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


Memorandum submitted by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC)


Role and Work of PPARC

  1.  The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council welcomes the opportunity to make a submission to the Committee on this very important subject. PPARC is funded through the Science Vote to pursue research, education & training, partnership with industry, and public awareness and understanding in our science areas—astronomy, space science, cosmology and particle physics.

  2.  These subjects involve some of the "big questions" that have fascinated and inspired young and old for thousands of years—what is our place in the Universe, where did it all come from, what is matter made of, and what are the laws of the universe? This fascination has led to curiosity-driven research that has important consequences for our technological culture and for our economy (for example, it is only just over 100 years since British physicist JJ Thomson discovered the electron).

  3.  Our communications work includes engagement with the public. Importantly, we work with the formal and informal education sectors to engage young people so that an interest in these big questions may be translated into an interest in studying science subjects beyond age 16. Physics undergraduates report that an interest in these questions was dominant in drawing them into science[33]. We also wish to leave those who end science studies at 16 with an appreciation of science and a positive view of it.

  4.  Our work through the curriculum system includes:

    —  the Pupil Researcher Initiative (joint with the EPSRC) comprising: curriculum material with investigations set in current UK research contexts; "Researchers in Residence"—visits by PhD research students to schools; Pupil Research Conferences which develop communications skills; and materials supporting the "Ideas and Evidence" curriculum strand in which young people discuss scientific discoveries and current scientific issues for society;

    —  almost one million requests by teachers and schools for our (low-cost) publications on the PPARC science areas;

    —  national Masterclasses in particle physics, with around 2000 sixth formers per year attending;

    —  partnership in the "Faulkes Telescopes"—two major schools' telescopes, located in Hawaii and Australia so UK schools can observe in classroom hours. This could make a major education impact, via curriculum enrichment, in 2003 and beyond;

    —  updating science teachers, so they can have better depth and confidence with their subject — achieved partly through our magazine "Frontiers".

  5.  We have a resulting high profile and good reputation amongst science teachers. Our main strategic partners include the Institute of Physics and the Association for Science Education.

Our perception of current problems

  6.  We see important national problems as including:

    —  the continued need for the recruitment of a highly-skilled workforce for the nation[34];

    —  as part of that, the decline of interest in physics studies beyond age 16. We view physics A-levels and degrees as underpinning much of the physical science and engineering R&D work in the country;

    —  compulsory science (in the National Curriculum) up to age 16 has not increased the number of young people choosing to study physical sciences beyond 16;

    —  curriculum content is not sufficiently modern;

    —  the under-representation of women in science and engineering employment needs addressing at the school level;

    —  the inspirational value of the big sciences is not being capitalised on enough to draw young people in, nor to win hearts and minds for British science (see below);

    —  the need to balance "science education for citizens and users of science" versus "science for those going on to further studies" is not sufficiently addressed;

    —  the shortage of confident secondary teachers of physics is severe; few physics graduates are enrolling annually for teacher training, and the age profile of physics teachers is weighted to the over-50s; and

    —  the continuous professional development (CPD) of science (and especially physics) teachers needs attention.


Science Curriculum—What should be taught?

  7.  PPARC argues that the current coverage of our place in the Universe, covered for example by the "Earth and Beyond" strand of the English National Curriculum (NC) at Key Stages 2, 3 and 4 (ages 7-11, 11-14, 14-16) should be fully maintained. We should keep inspirational material.

  8.  The prescribed content of physical sciences should be modernised; for example, all matter (including our bodies) is composed of electrons and quarks. Quarks were discovered in 1968 but are still not part of the NC 33 years later.

  9.  The science curriculum lacks relevance to people's everyday lives. This needs addressing, but this relevance is not everything. In our experience, topics like Space, the Big Bang and particle physics turn children on just as much as "relevant" science.

  10.  Inspiring students with the achievements of science is important; such progress is the mark of our advanced technological society, and celebrating UK contributions affects the "hearts and minds" of young people. We wish for the UK to remain a major international force in science and science and technology, and we need a population who are aware of our successes and are positive about maintaining our position.

  11.  Let us take an example. A perception that Britain has a space programme (a correct statement) makes us feel differently about our national capabilities. Addressing the 1985 General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union, the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi said he was often asked why India had a space programme, with so much poverty present. He replied that it "showed that India was capable of technologically advanced work: we can do it, we can solve these problems".

  12.  In an important large survey[35] of teachers, pupils and parents found that, while there were mixed views on almost all aspects of secondary science education,

    "the one topic that generated universal enthusiasm was any study of astronomy and space".

  13.  This should be capitalised upon, not just for the study of astronomy and space, but by using these areas as stimulating contexts for teaching a range of science and Information & Communication Technology (ICT). For example, a new A-Level Physics syllabus has a major module centred on a space mission, which covers gravity, orbits, power sources, materials, thermal insulation, signalling, etc. Curriculum developers should investigate whether such an approach can be appropriately extended to Key Stages 3 and 4 (ages 11-16).

  14.  In a recent survey[36], teenagers were shown a list of 30 science issues and topics and asked which they would like to study and discuss in the science classroom. Top of the list was "Is There Life in Space?", ahead even of medical and environmental topics. It is hard to "engage" teenagers, and again we see that an applied exciting "context" could be used to teach various scientific ideas.

  15.  PPARC welcomes the addition of the two new modern syllabuses[37] for A-level Physics, one of which we have supported. We believe that these will encourage more take-up of physics and engineering beyond 16, and there is some evidence already of this happening[38].

How should it be taught?

  16.  As a research organisation PPARC does not have direct views on teaching methods. However we note that a national strategy which takes pressure off science teachers (which might include for example recruitment and retention of good lab technicians, more classroom assistance, and less mandatory content in the Curriculum) would allow more time for teachers' Continuous Professional Development (CPD) and thus more confident teaching.

  17.  Third-party organisations such as PPARC are able and willing to support this Professional Development, for example with briefing on discoveries and developments. We also support teaching through resources, links with research scientists and with laboratories, and curriculum enrichment activities such as visits. (These illustrate "live" science to young people; and visits to sites such as Jodrell Bank and CERN are inspiring). But an overcrowded mandatory curriculum leaves little time for enrichment.

Why and to whom should it be taught?

  18.  There needs to be a fundamental look at what science education is for and who it is for. The Lords report "Science and Society"[39] showed why it is important for citizens to be able to participate in decisions about future developments and policies for science and its applications. The school education system is the most important place to empower future adult citizens for this. Secondly we need trained scientists and engineers for the nation.

  19.  PPARC welcomes the development of a new science GCSE which is to be piloted[40] in 2003-05 under contract from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. There is an emphasis on science for the citizen and for the consumer of science, with extra modules of an academic nature for those wishing to study science beyond 16 and "applied" modules for those pursuing a vocational path. (Through the Pupil Researcher Initiative, PPARC is supporting the teaching of the "Ideas and Evidence" curriculum strand at Key Stage 4, which requires class discussion of current issues for citizens).

  20.  We welcome the "Science and Society" agenda here, but it is important that inspirational modern science is kept at the forefront of school science curricula. The GCSE path for those not planning to study science beyond 16 should focus on accessible exciting modern science.

By whom should it be taught?

  21.  There are serious problems with the recruitment and retention of teachers of physics for the 14-19 age range. There is also a rapidly-worsening situation with the age profile of teachers of physics—a very significant fraction are over 50. Only a very small number (of order 200) of physics graduates enrol for a Postgraduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) each year, and while this has been slightly helped by the Government's "Golden Hello" policy, the shortage of physics specialists in school science departments remains critical. While the NC's "balanced science" requirement means that non-specialists can teach and inspire fairly well at Key Stage 3, this is harder at Key Stage 4—and A-level physics needs specialists.

  22.  PPARC welcomes the introduction of a national "Centre for Excellence in Science Teaching" by the Department for Education and Skills for teachers' professional development. In our experience of supporting science teachers, we find it relatively easy to engage the most enthusiastic and confident 15 per cent or so of teachers and near impossible to work with those who are less enthusiastic and confident. The new Centre will have to work extremely hard to reach the lower half in confidence and enthusiasm of science teachers, and we urge the Government to find ways to make this a priority for the Centre.

  23.  We also draw attention to the role that UK scientists can play in support of teachers and education. Researchers are often glad to brief and help teachers. A successful "Teacher-Scientist Network" has been run from the University of East Anglia for several years now and is a good exemplar. The Research Councils have several schemes encouraging such partnerships; PPARC sponsors particle physics "Masterclasses" which attract up to 2,000 sixth formers and teachers every year, and we sponsor summer schools which attract about 100 science teachers.

  24.  Pupils' contact with young scientists (as suitable role models) is an important inspirational factor. Use of good role models is proven as a successful strategy in influencing young people. PPARC has pioneered the "Researchers in Residence" scheme in which 200 young researchers each year work with schools. Moreover there is the opportunity here to encourage young women to consider science studies, as in some schemes female scientists are particularly keen to work with schools[41].

February 2002

33   Surveys of Physics Undergraduates-by the Institute of Physics in 1984 and by PPARC in 1995; copies available. Back

34   The coming final Report to Treasury by Sir Gareth Roberts will address this in detail; the interim version states that there is a continuing problem with quantity and quality of supply. Back

35   Pupils and Parents' Views of the School Science Curriculum, by Osborne & Collins, King's College London, 2000. This involved 45 Focus Groups of teachers, parents, and pupils aged 15-16. Back

36   Survey of 70 young people aged 14 to 16, Sheffield Hallam University Centre for Science Education, 2000. Back

37   "Advancing Physics" developed by the Institute of Physics; and Salters' Horners' A-level Physics, developed by a team lead by York University. Back

38   Dr Elizabeth Swinbank, York University, notified us that the young people involved in trialling the new Slaters' Horners' course, 30 per cent have applied to read engineering subjects at University. Back

39   House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report: Science and Society (Session 1999-2000, HL Paper 38) Back

40   The Research Councils and OST are represented on the Steering Group run by the QCA. Back

41   Volunteer female research students make up 40 per cent of the PRI's "Researchers In Residence", but constitute only 20 per cent of the basic cohort. Back

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