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


Submission submitted by the Royal Academy of Engineering

  The Academy believes that it is of prime importance to ensure that the schools continue to provide sufficient students in both quality and quantity required to meet the national need for engineers, scientists, mathematicians and technologists in order for the UK to sustain a world-class, global competitive economy.

  This requires integrated policies and processes from primary school to university. Currently The Academy is particularly concerned that there continues to be widespread evidence that the schools are failing to attract sufficient students to take mathematics and science subjects (particularly physics) to A level to ensure an adequate supply of high quality engineering and science graduates. Many of the problems inherited by the universities in the poor competence of students in mathematics and physics have their origins in the inadequate level of mathematics and physics teaching in many schools. The difficulty of attracting good teachers in mathematics and the sciences, with its effect on poor performance and lack of interest in these subjects from students, remains at the heart of the problem and should be the prime focus of attention. Unless this matter is addressed urgently all supporting measures are likely to have little effect. Thus the need for an adequate supply of well qualified highly motivated and inspirational teachers in mathematics, science, Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and Design and Technology (D&T) is the key feature of the problem.

  The Science Curriculum has been subject to considerable revision and change over recent years so far as content is concerned. The Academy would not favour any radical change at present especially given the staff provision and training problems related above. Much criticism is made that the current curriculum is too rigid and highly compartmentalised and The Academy subscribes to this view and would welcome a more flexible, broadening approach, allowing for continuity and progression as appropriate for all. The Academy would like to draw attention to examples of good practice which have gone someway to identifying and remedying current shortcomings such as the Gatsby Charitable Foundation's Mathematics, Science and Technology Education Projects which in turn rely on the curriculum development work of the Examining Boards in conjunction with the Professional Institutions and organisations such as Design and Technology Association (DATA), the Engineering and Science Councils and the Association for Science Education (ASE). The key to success is to ensure that science, mathematics, D&T and ICT are taught in a coordinated and coherent manner which allows for the mutual reinforcement of material and technique. This will only be executed with success if adequate resources are devoted to ensuring all the staff involved gain sufficient knowledge and expertise through INSET and/or further qualification.

  The mathematical content of the science curriculum should exploit to the full the mathematics curriculum and be presented in a comprehensive (identical) manner to ensure maximum reinforcement and enhance students' understanding through demonstrating the wide application and utility of mathematics. This has been demonstrated to good effect in physics by the Institute of Physics and the Salters-Horners new A level courses. Full advantage should be made of Information Technology (IT) and this is indeed occurring across the curriculum both as a tool to instruction and as a medium for disseminating as widely as possible the latest educational software. The advances made in this area, particularly in the D&T syllabus and with ICT, should be rapidly extended to further computer based learning across the curriculum. Priority should be given to the broader provision of IT and laptop computers are proving most effective in this respect.

  It is hoped that the establishment of specialist schools in science and engineering will create centres of excellence which will then be able to disseminate this throughout other schools in their region. The Academy would like to see greater provision for the more able students to take single science GCSE and for Further Mathematics to be available at A level. This will no doubt be addressed in the provisions for high ability ("fast track") students identified in the Education White Paper. The development of high quality distance learning and teacher support materials by the Mathematics in Education and Industry (MEI) should also be noted as an effective and productive means of alleviating teacher shortage and of providing efficient on-job training to teachers.

  The Academy has no direct experience of assessment in schools. Through the Engineering Education Scheme and Headstart we are aware of the onerous burden placed on teachers in this respect and welcome the latest initiatives by the QCA and OFSTED to lessen this not least that it will allow more opportunity for extra curricular projects and activities which develop teamworking, communication and other key skills. Great reliance is still placed on A level grades for entrance to higher education and any systemic change which affects these should be made with extreme caution. There has been too much turbulence in the recent past and it is believed that a period of stability would be most welcome. It should, however, be noted that the work of the Curriculum Evaluation and Management (CEM) Centre at Durham University has highlighted that the science subjects are among the most severely graded AS and A levels and, as a consequence of the league tables, schools tend to direct students away from them. Clearly there is a need to establish a parity among all subjects in the curriculum without endangering standards through "grade drift".

  The FE Colleges have great opportunities to develop vocationally oriented courses within the GNVQ and NVQ framework which fully integrates mathematics, science, ICT and D&T through problem solving oriented study. This is an exciting area of educational development capable of meeting the skills needs of industry, and in engineering it is hoped that these will be exploited to the full in developing the technicians and support engineers up to Foundation Degree level.

  In summary, The Academy recommends that:

    (i)  the Education White paper is implemented in such a way as to facilitate the broadening of science teaching at all levels and to exploit the opportunities available for reinforcement and integration through systematic teaching across the science, mathematics, D&T and ICT curriculum;

    (ii)  urgent action is taken to ensure that there are sufficient suitably qualified staff in all schools to act as lead teachers in ensuring that all mathematics, science , and technology lessons are taught appropriately and can provide the necessary curriculum guidance to ensure that the syllabus is delivered across the board in an imaginative, coordinated manner. Such staff should also act as mentors, advisers and possibly tutors to non specialist staff where these have to teach maths and science topics;

    (iii)  teachers should be provided with high quality materials (books, equipment, CDs and back up support) to ensure best practice is demonstrated;

    (iv)  the use of IT should be exploited to the full in delivering high quality material and in effective instruction and staff development;

    (v)  appropriate INSET should be provided to train and assist teachers in achieving these tasks.

January 2002

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