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.