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UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 1060-i
House of COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE the
Science and Technology Committee
Practical experiments in school science lessons and science field trips
Wednesday 15 June 2011
Kevin Courtney, Greg Jones, Professor Chris King, Dr Stuart Hitch and Darren Northcott
Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 34
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
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Taken before the Science and Technology Committee
on Wednesday 15 June 2011
Andrew Miller (Chair)
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Kevin Courtney, Deputy General Secretary, National Union of Teachers, Greg Jones, Practising Science Teacher affiliated with the National Union of Teachers, Professor Chris King, Earth Science Teachers’ Association, Dr Stuart Hitch, Practising Earth Science Teacher affiliated with the Earth Science Teachers’ Association, and Darren Northcott, National Official, Education, NASUWT, gave evidence.
Q1 Chair: Good morning, gentlemen. Thank you for coming in. It would help us for the record if each of you introduced yourselves in a moment. As we have a very large panel, if we do not have time to take responses in detail from each of you on every question, please feel free to write in subsequently with any additional thoughts you may have. As you know, the inquiry is not just about today’s session. We are looking into the matter much more deeply. We have had some fascinating responses on The Student Room, which we are also analysing. Perhaps you would be kind enough to introduce yourselves.
Kevin Courtney: I am Kevin Courtney. I am the Deputy General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers and I am very pleased to be here. Thanks for the invitation.
Dr Hitch: I am Stuart Hitch. I teach geography and geology at King Edward VI Grammar School in Chelmsford. I am with Chris King from ESTA.
Greg Jones: I am Greg Jones. I am an NUT member, a science teacher and also a health and safety adviser for the NUT in the Leicestershire area.
Professor King: I am Chris King. I am representing the Earth Science Teachers’ Association here, but I am at Keele University and I train science and geology teachers.
Darren Northcott: I am Darren Northcott. I am a national official for education at the NASUWT.
Q2 Chair: Thank you very much. Given the tremendous experience that the five of you represent, perhaps you could each briefly give us your interpretation of why the UK is doing relatively worse in science compared with other countries. Secondly, was school science better when you started your careers? I am thinking back to the excitement that used to occur in the laboratories and in the field when I was at school. It just seems to me that the edge has been dulled now.
Kevin Courtney: I think I would agree with that. I started teaching in 1983 as a physics and lower-school science teacher. The degree of excitement in lessons was then, I think, sometimes quite palpable. The central question that needs to be addressed is the focus on examination results and league table position that is an understandable desire of all parties in Government. It is the product of the education system. You want to see the best possible results, but there are unintended consequences of that focus, we think. The question is, "What is the easiest way to get a child to a particular grade in a particular exam?" Certainly, if your school is in a challenging position in the league table, then that is where you have to focus. We would like to see children enjoying science and being enthused by it, but sometimes that can take longer than preparing a child to answer an examination question in science. Fundamentally, we think that is where the problem is. You said you have a lot of people on the panel. I would like to talk about some other areas and some other unintended consequences. Should I carry on?
Chair: No, just hold it there.
Kevin Courtney: Sure.
Q3 Chair: Anybody else?
Darren Northcott: On your point about the performance of our system relative to others, I think you are referring there to the OECD’s PISA survey in which there was quite a lot of media interest. It is important to get that into perspective. The results in our system were broadly in line with the rest of the OECD, to be fair. Clearly, there were some countries that performed slightly better than the UK in that survey, but it is important to say that the performance in this country is in line with the typical OECD average. That is an important point to bear in mind. Clearly, everyone wants science to be even better, but I think we need to avoid what might perhaps be described as "a moral panic" about our performance relative to other countries. That is an important point that I would want to stress.
Professor King: I will not do this very much, but can I bang the drum for earth science here? If you look at Taiwan, Korea and Japan, which are the higher-performing countries in PISA, they all have a quarter of their science curriculum as earth science. That means that they train earth science teachers. They have a substantial amount of the curriculum in earth science, and that is not something we see in this country. That is one aspect of an answer to that question, although I would certainly support what Darren said. We are not terribly far away.
Chair: Coming from a geology background myself, I approve of that.
Greg Jones: I would like to say thank you very much for inviting me to this meeting today. I would like to reiterate what Kevin said about the decline in the amount of practical work and field trip work that has happened over the years. I have been a teacher for over 30 years and certainly the freedom that teachers had in the curriculum in the late 1970s and early 1980s has obviously been whittled away over a period of time. We have got to the point now where the constraints of the curriculum are such that the amount of practical work that is being done is very small indeed. We are getting to the point now where actually it is so much easier for students to say to staff, "Just tell us the answer", rather than go through the evidence themselves, do the experiments and get the results, even though they might not be very good results. Doing the work for themselves makes them good scientists.
That is the issue. We have got away from producing some very good scientists over the years in large numbers. The numbers have dropped significantly over a period of time. There are, therefore, as a result, fewer science teachers being produced. I know from talking to Chris about the problems in recruiting teachers into teacher training courses at universities, or equally doing GTP courses, that the numbers are smaller. Why? It is because science teachers themselves come from a smaller cohort. The question might be, "Why are we not producing enough scientists?" That is our whole idea; we are going to be looking at those issues.
My concern would be that nowadays we have too much in our National Curriculum. Science gets squeezed and has continually been squeezed over a period of time. Trying to get three science subjects now into the curriculum where previously we did have time means that we have now reduced it down to a double science programme. Therefore, it is three into two and that means something has to go. The amount of coursework that is being done has reduced significantly. In fact, one could argue that very little coursework is done at GCSE level now, although more so at A-level.
There is a concern about field trips. The number of field trips that take place is a lot smaller than it used to be. There are fewer field centres which are actually open and able to put on those facilities. I do not think it is the fact that teachers do not want to do them but there are the constraints, and, equally, the constraints that are felt by management of schools to allow students to go away from their other subject areas for a period of time is a bigger issue.
Professor King: This is something, again, we were talking about outside. We know that schools are very good now at getting children to pass exams. The results are clear nationally. They are not terribly good at producing inspired scientists and pupils who want to go on to do science in the future. That is a different question, and that, I think, is probably the main focus of what we are talking about here. It is how we inspire young people into science through practical work and through fieldwork.
Darren Northcott: I think Greg makes some very important and real points about the experience of science in the secondary sector, and I think that is right. My experience is as a primary and early years teacher and I think that is an important part of your consideration as well. One story you can tell regarding the early years and the primary sector is that there is a lot more science going on than was certainly the case when I went to school. Much of that was driven by the introduction of the National Curriculum. The primary sector took science much more seriously. I think there was quite a positive increase in the amount of science that took place in the primary sector. It is a general mixed story in that respect. There has certainly been an improvement over the years in the primary sector.
Q4 Chair: My experience in terms of the early years is that that is true where you have a science-qualified teacher. Is that right?
Darren Northcott: That is an interesting point. Perhaps you could explore that. I am certainly not a science-qualified teacher, but I taught a lot of science in the primary sector that I thought was very engaging.
Q5 Chair: Somebody opened the door for you here. What do you say, Dr Hitch?
Dr Hitch: I would like to go back to the initial gist of the question, which was, "Has the edge been taken off it?" Where the specifications allow fieldwork and actually require it, looking at geology particularly, there is a requirement at AS and A-level within one of the boards that fieldwork is carried out. So, no, I do not think the edge has been taken off it at all. However, I would totally agree with Greg that there is an amazing amount of pressure being put on schools because of curriculum congestion, particularly in relation to students being allowed out of school due to controlled assessment, which is taking place all the way through from Year 8 to Year 11. The pressures upon the students are immense. The pressure on timings as to when you can take the field trips is being placed on teachers as well. I think there are big issues in the future on this.
Kevin Courtney: I agree with that. I want to come back on the primary point that you, Chair, and Darren were talking about. You and Darren are absolutely right to say that there is some really good science that goes on in primary schools. My wife is a social studies graduate. She is a teacher rated as "Outstanding" by Ofsted every time they see her. She does a lot of science without being science-qualified. I think that is partly my influence. I am a scientist and we talk about these things at home. I am sorry; that is far too arrogant. There is a need to have training for primary teachers who are not science-qualified in making sure that experiment and experience is an important part of the primary curriculum and it is there in the early years. It is an example. As you get towards Year 6 and the SATs, though, that does get squeezed enormously. It does not happen in Year 6 at all because of the preparation for the tests. I do not want to just harp on about that point, but it is very real. How you find a way to cope with that is something that really matters, I think.
Q6 Stephen Metcalfe: As I am sure you are aware, safety has featured quite heavily and it is key to our inquiry. Do you find that the health and safety guidelines which are issued are a facilitator or do they deter people from getting involved in practical field trips?
Greg Jones: Field trips are one thing. There are obviously risk assessments that need to be done in any scientific set-up, whether it is a field trip or an experiment. The question is whether people are reinventing the wheel; other people have already been doing these experiments for a period of time. In most cases, certainly within secondary school science schemes of work, there would be risk assessments done and therefore teachers could carry on and follow those without any problem at all.
I think the issue is about wanting to do experiments that are not necessarily part of the requirements, as Stuart was saying. That comes down to teacher confidence to think outside the box and to do experiments. Yes, there are requirements to do risk assessments and to understand the health and safety implications, but scientists are pretty good at doing this anyway. That is our science training. We are very good at understanding the risks even though we might not formally write them down. I think the issue has been blown up, as it were. I am sorry about the pun on that.
Q7 Stephen Metcalfe: I am sorry to interrupt, but when you say that you might not necessarily write them down I accept exactly what you are saying. However, do you think that that culture has changed now that you are required much more to write them down and therefore there is a much greater need to spend more time keeping records, thereby explaining what you might do, than doing the work itself?
Greg Jones: I do not think so. That was the case several years ago when a lot of the health and safety requirements came in, certainly from local authorities requiring you to conduct experiments according to the policies that the local authority might have. But we have been down that road long enough now and those kinds of things become automatic. I do not think it is stopping people from doing the experiments. It is the time factor of doing it and, equally, the financial implications of it. Getting the right kind of experiments into a syllabus requires, in some cases, very sophisticated equipment. The requirement to fund that in large upper schools is something that has to be taken into account in terms of the budget and the implications of that. I do not think that risk assessments and health and safety issues stop scientific experiments or field trips happening. In certain situations, in a particular individual’s case, they may be thinking with a lack of confidence, but I do not think it prevents it entirely.
Professor King: I think that is true for experiments, but I am not sure it is so true for fieldwork. There is an awful lot of health and safety paperwork that you need to go through. The reason for that-and I have been doing this for some years-is that whenever there has been an incident there has been more paperwork. What I have been arguing for a long time-and I will continue to argue today-is that there is another way of doing this. If we trained people to deal with fieldwork situations in a health and safety way, and also, as part of that training, highlighted the value of fieldwork and how you can do it most effectively so that it would be a very cost-effective way of dealing with the issue, then we would be in a much better place today. I do not know if you know this, but there is no qualification and no accredited course in fieldwork in the country. If you want to do something accredited, there is something called a mountain leadership certificate, but that is way harder and much more difficult and complex than is needed. We need a simple accredited course that is supported by all our groups of people here. It would not cost a lot of money, and teachers across the board-scientists, geographers and historians-could all do these things. It would enable them to do fieldwork more effectively rather than having the paperwork, which is more likely to have the opposite effect.
Darren Northcott: On field trips, there has been some quite positive work in the recent past. I am thinking about the Learning Outside the Classroom Manifesto that was taken forward by the previous Administration. Part of that was a quality badge scheme so that providers of external learning opportunities, field trips and so on could be accredited to make sure that they were safe. They could make sure that children and young people were being given effective learning opportunities. When schools and colleges were thinking about field trip opportunities and learning outside the classroom, that quality badge scheme meant that the staff in those schools could be reassured that the best possible health and safety standards were being adhered to. That took the burden off the schools in terms of paperwork and these things that we have talked about. The feedback from our members has been that that has been extremely positive. If more work could be done to extend that scheme and give schools the reassurance that, "This place is going to be safe and it will give your pupils a really valuable learning experience", that would certainly be a positive step.
Q8 Stephen Metcalfe: Following on from that, do you feel that when you conduct a risk assessment, however burdensome it is, whether it is relatively straightforward or quite complex, it is to protect the students, or do you feel that it is more to protect the staff, the school and the institution in case something goes wrong? Greg Jones was saying that, instinctively, as a teacher, you know how to protect the students, but what you may need to do is to protect yourself in case something goes wrong. Is that your experience or am I wrong?
Professor King: There is certainly an element of that there in that, whenever there is an incident, there is more paperwork. The logical way of dealing with that, to me, is to train teachers more effectively. To come back to the Outdoor Manifesto, it was supposed to have two main strands. One was the badging strand, and that has been very effective. The other thing was supposed to be supporting teachers to do fieldwork more effectively. What happened there was that a lot of money went to consultants, some things were put on the website and nothing happened beyond that. So that strand never took off in the same way that the other one did. I think that is what we need to focus on now.
Greg Jones: When you are talking about risk assessments, I do not think the idea of risk assessment is to identify whether it is for students or staff. It is actually for the conduct of that experiment, irrespective of who happens to be near, doing whatever. It is the issue about what you are trying to achieve and how you minimise the risks in achieving it. Those are the things that you have to consider. It is not a "watch your back" kind of idea. It is not about that. It is about making sure that you have documented exactly what needs to happen. It is for the support of everybody, whether it is technicians or students, whether they are observing or taking part, or whether it is staff or somebody visiting the classroom.
Q9 Stephen Metcalfe: Do you feel you get enough guidance on how complex the risk assessment should be, because I think the NUT says that there is a shortfall in the Health and Safety Executive’s guidance which can lead to over-complex assessments?
Kevin Courtney: We think that is right, but the way of dealing with it is the way that both Professor King and Greg have talked about in both the areas of outdoor learning and practicals in school. It is training for teachers. It is not getting rid of the health and safety requirements because they are there to protect all participants and people do have to reflect on the risks of an experiment. You have to be responsible about it.
The question of whether young teachers coming through teacher training institutions at the moment to teach science in secondary schools are sufficiently prepared for experimental work is something that we think should be looked at. That obviously then includes looking at how you do the risk assessment in a controlled way that is not burdensome but is meeting the proper requirements. The NUT would also like to agree with Professor King about the need to have a particular accredited course on field studies. I think this fits with other evidence. By and large we agree with the recommendations in the evidence you have received from the Countryside Alliance Foundation. They talk about making it part of the standards of teachers. I do not think we would do it in that way, but having the training there is really important.
Greg Jones: Could I reply to your idea about risk assessment being more burdensome and filling in large forms, et cetera? Earlier, I did raise the idea that people are reinventing the wheel and some of these wheels are very complex when they probably do not need to be. To simplify things would be useful. The trouble is that, if you simplify it too much, you end up not doing the job that was intended. That is where bodies like the ASE would be crucial in looking at the kind of risk assessments that are done. CLEAPSS does risk assessments, and there are lots of other consultants who set themselves up to be able to do risk assessments for different experiments. The exam boards equally have knowledge of those kinds of things. To be honest, there is too much out there and teachers in schools often have to make decisions about, "Do I have that one or that one, or that one or that one? Which is the one that I need to do?"
Q10 Chair: Does that make them risk-averse?
Greg Jones: No, I think it confuses the situation because they will say, "Does that one look better than that?" It should simplify things, but equally there should be a base level.
Q11 Chair: Could I push that a bit further? Particularly in terms of laboratory experiments, does it result in a greater number of teachers demonstrating a process rather than encouraging students to participate in the experiment themselves, which, from the earlier questions, we agreed is probably the best way of exciting children?
Greg Jones: The reason why demonstrations have increased is not because there is more danger, therefore the risks are greater and so you let the teachers do it rather than the kids. The issue is one of time. If you do not have time in the curriculum, then you demonstrate it. Hopefully, you will get the results that you need in order to show the evidence to support the hypothesis that you had and the bit of theory that goes with it. However, you are taking the fun out of science for the students. The teachers have fun teaching science because they are the specialists and they are the ones who should be enthusing. We have to keep that enthusiasm. A lot of students say that science is no longer the fun it was and they had more fun in high school-in Leicestershire, we have an 11 to 14 system-because there is not the exam constraint. I think that is the issue. It is constraining by exams that has done it. If you could free up the curriculum a bit more and allow that time to be spent on practicals and not exams to the same extent, you would help the situation.
Q12 Stephen Metcalfe: Dr Hitch, did you wish to come in?
Dr Hitch: I was going to go back to what you were initially asking about the risk assessment deterring field trips. I would say that, no, it does not. There is an awful lot that goes into a risk assessment, and, when one starts to assess all the different elements of it, it does take a considerable amount of time. But, no, in my experience, I have not been deterred from going on field trips because of the risk assessment of health and safety.
Q13 Stephen Metcalfe: Do you know of anybody who has been? You may feel more confident perhaps than others.
Dr Hitch: I will come back to that in a minute, if I can, because that is something on which both Chris and I would agree in terms of geology teaching. Confidence in the field is really important. The scientists are confident in the lab. We are more confident, I would suspect, in the field. During my degree, I think I did something like 82 to 85 days of fieldwork; so my experience in the field is pretty solid. In terms of others being deterred, I cannot think of anyone who has said, "No, I am not doing it because of health and safety."
Professor King: I would talk about new teachers in training because they might be inspired by doing fieldwork-if they have a good teacher training course they will be-but they then see what has to happen after that and how to do all these things. That can be a disincentive, yes.
Q14 Stephen Metcalfe: I have two very quick questions and I would ask you all to be brief, otherwise we will be here all day. First, have any of you ever been involved in an incident where safety or a lapse in safety was a factor? Secondly, just for absolute clarity, Greg Jones, you said that time is more of a constraint than the perceived bureaucracy around health and safety. Is any part of that time factor because of changes in legislation and regulation requiring you to do more before you can do practical work? Then I will call it a day.
Kevin Courtney: I have been involved in questions of lapse of safety as a union rep, representing a science teacher. The experiment was to put some sodium in a bowl of water. I do not know whether you know what happens, but the sodium runs around and sometimes, at the end, there is a little bit of a pop when it jumps out. The safe way to do it, if you do it as a demonstration, is to put the children on the other side of a plexiglass screen so that they are safe. In the incident in question, a drop of sodium managed to come over the screen and burn a child on the face. It was a very minor thing. There was a question also of whether the children should have been wearing safety glasses. There was CLEAPPS evidence that you did not have to do that, but there was some parental concern about it and the head teacher looked into whether the teacher got it right or not. There are questions, but, in that case, we were able to point to what the guidance was. You cannot eliminate every risk and the matter was settled satisfactorily.
Stephen Metcalfe: Have we kidded ourselves that we can eliminate every risk? Is that why we are now talking about the safety glasses or goggles? Perhaps 30 years ago, we would have all stood round a tray and watched it whizz around a bit.
Chair: That would have been very dangerous because it always does pop out.
Q15 Stephen Metcalfe: Yes, but funnily enough, that was the exact experiment we talked about when we were deciding on this inquiry. That was the one thing we remembered doing ourselves at school.
Greg Jones: It is because kids enjoy that and it is fun for them to do it but, equally, they have to understand the risks. Taking your point about experiments, I was involved in an incident which had nothing to do with an experiment but a student decided to put a pair of scissors into an electrical socket. There is no risk assessment for that. Okay, accidents do happen, and obviously we minimise the risks. You hope you educate students not to do that kind of thing and the reasons why. Are there some things that you no longer do? We know that there are carcinogens that we will not use any more because of that issue. As time has passed, there have been developments, but it does not stop people doing things just because you have a few more hurdles to go through because of the benefits in the end. Everybody remembers sodium, and potassium is even more exciting. They know that because it produces an even more interesting effect.
Professor King: Fieldwork is inherently risky, but the most risky thing you can do in fieldwork is to drive there and the most risky thing you can do outside is orienteering. Fieldwork itself, if you look at the statistics, is very safe. Accidents happen because it is an inherently risky environment. I had somebody who had a badly sprained ankle on one occasion, but we dealt with it. He was taken down the hill by other people and that is what you do in those circumstances. These things are going to happen, but this is part of being out in the field.
Darren Northcott: You cannot eliminate risk. I think you are right. From our experience as a union representing members, you get incidents that happen, but, with the best will in the world, they are going to happen. You do sometimes represent members who have been put in circumstances where there has been an issue, particularly with a student, and I have to say that that issue has resulted from the lack of a risk assessment being undertaken. We go back and look over the case and think, "If a risk assessment had been undertaken, this field trip or this experiment may have been done perfectly satisfactorily in terms of it being a quality learning experience, but this issue would not have happened." Again, I think that underlines the importance of risk assessment and the fact that teachers and other staff in schools need support in order to be able to undertake proportionate but effective risk assessments.
Dr Hitch: I would say, no, I have not been involved in an incident in relation to health and safety. However, I would say, as a practising teacher, that my expectation is that I do cover every risk, and, as a result of that, it does put a lot of pressure on me. When one is in the field with a group of students, the pressure is there. You have students with special needs, maybe, or special dietary requirements, if it is a residential field trip, or they may require medication. All of that is going around in your head while you are still teaching whatever it is that you are teaching. Yes, we put the risk assessment in place. We try to cover absolutely everything, but, in doing that, it does increase the pressure when you are delivering the subject.
Chair: We are going to have to move on quickly.
Q16 David Morris: Thank you, Chair. It was said before that field trips are getting smaller. To what extent do you think it is important to teach science on field trips and what do you think the relative merits of fieldwork are?
Professor King: As far as earth science is concerned, earth scientists know that you can only study the earth by going and having a look at it. That is almost a given. We were asked why we thought that earth scientists were more effective in doing fieldwork in school systems than other scientists and I think that is the answer. It is because it is part of your training. You do a lot of it in your degree. You know how to do it and you also know the value of it in all sorts of ways.
Moving on beyond that, in other areas of science, on our teaching training course at Keele we try to inspire the biologists, the chemists and the physicists also to understand what the value of outdoor science is and to conduct fieldwork in their areas of science. This is very successful, but we are relatively unique. That does not happen on many teacher training courses and there is quite a lot of evidence indicating that. Again, there is a training issue here. I know I keep banging on about training, but if you do not equip people with knowing how to do it well, to understand the reasons for doing it and the ways of doing it safely, we cannot expect fieldwork to flourish in this country in the way that it could do and in the way that it could inspire young people.
Darren Northcott: Can I just add to Professor King’s point there? Initial teacher training is obviously very important, but there is also continuing professional development that is important as well. It does not stop as soon as you get qualified teacher status and start working in a school. You need to have structures there that enable teachers to update and expand their skills in the use of fieldwork in teaching and learning. That is critically important as well, and that is often underemphasised in our system. The experience of many teachers in respect of CPD is rather uninspiring to date. That is an area that we need to think about as well.
Q17 David Morris: In your experience, how often do science field trips involve overnight stays, and do you consider that longer and more immersive field trips would be better than day trips, for example, trips to museums and science learning centres?
Greg Jones: Biology field trips are specifically the ones which are more directly related to what Professor King was talking about in terms of geology. There are less residential experiences for chemists and physicists. Not many nuclear power stations allow you to stay overnight. The issues about how you bring it back into the classroom and the links that you make with what you are doing in terms of the content of the course is the crucial bit. For biologists, it is very important. It is not written into a syllabus that you must go on a field trip to get this particular module of work done. It is ideal. Those are the kinds of things that could be done. The issue then would be how every school in the country, if they are all doing this, fits in the fieldwork. There are particular crucial times of the year. For example, July is a month when A2s have not started but ASs have finished. That is a clear slot in the year, but if everybody tried to use that period you would have a great problem trying to get them out on field trips at that particular time. It is freeing up the time, as I said before, to allow it to occur at different times and for different lengths of time.
It is not necessarily about the content in which you are interested. It is about working in teams. It is the soft outcomes that people get as scientists working with others, living and breathing that science for a period of time rather than a lesson-by-lesson situation in a school. It is a different experience and that is what is important. If they are going to become scientists for the future, they need to live and breathe it every day.
Chemists and physicists find that issue harder because there are not necessarily the residential experiences for them, but there are certainly day visits. The Science Museum is a regular visit, but, equally, you can involve local industry. They can go in and see those processes work for themselves and then apply them when they come back to the classroom situation. They will have a better understanding. It is, after all, consolidating learning and that is how you get the best results
Kevin Courtney: There is a continuum between just being outside the classroom and a longer residential trip. Greg and Chris are absolutely right. There are fewer opportunities for physics and chemistry teachers. There are the TDA adverts on becoming a teacher, which have inspirational features such as a teacher demonstrating the solar system in the playground. That might look a bit airy-fairy. However, if you want to talk to some kids about the speed of sound, you can do it on a white board, but, if you have enough space, you can take them out so that some children can knock two stones together and the others are far enough away to see the stones going together before the sound reaches them. It is so much more effective as a demonstration of the point if they can try and engage with that in trying to estimate the speed of sound. Being outside the classroom is often really important in getting the point over.
What else do you need to do? Professor King was talking about an accredited course and Greg was talking about making sure that it is written in as a requirement for there to be such studies. We support that, but we think that there are some other unintended consequences. This is not meant as a political point, but I think it is an unintended consequence in the approach to academy funding. The local authority is currently the body that spends a lot of money on outdoor education. If you move all the money into individual schools and you do not have it as a requirement on them because they are not under the National Curriculum but the league table pressures are still there, you could well find yourself with outdoor education becoming even more of a problem. People need to think through what the unintended consequences are of those moves on funding. I think that is a very important thing for you to look at.
Dr Hitch: In terms of geology field trips, they tend to be residential, in my experience, on the basis that most geology that is accessible is in remote areas. We have talked a lot about the soft skills that field trips bring, but, also, in academic terms, it puts things into a context. It is just amazing when you are in a field with a student and they say, "Wow, that now makes sense." The real value of fieldwork to me, as an academic, is that they understand things.
Q18 David Morris: It is a motivation.
Dr Hitch: You can motivate them in a classroom. It is not motivation; it is realisation, I think. They are actually seeing things and understanding them. They may well have been motivated by it before, but it is that realisation that they can understand it.
Q19 David Morris: Do you think in your experience collectively that going out on field trips should be mandatory instead of an option?
Greg Jones: Yes. Back in the 1980s, we used to do a course called SCISP, which was the Schools Council Integrated Science Project. It was the three sciences put into a course which was very thematic. Part of that requirement was to do field trips. It made it an essential part. Those scientists that I had at that time were probably some of the most talented scientists I have ever had. They blossomed entirely because of that field trip. It was a requirement. That course no longer exists, but you could instil that enthusiasm again if you made it a requirement.
Professor King: I would argue differently. Rather than being mandatory, it should be assessed. If it is not going to be assessed, then lots of teachers are going to look for different ways of doing things and that probably is not going to be so successful.
Q20 Stephen McPartland: I would like to ask Dr Hitch and Mr Jones what the major differences are that you two currently experience in arranging field trips or practicals.
Greg Jones: I have not arranged field trips myself for a number of years. I mentioned the one earlier. That is mainly because of the constraints in terms of the physics and chemistry curriculum. It has become a bigger problem in most recent years. I would like to concentrate more on the practical elements and the fact that there are financial issues in doing experiments in a lot of schools now with reducing budgets. They are reducing technician time and the numbers of technicians. The squeeze on schools to do the experiments is becoming very real and has been for a period of time. As I said earlier, that is to do with the time constraints but, equally, its value. It is not valued by exam boards in the way that exams are.
I used to do A-level physics practicals, which were a very big challenge for the staff to set up, but they were very well done by students. Out of the hour and a half they spent doing a physics A-level practical, the amount of practical time was probably no more than half an hour. An hour was spent using the practical results and the evidence that they had gathered in a practical set-up that they then had to apply. In effect, it was applying their knowledge. It was not a practical exam for an hour and a half; it was the application of practicals.
I think that kind of thing ought to be encouraged more. You are spending more time doing the practicals and assessing them, as Professor King has said, because of the value that they have. We create scientists who, by nature, are inquisitive and do practicals to support the theory that they may have come up with in the first place or to generate a theory as a result. To spend time doing those practicals and then make them valued in an exam, the coursework requirement is less than 20%. We used to have GSCE or O-level courses, as they were then, which were 100% coursework. It was obviously moderated by exam boards. These were all Mode 3 exams. I am going back to the 1980s now. However, that changed and the National Curriculum came in. Exam boards changed those requirements.
I think we have swung too far into the assessment route, which has meant that practicals get squeezed vastly. Investigations in physics used to be great fun for students. The time factor has now reduced them so that students want to be told what they need to investigate. It is not for them to take ownership. What makes them better scientists is when they take ownership of the experiments that they are doing and run those experiments through to a conclusion. Whether it is the right or the wrong conclusion, one could argue that that makes you a better scientist.
Dr Hitch: I think some might argue that I run too many field trips, and that raises the first issue, namely, the congestion within the curriculum. We have had increasing pressure over the last 12 months with controlled assessments. Students are doing controlled assessments throughout their entire GCSE course. We have issues with staffing of those trips. If you are in a classroom just one person can teach the class, but as soon as you go out of the classroom you are looking at additional staffing. You are looking at increased costs. The costs to students are getting to the stage of being prohibitive, particularly for residential field trips. They are really starting to hit. Again, we have noticed that in recent times with the number of parents coming back and saying, "We simply cannot afford to send them on these field trips." There are some big issues. It is interesting that I have not mentioned health and safety, because, as I said before, I do not see that as something that is causing us a major problem in running field trips at the moment.
Q21 Stephen McPartland: If I could just focus on Dr Hitch and Mr Jones a little more if you do not mind, there seems to be a difference between the geography field trips and science practicals. There is a perception that fieldwork has reduced over the past number of years. How true is that in terms of geography? In science, has the number of practicals reduced as a result of there being a lack of qualified technicians and teachers? Are those two separate issues or is there a general issue here?
Greg Jones: With regard to science practicals and the experience that students have right the way through, if you start at primary school level and the actual number of pupils doing science, the constraints of literacy and numeracy in recent times mean that science has been squeezed out of the primary curriculum, which takes the fun out of it. Kevin indicated earlier about what happens in Year 6. The secondary curriculum allows more science, but it is constrained in the end because of exam boards. The numbers of experiments that you do over a period of years decreases as you get older up to the end of Key Stage 4. By the age of 16, you will have done the least amount of experimenting compared with what you did at the age of 11. It actually reduces. It then increases again when you specialise at A-level, fairly obviously, because you are only doing three subjects, or maybe one, depending upon your AS or A2 choice.
The requirement to do experiments by the exam boards is not there. They could make it a requirement that you have to do experiments and they will be tested. They could be done in an exam in terms of, "You will refer back to this experiment." We probably all remember Van de Graaff generators. I have the kind of hair that actually does stand on end. We have those experiments which people know all about and we teach those. But then there are others which could be referred to in an exam and, if you had those in the specification for the exam, they would happen. If you do not put them in, they don’t necessarily happen.
Talking about the training of teachers, over my teaching career, the quality of those scientists coming through and feeling confident in doing experiments has got less. It is much more now about students wanting to be told the answer to everything. Why? This is, as I mentioned earlier, because of target setting and exam grades, et cetera. I think that is true for teacher training as well. Teachers are the same students five or six years on, which is an issue. They would rather feel confident about doing less practical work because that is what they have been used to. I think we have swung too far the other way. They need to have that confidence put back into them. That can only happen if it is instilled more.
Dr Hitch: I am very fortunate that I have not seen any reduction in fieldwork in the time I have been teaching at my school. We are very fortunate. However, I think the pressures are now coming upon us and there will be reductions in the amount that we teach.
In terms of geography, the students get at least one day in each of the Key Stage 3 years. They get three days at Key Stage 4. When we get to A-level, they go on a residential trip. In terms of geology, the groups are small and that causes problems for residential trips. So we put two groups together to make economies of scale and to make it more time-efficient as well. At the moment I am very fortunate, but in the future there is going to be a lot of pressure to reduce the number of days that we go out.
Q22 Graham Stringer: Does the prospect of doing experiments attract young people or does it put them off science?
Greg Jones: I think it attracts them because they see it as different from what they are doing in terms of other subjects. Science is definitely different. There is a fun element. You can have fun in science and maybe you cannot have quite the same fun in history or other such subjects.
Q23 Graham Stringer: Your own experience is valuable, but is there any hard evidence on this?
Greg Jones: What, now?
Q24 Graham Stringer: At any time, yes.
Greg Jones: I do not know if you could do student surveys. I interviewed some students who were doing AS courses earlier this week about how they viewed their science recently compared with how it was in high school. They said that it had become less fun. Obviously, they are at a higher level and they are going to be going on to university to do science courses. The rigour has been put in, you could argue, but if you do not do the experiments you are taking away some of that fun. There always has to be an academic challenge there. Doing experiments is not less academic at all. In fact, one could argue that a bigger academic challenge is to interpret the fact that you do not have very good results and why that might be the case.
Kevin Courtney: It is not impossible, though, for there to be a difference amongst children and some of them would be not as comfortable doing practical work. In a class of 30 children, most of them will engage with the experiment, but some of them will be more comfortable with the theory. People are different from one another. Stephen Hawking became a theoretical scientist. There are differences in the way that people approach these questions. I guess the feeling that we have and the anecdotal reports from members show that experimental work is often the way to engage children with the excitement of science, and that is important for science teachers.
Q25 Graham Stringer: You have touched on this point before, but in doing experiments what is the real importance? Is it the gaining of practical skills about how to read a thermometer or whatever it is, or is it learning about the scientific method and being able to interpret the results? What is the important point?
Professor King: Having seen a lot of lessons as a teacher trainer, I can tell you from my own experience that there is a wide variation in quality of practical work. That is partly because some schemes say that you should do a practical so our training teachers do the practical without really getting to grips as to why they do it. If you are an experienced teacher, though, as we all are, you will know that you do the practical work for this reason. The reason, often, is that it is a problem-solving situation. We have this question and we are going to tackle it through doing this practical work. We are going to evaluate the evidence that we have and we are going to see if we can answer the question. That is when practical work works really well. If you can build into that children predicting things and testing their predictions, then the quality moves up even higher. That really does inspire people.
Darren Northcott: I think that is absolutely critical. Good teachers start with a learning objective. They start with what they want young people to learn and then they think through the different approaches they can adopt to support pupils’ learning. One of those approaches is fieldwork. One of those approaches is practical learning. I think it is always important to start not with practical learning or fieldwork but with learning objectives. What do we want these children to learn and then how can we best achieve that? That is where you begin to get really effective use of practical work and fieldwork because it links closely to learning objectives. It is not done for its own sake; it is done to advance children’s learning in some important ways.
Q26 Graham Stringer: I have two questions, but I will try and put them into one because we are running out of time. This partly goes back to Stephen’s question originally. Are there any experiments now that, in practice, just do not happen in school laboratories? For example, is the fountain experiment still done? Are bomb calorimeters still used in physics laboratories or have they gone because it is felt that they are just a bit too dangerous at the moment?
The second question goes back to some of your answers that there is a tendency in modern teaching for both the students and the teachers to want to know the answer. I have some sympathy with that. I always thought that a sixth former doing experiments to find out the latent heat of fusion of water when everybody knew what it was was a bit of a waste of time. Is it not more important to do experiments that have never been done before, that children themselves can design, so that they are pushing back the frontiers of knowledge in a way in that very narrow area? Is that not more important? There are two questions there.
Greg Jones: You asked whether old experiments are coming back. The question is: how is the exam course composed and what kind of themes are you covering? It is then looking at what kinds of experiments go to support that. The bomb calorimeter went out years ago. Why? It was because that element of thermodynamics had disappeared out of the syllabus. But other elements have come into it, and with those elements can come practicals. When one talks about whether students feel that they are on a treadmill and are doing experiments for the sake of it or whether they are learning something intrinsic, they are trying to be scientists, are they not? It is how you set them up and what context you have for that experiment.
Earlier, I mentioned the physics investigations. We used to have the freedom for students to do their own. They came up with the idea. They tested the hypothesis. They produced the equipment in some cases or they designed the equipment. For that to happen for every student would be difficult at Key Stage 4. At A-level, it is possible, although it still requires a lot of support from technicians and staff, and equipment, in terms of finance, to provide that element. At Key Stage 4 and in GCSEs, it is done, in effect, through experimentation by doing coursework. But, if everybody is doing the same coursework, are they all going to get the same answers? Is it going to be collaborative work?
You asked the question, "Are they actually learning anything or what are they learning?" Are they learning to be good scientists by doing practicals? It is an element of a scientist’s work. It is not the only element and, equally, it is not to the exclusion of other things. It should not be. It should be an integral part. I do not think I got switched on to science purely by reading science textbooks. I think it had something to do with the motivation that was instilled in me by the teachers that I had and the experiments which were part of those lessons. Now, if you talk about the number of lessons in a week which occur for students where there is no experimentation whatsoever, certainly at Key Stage 4, it is a lot. There are no experiments being done in some weeks, and that, to me, is tragic.
Professor King: You asked earlier what evidence there is for what we do having an impact. I can think back to a survey that we did in the Earth Science Teachers’ Association some years ago. We asked all the people present what it was that turned them on to science. To a person, they said that it was fieldwork. It was going out there and doing things. It was seeing how it worked. The whole room responded in a similar sort of way.
Q27 Graham Stringer: That was fieldwork rather than experiments in a laboratory.
Professor King: We are talking about groups of geologists here, so it was fieldwork. We do experiments in geology but not in the same sorts of work.
Kevin Courtney: In some senses, the word "experiment" is used quite loosely when we are talking about what is going on in a science practical. Measuring the latent heat of a substance is not an experiment; it is a measurement. It is not testing a theory and proving or disproving it. There are times when you are doing practical work in order that the children experience it. You are doing the ripple tank experiment. You are watching the diffusion of the water waves. You are getting them to show themselves what happens in order that they have had the experience of it. This is what has really gone. The independent investigations that students used to be able to engage with much more, which Greg mentioned, are much closer to putting forward a theory, designing an experiment and testing it to see whether the theory stacks up or not. We have to be clear. We want young people to have the practical experience. Sometimes it is an experiment, sometimes it is a demonstration and sometimes it is learning the skill of reading a thermometer. It is a skill that children need to be taught at some level. There are a variety of different things going on in that practical work.
Q28 Pamela Nash: I would like to direct these questions to Dr Hitch and Mr Jones because I know that we are running extremely short of time. In your particular subjects, have you noticed any difference in the impact on girls and boys in your classes when it comes to equality in working in a laboratory and in the field?
Dr Hitch: No, generally not. We only have small numbers so the class sizes are relatively small. We work very closely with the students and I would say that in the field and when we do lab work, with the calibre of students that I have, there is no noticeable difference between the ways in which the girls and the boys work. In terms of their final grades, they are about the same. There is no major difference at all, but I am only talking about A-level.
Greg Jones: There has been some evidence in the past about the fact that girls do better at coursework than boys because they tend to be more diligent, but you can find statistics that will prove the opposite in that boys are better at doing exams. Regarding the evidence about gender bias, one could argue that boys tend to be much more practically based. There are definitely some elements where boys perform better with a practical element to it. If we are talking about the general spread of ability and the age range that we have, I do not think there are any real differences. You get some very good practical work done by girls and, equally, you do by boys. Academically, girls can be measured at the same kind of level as boys. I do not think there is a gender element to it.
Q29 Pamela Nash: I appreciate that both of you teach older teenagers. Can I ask the rest of you if you have any experience of, or have noticed any difference in, the impact that practical work has on younger students and whether it has an impact on who takes up science subjects to A-level and beyond?
Darren Northcott: With very young pupils, I am not sure you can spot a gender difference readily in the classroom. Maybe it becomes more established later on. One thing that is very clear is that, when you provide those practical opportunities for very young children, both boys and girls really engage with it. They have to be maximised as much as possible. I do not think, again, at that younger level there is any kind of identifiable difference in gender as far as I am aware.
Professor King: An important element of this, again, is the quality of the practical work or the fieldwork that you provide. If you work in single-gender groups in your classroom, that tends to reinforce the way in which the single gender works. If you manage the learning more effectively and have mixed-gender groups, it will have a broader impact and the gender difference just is not there.
Darren Northcott: The main issue in relation to gender in science is around subject choice and in the disproportionate number of girls who do biology and the disproportionate number of boys who do chemistry and physics. There are deep-rooted reasons why that is the case. That is clear not only in the UK but across the industrialised world. It is a really entrenched issue about perceptions of science between boys and girls. They are significant, particularly amongst older students.
Q30 Pamela Nash: I guess what I am trying to get to is whether this has an impact on what you have just said and whether we could change that.
Darren Northcott: I think we are asking very profound questions about the nature of our society, the differences between boys and girls and the way in which they are socialised. Schools do take their responsibilities seriously when those issues arise to challenge those stereotypes. Schools understand that they are one of the few institutions in our society that can do that. They can encourage girls, too, if they are reluctant, to take part in practical activities, to see the value of it, to see the fun in it and to explore subjects in which they are under-represented like chemistry and physics. There has been a lot of work that has been done on women in science and engineering and that needs to be supported very strongly. Clearly, there is a lot of talent out there in terms of earth sciences, chemistry and physics that is just not being exploited, because girls, for whatever reason, are not taking it up in the same numbers as boys.
Kevin Courtney: I agree with Darren. I think there is a very strong good news story to tell about schools and girls’ education in particular. We have moved from the girl/boy split in domestic science versus metalwork to the present situation, but we have not finished the job. The bias between biology, chemistry and physics is still there, but there has been a lot of movement. It sometimes requires active involvement and active training at teacher training colleges so that teachers can focus on the question of gender in their classrooms to make sure that they engage in bringing girls towards certain things and boys are not ruling themselves out of them. It is a question of active involvement and continuing to focus on training. It is good that the question should continue to be asked, but I think there is a good news story there too.
Darren Northcott: If I can make one brief point, it is one argument for a National Curriculum because it provides a common entitlement for all learners. Boys and girls can access practical learning. The world before the National Curriculum was perhaps the world that Kevin has described where girls did domestic science and boys did metalwork. No one wants to return to that. There were pros and cons to the National Curriculum, but one plus was that it said that, regardless of gender, you should get access to these learning experiences. That is the really positive thing about the common learning entitlement that the National Curriculum represents.
Q31 Stephen Mosley: Mr Jones, you were talking about teaching science in the 1980s. I did chemistry and went on to do chemistry at university in the early 1990s. It was either sitting in a classroom being taught or it was doing experiments. If you go to university now, where they used to have all the glassware, different liquids and compounds, they have row after row of computers. I guess that now the way you teach is practical with computers where you do the interactive stuff. It might be formal teaching or watching a DVD, but it might also be doing something interactive, for example, peeling layers of skin off an interactive body. It is in between formal teaching and practical work. Has the amount of IT and technology eaten into the amount of time in which you might do practical work, while delivering the same result at the end of the day?
Greg Jones: IT is a tool that scientists use in schools. It is used to different extents, depending upon the support that there is. I know one particular science department has only one computer at the back of the lab that is used for data logging, which is pretty inadequate when data loggers need to be used. Thermometers were the old game, if you like, and data loggers do a similar kind of thing, but it is a much more interesting way of looking at temperature over time experiments, for example. How individual institutions respond to the IT requirements does vary. If you think about the kind of high-spec equipment that you have in universities, schools cannot afford that. It is a matter of what schools can and cannot support financially, and that comes out of school budgets. It is how much a science department is supported by an IT budget and what experience science staff have in doing these much more IT-related experiments. There is more of that happening. I do not think that there is anything like the same amount that happens at university level because there is not the same amount of funding that is there for schools.
Q32 Stephen Mosley: I was trying to get on to the fact that there is a perception of fewer practicals being done because people are not chucking things into test tubes, but it is because there is more computer work going on instead, which is slightly different. As technology has changed, the way that you teach has changed as well.
Dr Hitch: I am following up on that in terms of geology. At the moment, students at A-level are able to do things that I was not able to do when I was doing a degree and post-grad. They are able to use the IT. The software is there and available for them. Some of it is free and easy. They can download pieces of software that can be used. They are becoming more skilled for when they go on to university. I take the point about IT taking away from the experiments, but it is developing research skills. Within my field of geology, their researching ability, and then professionalising their report-writing and things like that, is incredibly important. Those are skills that they are taking with them. After coming back from university, they are set up very well for the next stage.
Q33 Stephen Mosley: I have one final question for each of you. What one thing would you each suggest would improve the level of science teaching, the practical teaching or the student experience when doing practicals in schools?
Kevin Courtney: One thing that was just touched on was science technicians. They are a really important part of science teaching. We should have high-quality science technicians. Teachers have a defined pay scale. Science technicians need to get some support. There was going to be the SSSNB that was going to develop job descriptions and pay grades for different grades of support staff, but at the moment it is just generic. There are teachers and support staff. You need to have something defined within the category of support staff. Some focus on science technicians as a career would be an important thing to look at.
Dr Hitch: I think you would be looking for a requirement for it from the specification so that there is a genuine reason for it to be done within the schools. Then, people can fight their corner.
Q34 Stephen Mosley: Should Ofqual give some sort of guidance as to how much there should be?
Dr Hitch: I would think that would be the way forward, yes. Some of the specifications have it and some of them have not.
Greg Jones: Reducing the amount of content in the exam courses so that time is freed up in the curriculum to be able to do more experimentation, whether it is using IT tool skills or whatever. It is just freeing up that opportunity for students to investigate and to become practical-in the broadest sense-scientists.
Professor King: As far as fieldwork is concerned, an accredited course in fieldwork that is safe and effective.
Darren Northcott: Kevin cruelly stole the first point that I was going to make and Chris has just stolen the second. The wider school work force is very important and investing in CPD is also critical. I would just re-emphasise those two points.
Chair: This was your fieldwork. The questions that you were not able to answer count as your homework. Any additional comments from you would be welcome and thank you very much for your attendance.