06 Jan 2015
Or it is deja vu? The Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, has criticised science teaching at both primary and secondary levels. There aren't enough maths and physics enthusiasts and we don't do enough practical work, he says. How many times have we heard this? How many more times will we hear it?
Successive governments have made the same observations, but with each re-iteration of the curriculum, science remains over-loaded with boring content that doesn't lend itself to practical work. Meanwhile, various initiatives to pay science and maths teachers fail to retain enough new teachers - who aren't necessarily "enthusiasts" anyway.
Furthermore, the idea that more practical work makes better scientists isn't a well-tested assumption. In my experience (head of science faculty, 15 years in the classroom), practical work rarely teaches anyone much and it can be more of a diversion than anything. Yes, a good demonstration grabs children's attention, but asking them to investigate circuits or magnets etc, can be deathly. But teachers often choose to do practical work because it's entertaining - not purely because it makes better scientists. In training new science teachers, one of the comments I made most often was "don't base your lesson around the practical work" - it should be part of a lesson, if it contributes something. There are plenty of other tools to engage and inform.
It's primary schools where the attention really needs to be directed though, if there is a difference to be made. Most primary teachers don't have a science background and aren't confident about their knowledge and understanding beyond the primary curriculum. Perhaps more importantly, they rely on access to equipment which has to be put together for each lesson - without the aid of technicians. Once all the bits have been found, it has to be tested, counted, laid out and checked back in. A logistical nightmare - and if you're not confident that you know what to do if it goes wrong, or that children will actually learn anything if it goes right, why make all that effort?
We've lamented in this column before that the status of science in primary schools has declined since science SATs were scrapped, but at the risk of repeating Rees' offence of re-stating the obvious yet again, I'm going to, errr, repeat it again: science will continue to decline until the vicious cycle is broken - weak science teaching leads to fewer scientists, leads to weak science teaching.
Paying science graduates more may have some impact, at secondary level at least, but that's not going to fix the primary issue.
Here are some figures which speak for themselves:
A: Science graduates female:male ratio is almost 1:2
B: In primary schools, female teachers (FTE) outnumber male teachers by almost 7:1
Recent blog posts