Educating the next generation of scientists

20 January 2011

The Committee of Public Accounts has published a report on Educating the next generation of scientists

The Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:

"There has been an impressive increase in the availability and take up of GCSE Triple Science; and, at the same time, attainment in maths, biology, chemistry and physics at this level has improved.

But the picture is far from rosy. Many pupils are still not offered Triple Science as an option, and those living in areas of high deprivation are most likely to be missing out.

There has also been slow progress in increasing the number of specialist physics and maths teachers. The resources for recruiting science and maths graduates into teaching should be focused on what works.

It is crucial that the Department reconcile its plans for greater devolution and public scrutiny of school performance with the need to deliver nationally.

We need a coherent national approach to ensure that the key success factors – such as GCSE Triple Science, specialist teachers, good quality science facilities, good careers advice and programmes to increase take-up and achievement – are available throughout the country, especially in the most disadvantaged communities."

Margaret Hodge was speaking as the Committee published its 15th Report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from the Department  for  Education  (the  Department), examined increasing take-up and achievement, improving teaching staff and facilities, and developing a more coherent strategy for school science and maths.

A  strong  supply  of  people  with  science,  technology,  engineering  and  maths  skills  is  important  for  the  UK  to  compete  internationally.  The  starting  point  is  a  good  education  for  children  and  young  people  in  science  and  maths.

The  Department  for  Education  (the  Department)  has  made  impressive  progress  on  aspects  of  science  and  maths  secondary  education.  The  numbers  studying  separate  GCSE  biology,  chemistry  and  physics  (known  as  ‘Triple  Science’  when  studied  together)  have  risen  by  almost  150%  between  2004-05  and  2009-10.  There  has  been  a  rapid  increase  in  the  number  of  pupils  taking  A-level  chemistry  and  maths,  though  physics  has  increased  more  slowly.  Attainment  has  also  improved  as  take-up  has  increased.

Nevertheless,  there  is  a  risk  that  this  progress  will  not  be  maintained.  Pupils’  desire  to  continue  studying  science  and  maths  depends  on  whether  they  enjoy  the  subjects  and  how  well  they  achieve.  As  emphasised  in  the  Government’s  White  Paper  The  Importance  of  Teaching,  good  teaching  is  key  to  both  enjoyment  and  achievement.  However,  there  are  still  not  enough  teachers  with  strong  subject  knowledge  in  science  and  maths  entering  the  profession.  In  2009-10  there  were  over  115,000  entries  to  GCSE  biology,  113,000  to  chemistry  and  112,000  to  physics.  Another  40,000  pupils  entered  A-level  chemistry,  and  almost  70,000  A-level  maths.  If  the  higher  numbers  of  pupils  taking  science  and  maths  are  to  achieve  good  results,  they  need  to  be  taught  by  teachers  with  the  specialist  knowledge  to  teach  these  subjects  well.

Teaching  environments  are  also  vitally  important  in  improving  take-up  and  achievement  in  science,  but  there  is  evidence  that  science  facilities  in  many  schools  are  unsatisfactory  and  even  unsafe.  Despite  this,  the  Department  does  not  intend  to  collect  information  on  the  extent  of  the  problem,  and  has  abandoned  targets  for  improving  the  condition  of  these  facilities.

The  Department  has  made  progress  in  rationalising  programmes  aimed  at  increasing  numbers  of  young  people  coming  through  the  school  system  with  science-  and  maths-related  skills.  While  there  were  some  120  Department-led  initiatives  in  2004,  the  Department  now  focuses  on  funding  around  30  major  programmes  at  an  annual  cost  of  around  £50  million.  Evidence  of  these  programmes’  effectiveness  is  broadly  positive,  although  financial  pressures  will  mean  less  funding  for  them  in  future.  In  deciding  which  programmes  to  discontinue  and  which  to  pursue,  the  Department  should  be  sure  it  understands  the  impact  of  different  programmes,  building  on  evaluations  already  carried  out,  so  that  it  retains  a  coherent  set  of  the  most  effective  programmes.

In  some  schools,  advice  and  guidance  on  science-  and  maths-related  careers  is  poor.  Knowledgeable  and  enthusiastic  teachers can  establish  links  with  careers  in  the  outside  world,  but  they  need  the  support  of  school  leaders,  as  well  as  good-quality  resources  and  activities,  to  improve  pupils’  awareness  of  the  career  opportunities  that  follow  from  studying  science  and  maths.

The  Department  must  approach  the  challenge  of  improving  school  science  and  maths  through  a  coherent,  system-wide  strategy  rather  than  as  a  number  of  initiatives  operating  in  isolation.  This  strategy  will  need  to  ensure  that  key  success  factors  such  as  GCSE  Triple  Science,  specialist  teachers,  good-quality  science  accommodation,  quality  careers  advice  and  programmes  to  increase  take-up  and  achievement  are  made  available  in  a  concerted  fashion  in  all  areas  of  the  country.
As  more  autonomy  is  given  to  schools,  the  Department  must  develop  an  accountability  framework  that  gives  schools  strong  incentives  to  put  all  key  elements  in  place  for  the  benefit  of  their  pupils.  While  schools  will  have  the  main  responsibility  for  tracking  their  own  progress,  we  see  a  continuing  role  for  the  Department  in  collecting  sufficient  information  to  know  that  the  strategy  is  working,  and  to  identify  clearly  where  it  is  not.  This  will  generally  be  the  same  information  that  schools  are  collecting  to  monitor  and  report  their  performance  locally,  so  the  question  of  extra  bureaucracy  should  not  arise.  Once  underperformance  is  identified,  the  Government  will  need  to  determine  how  action  can  be  taken  to  tackle  it,  so  that  no  pupil  is  denied  a  science  and  maths  education  that  matches  their  abilities  and  ambitions.

Image: iStockphoto 

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