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


Memorandum submitted by CLEAPSS School Science Service

  The CLEAPSS School Science Service is an advisory service supporting the teaching of practical science (and, to some extent, technology) in schools and colleges, from the foundation stage to GCE A-level or equivalent. We are mostly funded by subscriptions. From April, every one of the 180 education authorities in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the off-shore islands will be a member. The vast majority of post-16 colleges, independent schools, teacher-training establishments and curriculum developers are associate members. We offer essentially four services. There is a range of publications, including termly newsletters for primary and secondary schools, guides on subjects as diverse as Fume Cupboards and Giant African Land Snails, a 1,000-page Laboratory Handbook and our highly-respected Hazcards. We offer a Helpline which takes over 5,000 calls per year and run about 200 training courses per year (mostly one day) for teachers, LEA officers, but especially science technicians. We also work behind the scenes with the Royal Society and other learned societies, the DfES, QCA, HSE, ASE, BSI, etc. About two thirds of our work is to do with health and safety. The remainder tends to focus on laboratory design, best buys for new equipment, where to buy obscure items, how to do . . . For the last few months we have seconded a technician to work on producing a guide on Technicians and their Jobs—the need for a career structure, job descriptions, induction and training, etc.

  We are concerned that practical science is not taught as a lively and exciting subject: pupil practical is stereotyped; demonstrations are uninspiring. Of course there is more to science than just the practical parts but talk to most successful scientists and you will find that they were usually turned on by some memorable activity or demonstration. We believe that there are several reasons for this:

    —  Inadequate funding for chemicals, equipment and other resources.

    —  Too few technicians.

    —  Constraints of the National Curriculum and an over-emphasis on examination results.

    —  Fears over health and safety legislation (mostly unjustified).

    —  Fears over being sued by parents (some justification).

    —  Teachers working outside their own scientific discipline.

  Some of these issues are inter-linked but I should like to expand briefly on each. Please also see the attached article, The Changing Face of Practical Work [71] which I wrote for Education in Chemistry, November 1999.

  If science is a practical subject, it costs money, more money than other subjects except D&T. We carried out a small survey in 1998 in which we asked a sample of schools to let us have copies of all of their orders for chemicals over a 12-month period. Our survey covered 10 LEA schools, two GM schools (all comprehensive) and two independent schools. Both independent schools and half the others had sixth forms. Schools ranged in size from 600-1,700 pupils. The amount spent on chemicals in a 12 month period averaged £555, with a range of £114-£1,696. If the two independent schools were excluded, the average dropped to £394. The average amount spent per pupil was 64p per year (range 12p-83p) or 37p per year if the independents were excluded. At that time, 37p would buy 42g of copper sulphate for each pupil—with nothing else for the next 12 months. Whilst the sample was small and may not have been representative, these figures do contrast with the figures in the report of The Royal Society, Science Teaching Resources: 11-16 year olds (October 1997).

  Properly trained and adequately remunerated technicians are a vital resource which can make all the difference to the successful teaching of practical science. We fully support the messages in the two recent reports from The Royal Society/ ASE, Survey of Science Technicians in Schools and Colleges (July 2001) and Supporting Success: Science Technicians in Schools and Colleges (January 2002). As mentioned above, we have a technician currently working with us on secondment to develop further guidance for schools and LEAs.

  The National Curriculum prescribes what teachers must do—many interpret that as meaning that they must only do that and nothing else. However, one can sympathise with teachers given the emphasis on exam results. You choose to spend any spare time on going over endless past exam papers, rather doing an inspiring activity that isn't really required by the syllabus.

  There is an enormous number of myths and rumours about particular chemicals or procedures being banned, or at least strongly discouraged. In the first half of the autumn term, we were taking an average of about three Helpline calls per day about such (alleged) bans. They were nearly always wide of the mark. We are so concerned about these misunderstandings that we are involved with the ASE's Safeguards in Science Committee in a campaign "Fighting Back". Please see the attached article For Stinks Without Kinks[72] which I wrote for The Times Educational Supplement (28 December 2001). It may well be that teachers use the safety reason as an excuse for not doing certain types of pupil practical work or demonstration. About three years ago, at the request of the Health and Safety Executive, the Royal Society of Chemistry convened a seminar to explore whether health and safety legislation was inhibiting practical work in school science. The seminar concluded that it was not. The fact is that since the Health and Safety at Work Act came into force in 1975, there have been three prosecutions of science teachers and one of a school for science laboratory accidents, making prosecution much less likely than winning the National Lottery. However, in one respect I have some sympathy with teachers' fears. In a few classes in a few schools there are pupils with severe behavioural problems, who are liable to fly off the handle without provocation. Their presence can, rightly, inhibit practical work.

  A more justifiable concern is the increasing tendency of parents to sue at every opportunity and for insurance companies to pay up. Teachers would always be covered by their employer and membership of a union or the ASE would back that up. Nevertheless, they get worried because they feel guilty. In once incident we heard about a little while ago, a pupil had an epileptic fit during a practical lesson. Whilst the teacher was dealing with this, another girl suffered a minor burn to her hand. The teacher told the girl to put her hand under the cold tap but carried on dealing with the epileptic. A few days later the school received a letter from the parents of the burnt girl asking for substantial compensation. Reluctantly, the teacher and school agreed to let the insurance company pay up, without admitting liability. The parents then asked the school to admit liability which they refused to agree to, The insurance company agreed to fight the case and requested a copy of the medical report obtained by the parents immediately after the accident, only to find there was no report. This child, for whose injuries they were seeking thousands of pounds of compensation, had not even been taken to the doctor!

  Teachers working outside the discipline in which they were originally trained presents obvious health and safety problems, but this can be overcome by planning and training. Harder to overcome is the absence of all of those snippets of information at their finger tips, the sudden thought that a quick test tube demonstration will clarify the point. It is difficult to see what can be done about this problem.

February 2002

71   Not printed. Back

72   Not printed. Back

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