering have experienced similar trends over a longer period. Beyond that we are increasingly aware that the knowledge-based emphasis of school courses seems to have bred surface learning habits amongst many of our entrants and a tendency insufficiently to discriminate between points of detail and major overarching principles. We are acutely aware that the style of the specialist school science curriculum has not changed for many years. We thus have to recognise that an approach that worked satisfactorily in the past as a preparation for higher education no longer does so in the changed social and communications environment of today.

  From a higher education science perspective, therefore, we would happily see the general approach advocated in the Beyond 2000 Report applied to the entire secondary science curriculum, to embrace the needs of future specialists also.

  This short note aims simply to communicate our general view. We would also wish to signal our ready willingness to contribute to more detailed discussions and to any formative development work that might take this publicly important agenda forward.

February 2002

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