Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report


  6.1  We have been told on all sides that public attitudes to science owe much to the teaching of science in school. Because other bodies are currently at work on various aspects of school science teaching and learning, and because our concern is with the attitudes of the general public rather than the well-informed minority, we decided from the outset not to take evidence on the education and training of specialist scientists, nor on ways to encourage more young people to follow science careers. However, so many witnesses have told us that school education is crucial to restoring the relationship between science and society, that we cannot ignore it. The remarks which follow address the two related issues of the quality of science teaching in schools, and the school science curriculum.


  6.2  We greatly admire the work done by many science teachers at all levels. Their work is vital both to individual pupils and to the nation, and some of us know from our own experience that many deliver teaching of the highest standard. We have been told that United Kingdom school science results are improving, both in absolute terms and on international comparisons (CBI p 274). Yet we have received criticisms from some quarters of the general standard of United Kingdom science teaching (Weatherall p 421, Wolfendale p 422); and we are told that there is a shortage of science teachers (RSC p 112).

  6.3  The foundations of an interest in science are laid at primary school, between the ages of 5 and 11. Recent OFSTED reports[59] have found over 80 per cent of primary school science lessons to be satisfactory or better, albeit by OFSTED's somewhat limited measures; and it is encouraging to note that, according to the British Council, science teaching in United Kingdom primary schools is attracting international interest (Q 536).

  6.4  Most primary science, however, is taught by class teachers with few science qualifications or none at all. Research[60] reveals that the proportion of PGCE[61] entrants (i.e. graduates training for teaching, whether destined for primary or secondary schools) with third class degrees or lower is markedly higher in science than in arts subjects: see Table 2.

  6.5  It is of course in the nature of primary schools that most teachers are expected to teach outside their own academic disciplines. If, however, teachers have not themselves a good understanding of science, technology and their applications, it is likely that they will lack the confidence to teach the subject interestingly and with the sparkle that it needs if children are to want to continue to learn about it. It is worth noting that most primary teachers are women, whose special difficulties in this area we described above in Chapter 3.

  6.6  The Royal Society of Chemistry's survey of public perceptions of chemistry in 1995 (see Chapter 2 above and p 112) revealed surprisingly negative attitudes among primary teachers. Summing up two discussions with small groups of primary teachers, in London and Huddersfield, the report of the survey said,

  "The majority of the teachers in our sample persist in seeing chemistry as a difficult and boring subject, pursued by intelligent but unimaginative people. [This is the same as the general perception of non-teacher respondents.] They do however appear to be more environmentally conscious than the average member of the public, with strongly held views on pollution and the exploitation of the world's resources by profit-hungry companies".

  6.7  These results may say more about attitudes to manufacturing industry as a whole than about attitudes to science as such. Whatever their roots, however, they suggest that many primary teachers may find it difficult to address their science lessons in a positive frame of mind. We agree with the Nuffield Foundation, which told us, "The attitudes of primary teachers, and the degree to which they feel at home with the content of the science they are teaching, are fundamental factors in determining future change" (p 373).

Table 2: Degree classes of PGCE entrants at "old" universities, 1993

% Third or below

  6.8  Continuous professional development is very important for teachers, and the Government's Council for Science and Technology has established a sub-group to consider in-service support for teachers of science in primary schools and the early years of secondary schools, which is to report shortly. In November 1999 we met members of the sub-group, including two practising science teachers and a head teacher. All three agreed that in-service support for science teachers was badly needed. In their view it should be long-term, rather than a one-day event; it should give insights into leading-edge research; and it should be directed by the individual teacher, rather than imposed from above. These principles would accord, of course, with best practice in industry.

  6.9  We warmly commend the Council for Science and Technology for undertaking this study. They have identified a crucial area for improvement, which will directly improve the capacity of individuals to engage with science. We look forward to their report.

  6.10  One form of support for science teachers at all levels is partnership with working scientists. Sir David Weatherall[62] would like more scientists to visit schools (p 421), and we have received impressive evidence from two organisations devoted to making this happen: the Teacher Scientist Network (p 415) and the Clifton Scientific Trust (p 247). The Engineering Council has told us about its Neighbourhood Engineers Programme (p 287). The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and DfEE are attempting to support and co-ordinate such efforts through SETNET, the Science, Engineering, Technology and Mathematics Network.

  6.11  Sir David Attenborough[63] drew our attention to the fact that time for science as such in primary schools is currently under pressure by the drive for literacy and numeracy (Q 404, cp British Council Q 534). These skills are of course vital for the understanding of science, whether general or specialist. We hope however that time for science will not be squeezed any further.


  6.12  Science became a core subject of the National Curriculum for all children aged 5-16 in 1989. The syllabus, however, has not changed fundamentally since the days when science lessons were largely an option, chosen by the minority of children who hoped to proceed to science at A-level and university. We have been told from several quarters that science in schools must now adapt itself to a dual role: it must maintain its traditional and vital focus on preparing the most interested and talented pupils for science courses at university; at the same time, it must equip all students for what has been called "scientific literacy" or "science for citizenship" (Irwin/Healey Q 66, Ogilvie Q 132, British Council Q 534, BAAS p 47, Nuffield p 372, Osborne p 375).

  6.13  This means, among other things, spending less time imparting established facts, and more on teaching about the nature and process of science. In the words of the BBSRC, "the National Curriculum and 16-19 Science syllabuses could provide a much clearer indication of what science is and how scientists work" (p 260). Paul Nurse and John Tooze, and Dr Graham Farmelo, Head of Exhibitions at the Science Museum, all point to the traditional emphasis in school science on facts, which in their view leaves people unprepared to encounter as adults the uncertainties of much current science. Dr Nurse and Dr Tooze blame this emphasis on facts for "a profound misunderstanding of the whole scientific process amongst the general public" (p 374); Dr Farmelo calls it "quite a hurdle" for his institution's efforts to engage with the public (Q 249).

  6.14  It may also be that the emphasis on the acquisition of factual knowledge is partly to blame for the common perception among children that science is both difficult and dull. Dr Jonathan Osborne of King's College London gives this explanation for a "decline in interest in science" in the United Kingdom (p 375); we found the same to be happening in Denmark. It is of course a challenge for teachers in all disciplines to impart a framework of facts and techniques in a way which is exciting rather than boring, and the best science teachers have always found ways to do it. We are aware, however, that one of the traditional methods, dramatic demonstration, is becoming more and more difficult for reasons of both cost and health-and-safety regulation. We regret this trend; we would encourage those involved in developing science teaching materials to find acceptable forms of live demonstration.

  6.15  Our attention has been drawn to the recent report Beyond 2000, which embodies the outcome of a series of seminars on science education supported by the Nuffield Foundation. Dr Osborne was one of its editors. The report observes that since 1989 the National Curriculum has turned science from a set of minority subjects into a core part of the curriculum for every child aged 5-16; yet the contents of the science curriculum have not evolved accordingly. In today's world, a "healthy and vibrant democracy" needs a public "with a broad understanding of major scientific ideas who, whilst appreciating the value of science and its contribution to our culture, can engage critically with issues and arguments which involve scientific knowledge".

  6.16  To achieve this, while still providing a foundation for the specialist scientists and engineers of the future, Beyond 2000 recommends that the curriculum be differentiated at Key Stage 4 (14-16), with a basic course in scientific literacy for all complemented with a wide choice of modules, some academic and some vocational, for further study according to each pupil's ambitions. It recommends that the contents of the curriculum at all stages be adjusted, to incorporate more technology and more "ideas-about-science" (see Box 2). And it recommends that the factual content of the curriculum should be streamlined, to allow more time for looking behind and beyond the facts into their sources and implications, and the processes of which they are a part.

  6.17  We find much in the analysis in Beyond 2000 with which to agree, but we do not have enough evidence to pass a considered judgment on its detailed recommendations. We would comment only that dramatic changes to the curriculum place an enormous burden on teachers; we would therefore recommend a gradual approach.

  6.18  Besides the science curriculum, we note other developments which may in the long term improve the situation. First, the first year of A-level studies is to be broadened in England and Wales, with the expectation that most pupils will take five subjects instead of three; this may encourage pupils who would formerly have taken no science subjects at this level to take at least one. Second, as recommended in the Crick Report[64], "Citizenship" is to enter the curriculum (MRC p 351); there should be plenty of scope within such a syllabus for issues of science and society to be covered. While these developments are welcome, they are beyond the scope of our inquiry.

Box 2

Proposed learning targets for "ideas-about-science", from Beyond 2000

"As pupils progress into Key Stage 4 [15-16], they should

  • Appreciate that a correlation between two variables does not necessarily mean that one causes the other;
  • Be able to design well-controlled investigations of situations involving several independent variables;
  • Recognise that the variations in repeated measurements of a quantity give an indication of the reliability of the measurement.

Pupils should become familiar with stories about the development of important ideas in science which illustrate the following general ideas:

  • Evidence is often uncertain and does not point conclusively to any single explanation;
  • If an explanation predicts an event which would otherwise be unexpected, and this is then observed, this greatly increases our confidence in the explanation (e.g. Adams' predictions of the existence of [the planet] Neptune);
  • That scientific progress can depend on careful and painstaking work, and also on creative conjecture (e.g. the roles of Franklin and of Watson and Crick in establishing the structure of DNA).

By considering some current issues involving the application of science, pupils should:

  • Recognise that a person's views may be influenced by their professional and/or social affiliations;
  • Appreciate that many things which we would like to understand cannot (yet) be explained fully in terms of a predictive theoretical model; because of the complexity of the systems involved, the best we can do is to identify correlations between possible factors and the probability of a certain outcome (such as the links between smoking and lung disease, or between saturated fat consumption and heart disease);
  • Understand the ideas of probability and risk;
  • Be aware of the range of factors which can influence people's willingness to accept specific risks;
  • Be able to distinguish between technical issues (what is possible) and ethical issues (what ought to be done) when considering issues involving science and technology."

59   E.g. Review of Primary Schools in England 1994-98, TSO/Office for Standards in Education, August 1999. Back

60   By Professor Alan Smithers, then Professor of Policy Research at Brunel University, now Sydney Jones Professor of Education at the University of Liverpool. The figures were collected through the Universities Council for the Education of Teachers, and presented in a paper Supply of, and Demand for, Scientists and Engineers delivered as the Save British Science Lecture at the Association for Science Education's Annual Meeting held at the University of Birmingham on 2 January 1997. Back

61   Postgraduate Certificate in Education. Back

62   Regius Professor of Medicine, University of Oxford. Back

63   Broadcaster and naturalist; Director of Programmes, BBC, 1969-72; President, BAAS, 1990-91. Back

64   Report of the Advisory Group on Education for Citizenship and the Teaching of Democracy in Schools, Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, March 1998. Back

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